Newer transmissions and cabover models among key buying trends in medium duty range.

Although reduced demand for new trucks in the Asian market has helped the manufacturers get closer to meeting North American demand, sales here are still being constrained by component shortages. Just one year ago, every producer we surveyed was at maximum capacity, building as many trucks as they could get parts for. This year, the resounding complaint was, "We could sell more trucks if we could just get more automatic transmissions." This new production problem is reflective of the move toward easier shifting transmissions in medium duty trucks.

Cabover/low cab forward trucks, although somewhat limited in popularity in North America, are slowly gaining acceptance for urban use, where the driver's visibility and ease of maneuverability are important.

Automated/Automatic Transmissions - Reducing Operating Costs

Where medium duty trucks equipped with automatic transmissions were once a novelty, a shortage of drivers capable of operating manual transmissions is one of the key factors in the "shift" toward automatics. Even though a lack of qualified drivers may be the reason for going to automatics, once in the fleet, the easy-shifters are delivering lower total operating costs, insuring a permanent position on many buyers' spec sheets.

Fully automatic transmissions from Allison have held nearly the entire easy-shift market for medium and heavy trucks in North America until recently, when two major developments brought new choices to the market.

First, as electronic engine controls became more sophisticated on heavy trucks, it became a fairly simple process to automate the shifting of a manual gearbox. These automated transmissions first appeared a few years ago in heavier trucks, where the initial cost of the automation process could be easily absorbed. Then, at this year's Mid America Trucking Show in Louisville, Ky., the Automated Products Division of Eaton/Fuller Transmissions introduced its six-speed Autoshift transmission for medium duty truck applications.

An automated version of the company's proven six-speed manual gearbox, the new Autoshift model employs "clutchless datalink shifting" using the truck's J-1939 data link to measure road speed, throttle position and torque demands. The transmission has a typical automated "drive" mode, as well as a "hold" mode for locking the transmission into a particular gear (where practical). The automated control algorithm allows shifting to be load-based, rather than relying strictly on engine and road speed, helping to minimize "hunting" between gears.

To quickly reduce engine speed during shifting, Eaton has integrated an "inertia brake" into the transmission, taking the place of the engine compression brakes used in concert with the company's automated transmissions in heavy truck applications. No gas engine applications have been announced for the six-speed Autoshift as yet. The new transmission carries a 500- to 860-pound per foot torque rating, 500-pound total package weight and will be in full production as of July 1999. Freightliner and Peterbilt have already engineered their trucks to accept the six-speed Autoshift, while most others are currently making the same arrangements.

According to Eaton, the transmission minimizes driver training, while maximizing fuel economy and safety. The new six-speed unit is also backed up by Eaton's fully-integrated service and parts support system. Although option pricing for the transmission will be set by the individual truck OEMs, Eaton gave a ballpark price at $3,000 to $4,000 less than torque-converter equipped, fully automatic transmissions, and approximately $6,000 more than the base five-speed manual transmission.

In other easy-shift news, Freightliner recently announced it will offer the Aisin five-speed electronic automatic transmission on business class models up to 33,000 pounds equipped with the Cummins ISB engine. This is just one of many instances where Freightliner is developing additional sources for drivetrain components.

Mercedes/Daimler Increasing Stake In U.S.

Just a few short years ago, Daimler's presence in North America, and more specifically the U.S., was not terribly significant beyond its ownership of the Oregon-based Freightliner Corp. Certainly the company's Mercedes division was doing well with luxury car sales here, but the total U.S. sales figures for the entire division numbered less than that of several individual domestic models. Then, in the summer of 1997, the Mercedes division took aim at the domestic producers' biggest cash cow, the SUV market. Having witnessed the success of turning Freightliner from a bit player into one of the industry's main power centers, and then having watched the initial launch of the ML320 SUV, this writer prophetically stated that Daimler would quickly become a major force in the U.S. vehicle market.

So it came as no surprise when the company first absorbed Ford's heavy truck line to create its new Sterling subsidiary at Freightliner, then subsequently announced a buyout/merger with Chrysler Corp. Although the new Daimler-Chrysler entity is still developing and evolving as of this article, it's apparent that Daimler will work the same sort of magic at Chrysler that transformed Freightliner and delivered instant success into the domestic producers' cherished SUV market.

