Medium duty truck OEMs meet challenges by listening to customers Private Motor Carrier

Medium duty truck OEMs meet challenges by listening to customers

In 2016, Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) of medium duty trucks continue to tackle the same challenges as in years past: optimizing fuel efficiency and emission control; right-sizing vehicles to meet customers’ needs; adopting new technologies that spawn greater efficiencies; and creating comfortable, safe vehicles for operators.

This is good news for customers – from fleet managers to single-vehicle purchasers – as the industry continues to evolve its model from ‘here is what you can buy from us’ to ‘what do you need from us? Here is a brief look at the big four challenges medium duty truck OEMs face, and the innovative ways they continue to meet them.

Less is more: the importance of emission control

Truck manufacturers in North America no doubt have the year 2021 top in mind. That’s when the latest round of emission requirements will take effect. Planning for this unknown, says Brian Tabel, executive director of marketing for Isuzu Commercial Truck of America, Inc., has been “probably the biggest challenge any OEM has faced over the last 10 years.” A series of previous emission control targets between 1999 and 2011 have significantly changed the very make-up of medium duty trucks. Diesel power plants in smaller displacements continue to emerge as four-cylinder units replace larger six or eight-cylinder power plants in the engine bay. Automatic transmissions with ever-increasing numbers of gears continue to be developed and refined, following in the footsteps of light duty trucks – some of which now offer eight or more speeds – as a means of keeping an engine in the sweet spot, whether it’s low gears for torque, or higher gears for fuel sipping efficiency when cruising. Gas has entered the fold in recent years as its at-the-pump savings over diesel works well for vehicles not required to carry massive loads or drive long-distance routes. Other alternative fuels include natural and propane gas. Like regular fuel, they cater to specific needs, but again offer fleet managers another potential option over the diesel default. 

Beyond fuel and power plants, the bid to deliver optimal fuel efficiency has also created a shift in what trucks are made from. To again use an example from passenger cars, the increased use of aluminum over the years has leap-frogged from ultra-luxury marques like Audi, to a workingman’s rig like the Ford F-150 because it’s strong and light, and a lighter vehicle burns less gas. Today, medium duty trucks are exploring these same weight saving measures. It’s not enough to focus solely on the engine. Constantly re-creating a more efficient motor to meet emission laws is too costly. Medium duty trucks are a system, and refining the entire system – the body, the drivetrain, the motor – is the better path to optimized efficiency.

Trucks as tools of the trade

When was the last time you walked into a shoe store looking for a size-10 pair of Oxfords, only to leave with a size-13 pair of soccer cleats? In most facets of our lives, we size things to fit. Yet for many years, this simply wasn’t the case for fleet managers looking to purchase medium duty trucks. The product came in a limited number of sizes and you had to ‘make do.’ This often meant fleet managers ran vehicles that were too much for the job, or flogged a ‘not-enough truck’ to its limits every day. Things changed a few years ago, thanks in no small part to the fallout after the 2008 market crash.

“As businesses came out of the recession, they became more conscious about how they operated and drove their vehicles,” says Tabel.

This revelation on the part of the customer, prompted an explosion of possible configurations from truck manufacturers and a new way for both parties to view medium duty rigs: as a tool of the job and a cost of doing business. Now, if you’re a landscaper who needs a medium duty truck, you sit down with the sales team at a dealership, lay out your requirements, and go from there. It’s called ‘right-sizing’ and what it means is you as the customer get the right tool for your needs; nothing more, nothing less.

Today, OEMs work with third-parties to create custom configurations for almost any application. In 2002, Freightliner introduced its M2 106 medium duty truck line with the explicit purpose of meeting multiple business segment needs, says Mary Aufdemberg, Director of Product Marketing for Freightliner Trucks.

At the same time that OEMs have done a better job of expanding their product offering, they’ve also made it a priority to solicit customer feedback on a regular basis. This helps OEMs keep their compass needle oriented with the unique demands of their end users.

“Staying in touch with the customer about what their needs are, how we can enhance or change our vehicle to meet their needs [is key],” says Tabel, adding that Isuzu participates in an annual two-week road trip visiting its mega customers (managers of fleets in excess of 500 units) to get their input on product development. This is important, says Tabel, because their clients aren’t necessarily “truck people.” They don’t care about how much power an engine generates or how much capacity potential a given configuration can offer. They are focused on finding a vehicle that will meet the needs of their business, now and over the life-cycle of the vehicle, in the most effective and efficient manner possible.

Freightliner refers to this principle as the Real Cost of Ownership.

