This third annual ROADS & BRIDGES review of what is happening on the truck scene can be viewed as a two-part report of the major developments during 1997. First there was a flood of new product activity in the early months of the year. As that peaked toward mid-year, sales of big trucks started going through the roof, closing the year with several manufacturers of big units complaining that they were sold out well into the future. That's a regular complaint of big truck makers.
Things turned out a bit more complicated than this two-part setup. For one thing, the sales boom in the light truck field roared on through 1997, making it appear to some outsiders that the trees grow up to heaven in the truck business. Insiders are ready to point out that this is not the case.
Big power was clearly in the spotlight at the Mid-America Trucking Show in Louisville, Ky., which has now locked its hold on size leadership among such displays.
Caterpillar unveiled a 600-hp version of one of its biggest diesels at Mid-America and let it be known that it is working on a 700-hp powerplant.
Mack Trucks' early year offering was an improved E7 diesel, called the E-Tech. It comes loaded with the latest in electronic controls from the company's V-MAC III system.
Not long after Mid-America closed, another engine maker, Cummins, showed that it will not be outdone in the power race by introducing its Signature 600 model. It was termed "the first electronic dual overhead cam 600-hp diesel in automotive history."
Just as Mack was saying that E-Tech will improve fuel conservation of its powerplant line, a Detroit Diesel executive pledged that his company's plan is to meet new exhaust control rules while reducing fuel consumption. The rules get tighter next Jan. 1. Engine makers have expressed general confidence that they will meet the 1998 change but there is some doubt about how to meet the rules proposed for early in the 21st century.
Specialty models are becoming more important as truck industry offerings are revised to be more highly focused. For example, Mack has just added a special model, which combines a light-heavyweight chassis and an E5 diesel, which is just a shade lighter and less costly than a top-of-the-line E7 engine.
More powerful engines were not the only headline-grabbing products making a big splash on the truck scene in 1997. Big truck brakes with electronic antilock controls (ABS) started being required on tractors with air brakes in 1997, with few protests. The federal requirement reaches trailers in 1998. Getting electric signals from antilock systems to the back of tractor-trailer combinations remains the big concern. ABS systems will cover all big air-braked vehicles by 1999. One major concern is wil
Down from a dozen or more two decades ago, the roster of producers now includes only Rockwell-Wabco, Eaton-Bosch and a combination, which includes the Bendix operation in Ohio and two German makers plus two U. S. brake producers.
Over the years, automatic transmissions and similar devices for big trucks had their share of difficulties getting off the ground because of extra cost and the fact that professional drivers shunned them. By the middle of 1997, the truck market was flooded with automatics, semi-automatics and other gearing systems, which minimize shifting. The reasons: They curb demand for today's high cost fuel and many drivers have come to admire the way they reduce a driver's work load.
Big 1997 easy-shifter unveilings have been held by Eaton (Fuller), Dana (Spicer) and Rockwell.
It seems that everyone likes to talk about black boxes, even if not much ever comes in a little black box. As management of more and more truck components has been turned over to advanced electronic controls, the idea of turning all control functions over to a "super brain" in a box has emerged.
Many truck component suppliers expressed no interest in having the cost of a super brain added to the asking price of its components. The log jam was broken midway through 1997 and super brains managing electronic controls appeared, often as added functions of electronic diesel engines.
Anything that should help fleets attract and retain good drivers, along with easy-shifter transmissions, received extra attention in 1997. Advanced communications, which help drivers stay in touch were a leading example.
Radar-assisted truck braking moved a step closer to reality at a radar show in San Diego as 1997 started moving toward its end. Joint efforts of Eaton and Vorad, its partner, got much of the attention.
Meanwhile, Kenworth and Peterbilt proved fuel-saving advances can still be made with aerodynamic changes in trucks from year to year.
Top organizational changes of 1997 saw Ford sell its heavy truck business to Freightliner; General Motors' name come out of the name of Volvo's truck business in North Carolina when Volvo bought much of GM's interest; and Navistar move its Paystar construction truck business from Canada to Texas.
In addition, the Rockwell automotive components business became a free-standing company named Meritor.
In the time-will-tell department, both Navistar and the Hino line from Japan were predicting 1997 market comebacks for themselves last spring. It will be a few weeks before the full year's figures are in.