It wasn't just the warm weather and early spring greenery that had people smiling at this year's Mid-America Trucking Show (MATS) in Louisville, KY. Whether it was fleet executives walking the show or exhibitors welcoming them, there was simply a sense that the industry has made it through the worst of the current economic troubles and that better times are finally within sight, if not already here.
Going strictly by the numbers, such good cheer seems a bit premature. Various freight indexes and measurements have started to show upward movement, but it's modest and not yet ready to be labeled sustained. And while truck sales were strong in the first few months of 2010, that's generally acknowledged to be a temporary spike as fleets take delivery of trucks from the remaining stocks of significantly less expensive pre-2010 emissions engines. Even the most optimistic forecasts offered during the three-day show see North American truck sales rising between 10 and 20% over 2009's dismal numbers, while others predict a far more modest performance of 2% to flat even.
But numbers rarely tell the whole story. It takes a public industry gathering like MATS to offset a cold statistical look behind us with a far more optimistic view of the coming months. Given how bleak things were when everyone gathered for last year's show, people were ready to hear and talk about good news and to finally allow themselves to believe that the worst is over.
Over 70,000 people showed up to share in the optimism this year and to take in exhibits by 965 companies participating in this 39th edition of trucking's largest show. And as is the case every year — even the black ones like 2009 — truck manufacturers, component suppliers and a wide variety of service providers filled all three days with press conferences to introduce new products and business alliances, or to offer their views on the industry's near-term recovery.
Much of the product-related news was driven by the first trucks carrying 2010-compliant emissions engines. Every truck manufacturer's booth showed they've met the Environmental Protection Agency's latest emissions requirements, offering samples of light-, medium- and heavy-duty trucks carrying their latest emissions technologies. Hybrids — both diesel electric and diesel hydraulic — were also front and center in the manufacturers' displays, and there were even a fair number of plug-in electric truck prototypes.
While most of the big news about engines came last year when manufacturers unveiled their 2010 solutions, this year saw a good deal of activity in the component area. In particular, there were all-new heavy-duty axles, much news about air disc brakes, and even the launch of an all-new axle and suspension company.
One common theme that emerged from the press events and individual interviews is the belief that the next big thing for trucking will be a resurgent emphasis on fuel economy. Whether it was discussions about various SuperTruck projects funded by government grants, the introduction of new fuel-saving products like lower rolling resistance tires and trailer aerodynamic aids, or predictions about EPA's next regulatory focus, the consensus was that both business and environmental pressures are converging to create a major push for substantial fuel economy gains. Looking to get out ahead of the issue, manufacturers and suppliers at the show offered fairly detailed plans for their efforts to address this growing issue for trucking.
While press conferences and product introductions are traditional MATS happenings, new this year was a one-day concurrent event exploring the potential of natural gas-powered trucks. Not officially part of MATS, the educational conference was held right across the street from the Kentucky Fairgrounds, offering largely fleet attendees detailed examinations of various NGV configurations and even a keynote speech by natural gas champion T. Boone Pickens.
By all accounts, it was a busy and upbeat three days this year in Louisville with good news and good cheer in ample supply. We invite you to share in both as the next 16 pages offer detailed coverage of the products introduced, the issues addressed and the brighter future predicted at the 2010 Mid-America Trucking Show.