‘No one gets left behind!’

Thursday, September 19, 2019

The first of a two-part series on the lead up to the arrival of Freightliner’s continent crushing Cascadia in this neck of the woods. This month we’re starting with the background and answers to the ‘Why?’ question.

Photo: The rapidly approaching Cascadia. This is no local test regime, this is part of something that will have an impact on the pace of heavy truck development regionally...forever.

For the team at Daimler Truck and Bus Australia Pacific, Freightliner’s journey in this part of the world hasn’t always been an easy one. But that’s all about to change on a scale difficult to comprehend, and the impact of that change will alter the heavy-duty truck landscape Down Under forever.

Where it all began
If you wanted to pinpoint the moment in time when life got challenging for the US cabover engine truck, you can. It was in 1982 with the Federal Highways Administration (FHWA) Surface Transportation Assistance Act, and its imposition of not just maximum allowable weights and dimensions that states must sanction, but minimum as well. It also decreed the network to which the new Act applied, prohibiting states from denying reasonable access. It was designed to eliminate once and for all boutique compliance irritations that existed in some individual states, things like overall length. It created a national network, and therefore a ‘national’ truck. That national truck was not constricted by overall length.

Photo: Daimler Trucks North America’s gargantuan head office in Swan Island, Portland, Oregon. Waltzing Matilda and Hoki Mai are now very much on the company play list, and that has huge ramifications.

Sadly, by the time the Freightliner Argosy arrived in 1998, the swing away from cabovers as a premium tool on Class 8 OTR (over the road) applications was well under way. An already aging operator base now chose the unpenalised safety flat floor, ease of access, and ride as afforded by the conventional truck. Being a cabover nation, we ogled over the brand new golden Argosy released here at Transport 1999, a truck that heralded a new era in room and safety for an American cabover. We weren’t the only ones. Our SANZAR mates were also cabover engine groupies, and in many ways it’s our combined weight of numbers that allowed the Argosy to remain relevant, and provide Daimler an ongoing return on its R&D in the wake of the truck’s short US life, which ended in 2005.

Rattling to an end
Last year the inevitable happened however, and we got the news that the Argosy story was about to end here also; the last majestic cheese-grater grille would reach a loyal customer base sometime in 2020. At the same time the rumour mill was abuzz with chatter about its replacement being a conventional truck, the Cascadia. In our minute corner of the world that made no sense at all and it got the burners going, the tarpots out, and chickens running for their lives.
Argosy in New Zealand has been an icon, a truck that gave operators a real three-way choice when considering the purchase of a US-style cabover truck. In our travels we rarely hear a bad Argosy story, particularly from operators who have used the big ‘Freighty’ to stand a fledgling operation up, or take the dream to the next level.

Photo: Cascadia has been through the US Class 8 truck market like a dose of salts since it appeared over a decade ago. Three of the 2020 models in US trim at the CES show in Las Vegas this year. Genuine L2 autonomous trucks.

That alone speaks volumes for the machine’s mechanical integrity. Obviously, we all know that the manufacturing and assembly quality around certain elements of the cab trim and fixtures in particular has over the years left a bit to be desired. At different times in the truck’s history local engineers have had to lend their talents to bespoke pre-delivery bracing. Although the last incarnation was the best Argosy ever, those issues certainly meant that across the Tasman, the truck would never live up to its potential given the feral outback roads. That said, its ultimate fate was largely determined by a far more strategic decision deep in the bowels of Daimler Trucks North America (DTNA).

Medicine man
Sometimes you just have to close your eyes and swallow the goop, knowing what you’ve taken on board, as horrible as it may be, will lead to better things. The shuddering many are going through here having ingested the news of Argosy’s axing pretty much lay at the decision-making feet of one man, Daimler Truck and Bus North America senior vice president for sales and marketing, and head of the Daimler Trucks Australia business unit at DTNA, Richard Howard. But wait! Hold the tar and feathers. He comes in peace. Now the story gets better…way better. Let’s start with a quote from the good man. “Australia and New Zealand are key strategic markets for us. Historically a place we wanted to bring our best, and now we have the chance to do that.”

Photo: The Argosy has been a loyal toiler for New Zealand operators but its place in history is now just that.

