My MATS Mash-up

Another Mid-America Trucking Show is in the books and things are quiet for the moment while the trucking industry catches its collective breath. There’ll be more big news coming soon – I’ll be in Germany this time next month to get an up-close look at the new Detroit automatic transmission. But in the meantime, let’s sift through the confetti and see what we learned in Louisville last week.

Our industry has a hangover
I’m talking about the general shape of trucking’s micro-economy here. And what is meant is that mentally, the trucking industry still hasn’t adjusted its mindset and accepted that the Gold Rush days are gone forever.

At the height of the insanity, back in the early 2000s, there were something along the lines of 300,000 Class 8 trucks being built each year. This year, most OEMs say, they’ll build between 215,000 and 220,000 new trucks. And yet a general depressed mood still permeates the industry.

The thing is; 220,000 units is a pretty healthy number. More importantly, it’s a pretty realistic and sustainable number. Could things be better? Sure. Could things be worse? Most certainly. But a general feeling that things are “flat” still permeates the industry. And really, as one OEM general manager told me, that’s not the case at all. Things are actually fairly healthy at the moment. Fleets are starting to buy new trucks again. They will continue to do for two reasons: One, they don’t have a choice. They’ve held on to, and pushed their existing vehicles just about as far as they possibly can and they’ve got to start replacing them. Secondly, the economy is improving – although not nearly as fast as anyone would like. If that trend continues (and we all hope it does) then purchasing new trucks will be both a necessity and a safer investment for fleets.

Cummins triumphant
When The Beatles broke up, everyone worried about Ringo. What would he do? How would he get by without the other three “talented” Beatles.

Guess which Beatle scored the first Number 1 hit after the breakup? That’s right. It was Ringo.

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I mention this because it was not too long ago that everyone in the trucking industry was wringing their hands and wondering what would become of poor Cummins.

At the time, vertical integration was the watchword. OEMs were bringing in their own diesel engines. And international, one of Cummins’ best customers, was going so far as to invest billions in developing their own engine lines from scratch. It looked like poor Cummins was going to be left out in the cold.

Flash-forward to today, and surprise! Cummins is doing just fine, thank you very much. The continued to ride the wave at MATS from the splash it made the week before at TMC with the announcement of its Cummins-Eaton integrated powertrain. This was just the product Cummins needed at just the right time to give its fleet customers a refined, wholly-integrated fuel economy drivetrain package. Based on interest levels I saw at both TMC and MATS I think this will product prove to be a big boost to both Cummins and Eaton going forward.

Cummins continues to shine in other areas as well. It pretty much has the North American natural gas engine market to itself at the moment. No doubt challengers are coming. But for now, Cummins’ early investment in natural gas technology is paying off handsomely. And, of course, International is buying ISX15 engines from Cummins again just like in the old days. That’s always been a popular engine option for International customers and the addition of the new integrated powertrain will only boost that popularity, I think.

We seen three new trucks
We saw three new models this year at MATS. One was a nice surprise. The other two were largely expected. Overall, one gets the feeling that the industry as a whole is waiting on the Greenhouse Gas regulations to take hold next year. That, combined with the finalization of the much-touted Super Truck Project leads me to believe that we’ll see a slew of new (and strikingly advanced) designs in the next 12 to 24 months.

For now, we’ve got Volvo’s under-the-radar launch of its new VNX severe-duty tractor.  I haven’t had a chance to get an up-close look at the VNX yet. But it is a very cool truck and I can’t wait to get a chance to drive it.

Not to be outdone, Kenworth and Peterbilt both introduced vocational models based on their successful T680 and Model 579 trucks launched at MATS last year.

I got the chance to take Kenworth’s truck, the T800 for a spin in the hills outside Louisville and I can report that it is a very nice truck. Kenworth has “vocationalized” the front end a bit. But I think these refinements – particularly the sculpted fender lines and headlights – give the truck a really sharp, aggressive appearance.

Star Power
Finally, I want to give a nod to Volvo Trucks for giving me an exclusive ride/interview with Ice Road Trucker star Lisa Kelly on the last morning of the show. Lisa is one of the most popular drivers on the show for some pretty obvious reasons. And, as it turns out, she’s really cool and down-to-earth. And those whispers you hear that the producers just ran out, grabbed the first pretty girl they found and rushed her through driving school? Well, you can forget them. Turns out she’s a damn good driver who knows her stuff. She told me she’d like to get into truck racing soon, if she can. And I think she’s got the chops to pull it off. Could she trucking’s version of Danica Patrick? I’d argue she already is.