Cautious optimism in the air

March 29, 2010
“We’re getting good feelings out in the market, that the economic outlook is growing more positive. But the jury is still going to be out for another 60 days.” –Kevin Flaherty, senior VP-U.S. and Canada, for Mack Trucks The word from the 2010 Mid ...

We’re getting good feelings out in the market, that the economic outlook is growing more positive. But the jury is still going to be out for another 60 days.” –Kevin Flaherty, senior VP-U.S. and Canada, for Mack Trucks

The word from the 2010 Mid America Trucking Show held in Louisville, Kentucky, last week is that things seem to be improving in the trucking industry – that there’s more freight to haul and more new trucks being ordered, if not sold, alongside a nice bounce in used truck sales and pricing.

The other side of the coin, however, is that any such “recovery” in trucking is uneven at best right now -- and many are worried it won’t have the legs to stretch into the second half of this year, let alone 2011.

[Just for fun, here’s a review of some of the sights seen at the 2010 Mid America show … set to music, of course!]

As noted in our Mid America coverage, most of the truck makers gathered at the show think believe the worst of the U.S. and global economic recession is over – and further believe they’ll be selling more of their wares this year and next, though most added a ton of caveats such statements

[And I am STILL sleep deprived from it all, by the way – good thing trucking REPORTERS are NOT covered by hours of service regulations! At least … NOT YET!!]

“We’re really glad 2009 is over; it was a really difficult year,” said Kevin Flaherty, senior VP-U.S. and Canada, for Mack Trucks Inc. “We didn’t break selling 95,000 Class 8 units in the U.S. last year and only sold 11,000 to 12,000 units in Canada. It’s difficult for the [truck manufacturing] industry to sustain itself at those levels.”

Yet Mack thinks there’s the possibility that 2010 sales could jump 20% to 30% over last year’s dismal numbers, as orders for new trucks increased over the last four to six weeks.

“We’re definitely seeing some improvement in the market now,” noted Bill Jackson, general manager for Peterbilt Motors Co., predicting Class 8 sales volumes of 120,000 to 140,000 units this year, with slightly higher sales for the medium-duty segment.

[Like several OEMs at the show, Peterbilt introduced some new iron. Below, Landon Sproull, Peterbilt's chief engineer, gives a quick overview of the company's new Model 587 highway tractor.]

“The feeling is better among our customer base so far this year, with all key indicators saying 2010 is going to be a better year,” added Bill Kozek, general manager of Kenworth Truck Co. which, like Peterbilt, is a division of Paccar.

Yet the key to any truck sales recovery, he stressed, is for truckers to get better rates to help offset the cost of new mandated emission control technology, which has significantly increased sticker prices. “If they get better [freight] rates, then 2010 will be a good year, with 2011 even better,” Kozek noted.

[You can read more of their comments by clicking here.]

Aside from being a good place to buttonhole truck OEM executives concerning their near- and long-term sales forecasts, Mid America also never lacks for interesting products.

For example, take this unique trailer-based crane system, the Hammar side loader, seen below. It’s designed to “side load” everything from 48-foot shipping containers to trucks onto the back of a flatbed. In this case, you’re looking at Mike Ryan’s one and only Freightliner racing truck being loaded and unloaded.

Another nice benefit to Mid America is that many executives from the component suppliers to the major truck OEMs also attend Mid America, giving attendees (and of course us hacks) the opportunity to get insight on a variety of trends directly from the “horse’s mouth,” as the old saying goes (hey, if you don't like being called a "horse," don't blame me! I didn’t come up with it!)

For example, I got the chance to chat with Joseph Palchak, the new president of Eaton Corp.’s new “vehicle group,” formed from the combination of its automotive and truck component divisions. It’s a pretty big deal for Eaton, as automotive and truck components represent 10% and 12% of their global business (totaling some $2.7 billion – not chump change in my book).

More important for truckers, Palchak told me, is that the new group structure is going to allow Eaton to find “synergies” between the two product streams – such as finding ways to integrate “supercharger” technology used for gasoline engines with their diesel brethren. That could be pretty interesting to say the least.

[You can view more of Palchak’s comments below.]

These are just some of the interesting tidbits gleaned from this year’s Mid America show. Stay tuned for a few more this week as I continue to digest everything I encountered during the most recent incarnation of this massive event.

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