We’ve got an app for that: medium duty trucks go high tech

There is an old Simpsons episode where Homer and Bart, having taken on the burden of finishing a fallen long-haul trucker’s route, hit the open road only to discover that their truck – equipped with a device dubbed The Navitron Autodrive systemcould drive itself. Satirical hilarity ensued. While that episode was steeped in fiction, high-tech is playing an ever-increasing role in the world of medium duty trucks, making them safer, more reliable, and more efficient. For example, Freightliner now offers a suite of active safety technology (dubbed OnGuard and Onlane) in its M2 106 line of medium duty trucks, which provide collision mitigation and lane departure warnings. Telematics (transmitting computerized data over long distances) is also being tested by manufacturers like Isuzu. They foresee a future where a Wifi-capable truck cab will transmit an operator’s route information for the day to a telematics-driven iPad. Because they run off of GPS and data, these systems will optimize routes for efficiency.

Another perk of telematics has to do with maintaining the health of a truck. In vehicles equipped with the program, says Tabel, an OEM such as Isuzu will eventually be able to set parameters for how a sensor or computer in the vehicle should operate, before they ship it to a dealership. If anything goes awry, the system will notify the dealer and they can connect with the customer.

Not to be outdone, Freightliner’s new Detroit DD5 engine will be equipped with a built-in remote diagnostics service they call the Detroit Connect Virtual Technician. These predictive maintenance offerings can potentially save customers time and headaches by proactively addressing a small issue, before it becomes a big problem. While still in its nascent phase of medium duty truck application, Tabel says after attending a presentation on telematics, it seems that outside of five years, it will become commonplace in a medium duty truck.

The view from the captain’s chair: building better cabins for operators

For all the bells and whistles truck manufacturers continue to bring to market, enough can’t be said about simple creature comforts. By proactively reaching out to customers, OEMs are able to drill down beyond what they can offer in terms of tech, to gain from-the-captain’s-chair insights into what operators want or need. Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and touchscreens are great, but Aufdemberg says Freightliner customers also like the option of heated seats. Over at Isuzu, Tabel says customers are all about the cup holders.

Creating a safe and enjoyable experience for an operator is not confined to the cabin. As the environments in which medium duty trucks operate continue to change – urban centres grow denser, for example – the overall design of medium duty trucks will need to evolve to move within these changing spaces efficiently and effectively. Some OEMs are already working to address this future need. For example, in 2018, Isuzu will launch a new medium duty truck, the FTR, with a 50-degree wheel cut for a superior turning radius in tight situations. Couple this with their low cab-forward design, which positions the driver closer to the front of the vehicle, for a greater view of what lies immediately ahead, and you’ve got a solid one-two punch of visibility and maneuverability for urban settings.

While OEMs will continue to chase uncertainties – like pending emission standards – one thing is for certain: medium duty trucks will continue to adapt and evolve as customer demands do. The segment, which Aufdemberg says comprises about 1.7 million units across Canada and the US, is about meeting customer-specific needs and you, as the customer, have a wealth of information at your fingertips, and dealer teams at the ready to take your calls and help you create the best tool for your trade. Now, more than ever, fleet managers looking for the best medium duty truck purchase are sitting squarely in the driver’s seat.

 Liftgates – The ultimate add-on for medium duty trucks

Revered for our intelligence, human beings nevertheless fall far short of other creatures in the animal kingdom when it comes to our ability to lift. That is why we leveraged our superior brains to discover hydraulics, and then applied it to myriad applications, like the liftgate. Today, liftgates are a ubiquitous feature on most medium duty trucks spec’d for cargo-hauling duty, and for good reason: they can move cargo loads that weigh anywhere from 1,000 to 8,000 lbs (the latter being equivalent to lifting two Porsche Panameras). And while their principal duty remains unchanged, the liftgate itself continues to evolve, much like the medium duty trucks on which it rides, in an effort to provide customers reliability, durability and value. Here’s how:

Few components on a medium duty truck see the same level of abuse as the liftgate. They get run over by pallet jacks, scraped into loading docks, rained on, snowed on, and so on. All this physical wear and tear breaks down its protective coating of paint, exposing the steel beneath to corrosion. With the expected life of today’s medium duty truck having grown from five to seven, to about 11 years, the life cycle of liftgates was falling short. According to Kurt Walker, director of marketing and sales at Anthony Liftgates, they were one of the first manufacturers to tackle this issue with innovative solutions like hot dip galvanizing their lift gates, or offering superior corrosion-resistant materials like stainless steel or aluminum.

Much like the trucks on which they ride, Walker says liftgates have also evolved from a few sizes fit most, to truly customized offerings, tailor-built for customers. “Our options have quadrupled over the past 10-15 years,” says Walker. But while liftgate manufacturers will build pretty much anything a client wants; Walker insists that the customer’s best place to start is by identifying what they need. To start, they need to identify what type of cargo they will lift, and whether it will require unique liftgate add-ons, like stop plates to keep wheeled-loads from moving. But most important, says Walker, is knowing the number of times a day a liftgate will be used.

“A handful of cycles, especially downward loaded, in a day is typically an acceptable burden on the truck’s standard electrical system,” he says. “Some applications call for 30 or more, which may require the addition of auxiliary electricals such as standalone batteries or a secondary charge system.”