Climax of an era in the truck world

Article December 28, 2000
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Globalization is more than just a buzz word in the worldwide
truck business. Lacking anything better, it could be used as the
name for an era of profound change now coming to a climax in the
truck world. Consider these recent developments:

Electronic
controls

Just about every new component going on trucks
recently was designed for electronic control. A super-brain to
efficiently control these parts is an obvious, but as yet unmet,
need.

Mercedes-Benz, world leader in big truck production,
has just unveiled its Telligent computer, which manages a
truck's engine, manual or automatic transmission, braking
system, level control, roll control and the vehicle's servicing
system. If that doesn't sound like the desired super brain, it
comes pretty close.

The producer announced no plans to offer
the computer control or the new Actros truck model on which it
was shown in the U. S. Those who saw the introductions wondered
if the control or other features of the new truck might be
offered by Mercedes subsidiary, Freightliner Corp.

Air
brakes

Mercedes has joined growing world action on another
truck-related product by introducing air-actuated disc brakes.
Rockwell International is bringing its air discs, developed in
Italy, to the U. S. market where they will start off in
Freightliner trucks.

Meanwhile, the newly combined Lucas
Varity line is making a major American effort with its air
discs, made in Wales. Better performance at high temperatures,
less fading and shorter stopping distances are among the
features of air discs.

International influences

Without
taking a minute to review the figures, it is difficult to grasp
the international character of truck business in the U.S. One
recent tabulation showed that well in excess of half the sales
of heavy-duty Class 8 trucks were being made by lines with
foreign ownership interests.

The Freightliner-Mercedes entry
was making close to 30% of those sales. Mack, now owned by
Renault of France, and Volvo GM, which has General Motors and
White ingredients but is now controlled by Volvo of Sweden, got
about a quarter of the action. Western Star with Canadian and
Australian ties was a minority participant. In April, there was
a report, later denied, in a Swedish newspaper that Volvo was
interested in buying Mack Trucks.

World trade is not a
one-way street. Paccar, parent firm of the Peterbilt and
Kenworth lines, has just added DAF trucks from Holland to a
British truck operation acquired earlier. One truck veteran saw
a place in Paccar offerings for a DAF cabover model. DAF had a
tie with the American truck maker Navistar--at the time,
International Harvester--in the 1960s.

The truck industry is
plagued by high costs of product development and the long time
needed to earn back the money on the low level of sales. Every
few years, the idea of designing something of a common world
truck to be used in many applications around the world is tried
again as a way to spread the high cost of truck development. It
has yet to work because of the varied work expected of trucks in
a variety of locations around the world.

Thanks to its
approach to the truck market around the world, Mercedes-Benz
could be making progress on meeting variations in truck needs
from one nation to the next around the globe.

One report has
it that Freightliner in the U.S. is serving as the total
company's link to the developing NAFTA free trade area in Latin
America.

Ford sale

The pending sale of Ford's heavy
truck business to Freightliner made more headlines than any
other development on the U.S. truck scene in late winter.

Ford's departure from the heavy truck field would mean the
nation no longer has a full-line truck producer. From about 1960
on, Ford prided itself on offering trucks of all sizes along
with Chevrolet, GMC, International Harvester (now Navistar) and
Dodge.

Freightliner's off-and-on alliance with Oshkosh Truck
in the construction truck business also got some attention
earlier in 1997.

Components and trailers

Adding to a
chaotic recent past on the truck scene, there were these
developments in the components and trailer fields. Component
manufacturers have been doing all they can to lengthen the lines
of parts they offer, feeling that this leads to increased sales.
Consolidation of the Lucas and Varity lines in the brake field,
mentioned above, is an example.

While it had nothing to do
with component sales, the parent firm of Rockwell
International's automotive components operation spun off that
unit as an unnamed separate company. It continues to lead in
sales of heavy-duty antilock braking systems.

A market
slowdown made things chaotic in the trailer business. News was a
mix of producers leaving the field by way of the bankruptcy
courts, such as Fruehauf, once the industry sales leader, and
Great Dane, a volume producer, being absorbed by a smaller firm.

Kelley is a truck writer based in Dearborn, Mich.

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