Everyone knew that the October 2002 switch to low-emissions diesel engines was going to be messy, but that's not making the actual experience any easier to bear. I don't think there's one trucking segment that hasn't been thrown into turmoil by the realization that the deadline is finally here.
Start with the people on the front line of this issue, the engine makers. Those that pushed hard to meet the Oct. 1 deadline have to convince truck buyers that despite the last-minute introduction of engines that are more complex, less fuel efficient and more expensive, their products are ready for the real world. The one company that says it needs another year to meet the new requirements has to convince customers that their solution is worth waiting for.
It's hard to blame the engine makers for the confusion. They told the EPA all along that moving the deadline up 18 months from 2004 was going to make it difficult to have an orderly transition.
Still, without sufficient numbers of engines to test in real applications, all fleet owners have right now are contradictory claims as they consider buying new trucks. That's an uncomfortable position to be in when you have to make high-stakes decisions about equipment purchases.
Then there are the truck makers, who are caught in the middle. They're the ones who will have to give customers the bad news about the added cost, and the ones customers will come back to if the new engines have teething problems.
Making the situation even worse for truck builders, the uncertainty is throwing the entire fleet buying cycle into disarray. Just as fleets are beginning to recognize a need for new equipment to handle the freight growth of a slowly recovering economy, many buyers have been given a new reason to reconsider purchase plans. Those with sufficient funds available have rushed to order new trucks before the Oct. 1 deadline, artificially boosting truck-building volumes in the first nine months of the year.
The problem for manufacturers is that sales could fall off the table in October as new trucks start coming with the new engines. Then again, if the economy gathers some steam, fleets may continue buying new trucks, especially if worries about the low-emissions engines prove to be overblown.
The problem is no one knows what October will bring. Will the available engines work as promised, or will there be problems significant enough to damage fleet operations and productivity? Will those that choose to wait a year get better equipment that gives them a competitive edge, or will they endure higher operating costs than their competitors as they attempt to stretch out equipment life?
There's only one thing I'm certain of — despite late calls from the American Trucking Assns. and other industry groups for a delay in the new emissions requirements, the government isn't going to back down on the Oct. 1 deadline. Politics and the overall public image of trucks as smoke belching polluters won't allow EPA to back off, no matter how good the arguments or how messy the transition.
To paraphrase Bette Davis: Fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy ride.