Overdrive Extra

Jack Roberts

Is Europe the center of truck design today?

| May 31, 2013

The other night on “The Voice,” one of the judges muttered, “I hate this country,” after viewers voted his contestant off the show. He has since issued a statement clarifying that he does not, in fact, hate this country. And rest assured I do not, either.

That said, is it possible that the United States has fallen behind our European trading partners in terms of automobile and truck design?

I’m not qualified to speak on the automotive half of that question. But I will reference a blog I wrote last month tracking VW’s attempt to become the leading automotive manufacturer in the world today. And a strong argument could be made that the real design battle waging in the world of four-wheelers today is between Europe and Asia with the U.S. playing catch-up (and doing so rapidly, in my opinion).

In the world of heavy-duty trucks, it’s hard to argue with amount of technology that’s flooding in from Europe these days. Engines, transmissions and telematics systems are just the vanguard of technologies that originated in Europe finding their way onto North American trucks today. And every major U.S. manufacturer today has cultivated and maintains strong relations with Europe. In some cases, those companies are actually headquartered in Europe (which makes it only logical they would lean heavily on technologies developed there). But even International, a company with U.S. roots dating back to the 1840s has intellectual and licensing agreements with European partners – particularly VW-owned MAN.

None of this is ominous, it should be noted. With R&D costs through the roof these days, it only makes sense to establish strategic partnerships and spread those costs around as much as possible. And, it only stands to reason, that the more engineers you have working on a problem – and the more different angles they approach the problem from – the more innovative and forward-thinking the eventual solutions will be.

Another point to consider is that American vehicle platforms lost significant ground over the past decade fighting to meet EPA emissions regulations as they became law. The vast majority of North American R&D truck dollars were diverted from new designs to meet those requirements by the designated deadline. And all this was going on during one of the worst economic downturns, ever. So the fact is, in many cases there just wasn’t any money left over to invest in new engine or vehicle designs the way many OEMs wanted to.

I suspect all this about to change. If Europe is currently driving the truck market, then I think it’s reasonable to assume we’ll see a revitalized North American market start to take some leadership back in the coming months. High-profile programs like the Super Truck project will certainly lead the way. And even the pending Greenhouse Gas Emissions regulations will contribute by helping spur OEMs to develop a whole new class of highly efficient heavy-duty diesel engines. It’s logical to assume some OEMs will make innovative use of the latest electronics technologies with these powertrains and may well decide a new engine ought to have a brand new truck wrapped around it, as well. There are strong indications that some of these upcoming designs will feature highly advanced aerodynamic profiles that European cabover manufacturers can only dream of. All that said, it may very well be European manufacturers scrambling to play catch-up with their friends in the New World before too long.