Fleet managers and executives must always be aware of where the industry is heading in terms of what equipment and technology are available and how to maintain them. Because of all the changes, advances, disruptions, and supply shortages in the last few years due to COVID-19, this hasn’t been easy.
“It’s definitely a very dynamic market that we’re living in right now,” noted Nick Clinkenbeard, product manager of dry and refrigerated vans at trailer manufacturer Wabash. “And if you had a good way to predict where it’s going in the future, that’s a crystal ball that I think a lot of people would pay a lot of money for.”
One way to better predict where the trucking industry is headed is by looking at the overall economy, though you may want to avert your eyes. Inflation was at record highs until recently, and the Federal Reserve raised interest rates to 4% in November, the sixth straight increase.
“I just don’t see how we avoid a recession,” pondered Bob Costello, American Trucking Associations’ chief economist, at ISAAC Instruments’ User Conference last month. On the bright side, he did add that the recession “should be relatively short; it should be relatively mild.”
Fleet Maintenance doesn’t possess any crystal balls to discern whether we are in for a brief downturn, recession, depression, or apocalypse, but we do regularly commune with trucking’s leading product and solution providers, and what they are saying should lift fleets’ spirits a little after being sunk into the supply chain morass wrought by COVID-19.
Since the spring of 2020, trucks, trailers, and tires have all been more difficult to come by. Raw materials and components such as semiconductors became harder to obtain, and plants shut down to stop the spread of the pandemic. This led to mounting backlogs and trucks waiting for repair parts.
But for the foreseeable future, the dozen or so manufacturers we contacted indicated these issues have disappeared or become more infrequent.
“The long delays are pretty much behind us,” Clinkenbeard said on behalf of Wabash.
But what about the rest of the heavy-duty trucking industry?
We collected insights from several industry experts, along with leading OEMs and OEs serving the heavy-duty market, in their respective sectors, to forecast what may happen in 2023, which we hope will help fleets and shops prepare for what comes next. Let's start with Class 8 trucks.
How will the amount of new Class 8 trucks on the road in 2023 be impacted by the tumultuous economic situation? After non-vocational Class 8 truck sales rebounded from 168,600 in 2021 to 198,800 in 2022, next year they will dip 12.4% to 174,000, according to Act Research’s market data.
“For now, business activity in the truck industry rolls on, seemingly unfazed by higher interest rates,” said Eric Crawford, VP and senior analyst at ACT Research. “That said, we expect this dynamic to shift in [the first half of FY 2023], as the Fed continues its aggressive push to subdue inflation. Cracks in the economy are becoming more evident: The impact of higher rates has begun to slow activity in the housing sector, and large layoffs have started in the tech sector.”
Daimler Truck North America, which makes the market leader Freightliner (40% share), noted several external forces will impact the market.
According to the company:
“The company’s outlook is especially subject to the further developments in the Russia-Ukraine war and its impact on the global economy as well as the development of the very high inflationary pressure and the associated central-bank increases in interest rates.The further macroeconomic, geopolitical as well as the COVID-19 pandemic development and ongoing supply bottlenecks, also harbor an exceptional degree of uncertainty. However, Daimler Truck assumes no major production downtimes due to missing parts or due to the unavailability of gas.”
Fuel may be available, but it is expensive.
“Likely due to fuel prices, on-highway customers are gravitating toward down-speeding through integrated drivetrains at an accelerated rate,” offered Len Copeland, product marketing manager for DTNA’s Detroit brand.
He recommended customers select “ever more aggressive—or lower—rear axle ratios, which keep engine rpms lower, requiring less fuel to do the same work.”
Copeland noted hardware such as Detroit’s Axle Lube Management can “offer immediate fuel savings with no driver interaction whatsoever.”
Over at Volvo Trucks North America, the order board is “healthy” with sales at market level, said Johan Agebrand, director of product marketing. Agebrand also reported “seeing significant improvements in the semiconductor and transport restrictions that we—from a global perspective—ran into in the economic recovery from the COVID pandemic. The current situation we are seeing is now more in relation to labor and capacity restrictions since the economic environment has recovered.”
On the trends front, fuel efficiency has been more of a focus to Volvo customers, Agebrand said, because of fixed contract rates and decreasing spot rates.
“When the spot rates were increasing due to a shortage of transport capacity, the increase in fuel price in some sense was lost in the increase in transport rates,” he explained.
Volvo customers who spec a turbo-compound engine and I-Torque powertrain combination will have the flexibility to adjust to speed or fuel efficiency needs, “without sacrificing overall fuel economy,” Agebrand said.
Overall, a fleet that keeps up with regular maintenance according to OEM recommendations will prevent unexpected downtime and keep trucks moving and generating revenue, Agebrand said. Investing more time into training drivers will also yield a good return.
“The driver and how they utilize the truck is the biggest operating cost impact for any fleet,” he said. “Good drivers versus bad drivers can easily have a 10% operating cost difference.”
Navistar International experienced a healthy 2022 and expects continued momentum into 2023 while navigating various component shortages and production challenges, reported Chet Ciesielski, VP of on-highway heavy-duty truck business. “Our strong order intake has created a very strong backlog,” he added.
The company has seen supply chain improvement but does “continue to work through challenges,” Ciesielski ceded.
The International S13 Integrated Powertrain, which starts production in 2023, will provide customers with some relief. With the S13, the latest International LT Series will have 15% better fuel efficiency than one with a first-generation International A26 engine. CEO Mathias Carlbaum said this will be the final new internal combustion engine developed by International.
Read more: Transmission transition
Ciesielski added that maintenance efficiency can be improved by leveraging OnCommand Connection connected vehicle solutions. The various features help optimize maintenance (Advanced Predictive Maintenance), reduce unplanned repairs (Fleet Health Monitoring), and drive service event efficiency (International 360).
Fleets are also adopting more advanced driver assistance systems to prevent nuclear verdicts, Ciesielski added.
“Among our larger fleet customers, we’ve seen a material increase in the demand for refined driver performance and safety systems to be added to the vehicles, including adaptive cruise control, collision mitigation systems, lane departure warning systems, and side object detection,” said Eric Hruby, PacLease director of operations.
PacLease also reported an accelerated adoption of integrated powertrains and automated manual transmissions, which Hruby said are sought after for driver retention and fuel efficiency benefits.
“Over the last 18-24 months, PacLease has seen more than an 80% take-rate for integrated powertrains and [automated manual transmissions] among our longhaul customers and more than 90% in the regional haul segment, an increase of roughly 20% and 15% respectively,” Hruby said.
While efficiency is in higher demand, uptime still reigns supreme.
“If I were to reference a common theme among our customers in today’s lease and rental industry, maximizing uptime is on everyone’s agenda,” Hruby said.
Telematics and other smart technologies have helped PacLease customers with uptime. Paccar Connected Truck and Paccar Solutions provides customers access to remote diagnostics, over-the-air updates, and service management portals that allow them to track live truck performance and health.
“Remote Diagnostics allows us to see any issues with a truck in real-time,” Hruby said. “This way, we can determine when and where the truck should be serviced, allowing our customers to realize more uptime.”
Keeping up with maintenance is even more important as the industry overall contends with aging trucks. In both 2020 and 2021, the average trade cycle was 8.7 years, according to American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI). That’s the highest in a decade.
“The longer a fleet waits to replace their aging equipment, the more it can compound the financial burden of unscheduled maintenance events and downtime at higher repair costs and potentially longer service times,” Hruby said.
If fleet age is not an issue, then the next priority should be ensuring there is diligence in the management and scheduling of regular preventive maintenance in compliance with OEM-recommended intervals, Hruby said.