Heavy Truck Technology 2020

Major market and technology developments driving changes in heavy duty truck technology over the next seven years.


Over the past few years, Wade & Partners has had the opportunity to work on emerging technologies being developed at several of the nation’s top university think-tanks and incubators. Based on things we have seen, plus our own research, here is a look at what can be expected with regard to heavy duty truck technology as we progress to the year 2020.

To begin, fuel and energy are the wildcards in trucking’s future. While natural gas is gaining a lot of attention, electrics and co-powered diesel electric is still a consensus favorite.

For the next 10 or so years, the purchase price of an electrified vehicle will probably exceed the price of diesel-fueled commercial models by thousands of dollars. This difference is due largely to the cost of designing vehicles that can drive for extended distances on battery power and to the cost of the battery itself.

The infrastructure for charging the batteries of a large number of electrified vehicles isn’t in place, nor is the industry tooled to produce them on a mass scale. What’s more, the distance electrified vehicles can go before recharging may undermine acceptance for all but domiciled fleets.

On a more fundamental level, electrified vehicles will go mainstream at a pace determined by government action: making diesel more expensive; reducing the cost of producing, buying or operating electrified vehicles; or some combination of these two approaches.

As for trucks, even conservative futurists are betting on interference by government. They feel concern over energy security, fossil fuel emissions and long-term industrial competitiveness will prompt governments to seek a partial solution by creating incentives – some combination of subsidies, taxes and investments – to migrate the market to battery-powered vehicles.

Electrified vehicles can already address certain niches whose economics could be favorable more quickly, such as bus, delivery and taxi fleets in large cities. Military fleets may lead the way.

TRUCK OEMs REINVENT THEIR BUSINESSES

From a practical business standpoint, electrified vehicles pose an enormous threat to incumbent truck OEMs. The internal-combustion engine and transmission are the core components they have focused on, while outsourcing the manufacture of many other components and subassemblies.

In a world where vehicles run on electrons rather than hydrocarbons, the OEMs will have to reinvent their businesses to survive. Nonetheless, incumbency is also a strategic strength in this sector. New technology “attackers” face significant entry barriers, including:

  • Manufacturing scale (including engineering prowess).
  • End user brand equity (now worldwide).
  • Channel relationships (suppliers as well as dealership networks).
  • Customer relationship management and market research.

Truck makers could beat attackers to the punch in tapping assets, such as plants and dealership networks, to introduce new business models, such as selling transport services rather than products.

OEMs will also need to think about whether dealers like Rush Truck Centers – North America’s largest network of heavy and medium duty truck dealerships - or aftermarket players like FleetPride – America’s premier nationwide supplier of heavy duty truck and trailer parts – will sell or lease battery packs.

The key question is whether these new technologies can be scaled. If they can, today’s constraints on biofuels - the declining quality of available land and “food for fuel” trade-offs - may diminish.

MAIN AREAS OF ADVANCEMENT

To be sure, the heavy duty truck of 2020 will be a marvel that only slightly resembles today’s big iron. While trying to predict progress in the large number of components and functions that make up heavy trucks would burn out any crystal ball, here is an overall prognostication of the blueprint of the interconnected technology advances to come in the next 7 to 10 years.

Vehicle Electronics

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