Recent Daimler developments specific to the medium duty truck market include the new "MB Power" component sourcing strategy, which will debut the MB900 mid-range diesel engine for business class trucks as its initial offering. Although preliminary spec's are not yet available, Freightliner officials are quoting an expected engine life of 500,000 miles for the new engine.

New Paccar COE Models & COE/LCF Trends

Even though U.S. buyers are somewhat "cold" compared to truck buyers in the rest of the world, when it comes to specing medium-duty Cab Over Engine (COE) or Low Cab Forward (LCF) trucks, most truck producers are confident that a shift in buying habits is underway. As urban and even suburban areas become more congested, the extra visibility and maneuverability afforded by the COE/LCF models are becoming a practical necessity.

Two new Class 7 COE models to be introduced later this year are added evidence that COE/LCF buying is on an upward trend. Kenworth and Peterbilt, two members of the Paccar Group, are borrowing on resources of their European partners, the Netherlands-based DAF Truck Co. and UK-based Leyland, to release a new line of medium-duty COE trucks.

Although the initial offering is limited to Class 7 models, Class 5 and 6 production is expected to be added once the company's new factory in St. Therese, Quebec, is up to speed. Cabs for the new trucks were designed and built by Leyland, but the powertrain will be strictly North American with power provided by Cummins ISB engines and the remaining drivetrain products supplied by Eaton. The Kenworth model has tentatively been badged as a K37, and the Peterbilt will be sold as a Model 270.

Remaining Medium Duty Developments For 2000

To address service and repair issues, two of the major players are revising their current sales arrangements. Ford, having recently bowed out of the heavy-truck business, will sell and service its complete light-duty and medium-duty line through the majority of its consumer-oriented retail dealers, as well as through the existing commercial Ford Truck dealerships. Not only will this expand the number of service outlets available, but with the commonality of parts across the Super Duty line, downtime due to out-of-stock parts should be minimized. Meanwhile at General Motors, a major reorganization is underway that will minimize the corporate layers between the local dealership and the decision makers.

Bering Truck Corp., located in Front Royal, Va., will produce Class 3-8 cab-forward trucks using a chassis manufactured in Asia by Hyundai and drivetrain components from domestic producers including Cummins, Detroit, Fuller, Eaton, Dana and Spicer. When construction of the initial Front Royal facility is completed in 1999, the larger Class 7 and 8 models will be the first to be manufactured in the U.S.

Another facility scheduled for completion in 2000 will produce Class 3-6 models. Prior to completion of the U.S. facilities, Hyundai will handle the assembly process in its Chunju, Korea, plant, the largest and most automated plant in Asia. Along with the obvious benefit of commonly available drivetrain components, Bering is also focusing on ergonomics and visibility, as many of its products will be destined for the urban service market.

Perceiving higher costs as one of the factors limiting COE/LCF sales in the U.S., GM has announced price cuts on its tilt-cab models to help jump-start sales. Two other recent announcements include the new WT5500 model, assembled by Isuzu, which uses the larger T-series cab on the W-series frame, bridging a previous gap between the two lines. Also, in response to expanding brake regulations, the W3500 and W4500 models are now equipped standard with ABS brakes.

Ford's recent addition of the F650 and F750 models extends the company's Super Duty series to cover applications up to 33,000 pounds GVW. All models are built on a common cab design that spans from the F250 Super Duty (8,800 pounds GVW) up through the F750 (33,000 pounds GVW). The entire series will be available in regular cab and crew cab configurations with extended "SuperCab" versions available in all but the F450 and F550. To meet the upcoming regulations for ABS on hydraulic truck brakes, the new models will be equipped with four-wheel disc ABS brakes. Four-channel ABS air brakes are available as an option.

Mack Truck's parent company, Renault, has recently acquired a partial ownership interest in Nissan, including Nissan Diesel, the producer of UD Trucks. Because the ink is just barely dry on the paperwork, exact details of the arrangement are not yet available. However, with Mack's extensive coverage of the upper end of the medium- duty range, and UD's expertise with the smaller trucks, the combination appears to be a good fit. Should the partnership turn into a full-fledged buyout, the combined organization would be the world's fourth largest vehicle manufacturer behind GM, Ford and Toyota.

One notable COE offering for the construction environment is Mitsubishi's newest product, the FG. This model is the only four-wheel drive medium-duty cabover on the market today.