The truth is, the Argosy ended and the Cascadia is on its way; two separate events. Up until recently the DTNA platform has been just that, a North American platform, meaning the USA, Canada, and Mexico. Countries outside the platform’s region, countries like us, Aussie, South Africa, along with Chile and others in South America, were ‘special markets’ so to speak. That meant we never got automatic access to the full might of R&D and product development – and make no mistake, there’s a lot of might. That’s not the case any more. “We were more ‘Special Projects’,” said Daniel Whitehead, CEO Daimler Australia. “Our development programme had to be worked in around the core development programme. Now we’re part of that core programme. It’s difficult to convey what that means.”

Howard is a firm believer in being in the right markets and serving those markets to the best of your ability. There are no second-tier customers. If that means reducing your spread and exponentially improving the offering to those ‘in the club’, then well and good. The criteria for entry into the ‘Platform Club’ was 20% or greater US product presence in the market and it’s that statistical gem that blipped the tectonic plates of the global truck market. South Africa didn’t make it, but we and our old mate from the trenches did. The Argosy ended, and all of a sudden there was room around the DTNA campfire for everyone.

Photo: Steven Downes had every right to feel bullish about his soon to be released charges at the recent Brisbane Truck Show.

What’s it all mean?
In short, a lot. Sure the Argosy being axed probably resulted in a beer at a couple of residential addresses in New Zealand, say one in Wiri and the other in Mt Maunganui. In many ways there’s an element of tsunami about that though, meaning the moment when the tide retreats revealing a new expanse of beach only to find three minutes later there’s a 40-foot wall of water approaching.
There’s no question the Cascadia is not going to fill the gap the US 8x4 cabover leaves, but it’s a changing world and given the genre of driver emerging from the new stock, that may account for bugger all. Let’s test that theory out a wee bit. If someone said to any of us 30 years ago that one day a cabover Mack would be called a Volvo, we’d have choked. Count the FHs now quite happily driven by oldies who want a smooth ride, or young’uns who want comfort and tech. Daimler has now gone on a similar route. If you want a cabover Freighty it’s now the Mercedes-Benz Actros or Arocs. Oh, and by the way, you’d be a brave man to bet the house on what PACCAR’s premium cabover in these parts will look like a decade or so from now. No? Some things are sacred you say? How’s that red engine going for you in your new T410? Exactly! The lesson here is even the funkiest of uncles grow old. Here’s a good trucking trivial pursuit question. Who owns the second largest fleet of trucks in Oregon? Answer: Daimler Trucks North America. No, they’re not in the freight hauling business, they’re in the PVE or Product Validation Engineering business… testing to the layperson.

At the huge DTNA headquarters at Swan Island in Portland, Oregon, there are trucks being shaken, crushed, bent, cooked, frozen, and blown on in labs and wind tunnels. There are more trucks three hours east at the Madras test track also being beaten to destruction, and there’s a fleet of 30-plus trucks hauling loads out on the highways and byways, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Then there are the competitor trucks DTNA bought to destroy also. And that’s just the ‘local’ testing. There are trucks in other parts of North and South America as well as the new family members down here, now 18 months into their punishing existence. “The trucks are on the ground here and have been for some time, working in real-world conditions,” said Freightliner Asia-Pacific director Steven Downes. “How long they’ll [the trial trucks] be here post-launch hasn’t been determined, but at some point test data becomes real data, meaning you go from evaluation to actual.”

Photo: Richard Howard’s responsible for our neck of the woods at DTNA. He’s approachable, focused, and committed to his product and those who part with the readies to own one.

That might be so, but being part of a platform means constantly evaluating the next new bit from the mothership, a task the team at the Australian end hasn’t had the luxury of being part of on an ongoing basis, until now. At least one of those evaluation trucks may have a long and tortuous life ahead down here. The cost of keeping it here may be high, but the potential benefit is much higher. In the words of Richard Howard: “We want to break them before our customers do, so we can design, build and manufacture the best trucks in the business.” Even though the level of durability testing and product development DTNA impose upon their model range – the golden child Cascadia in particular – boggles the mind, they have no choice. They are under a mandate from the global leader for Daimler Truck and Bus, Martin Daum, to work to an ‘Innovation Cycle’ that brings 5% reduction in TCO (Total Cost of Ownership) for the Cascadia every two years. Only big wallets can do that.

Has that strategy been successful for them? When you look at the way Cascadia has gone through the US Class 8 truck market like a dose of salts since its arrival in 2007, you’d have to say ‘Yes’. Freightliner today own 37.4% of that market. The next iteration due on sale in the US this month [September] is the 2020 Cascadia, the first US conventional truck that’s truly a Level 2 autonomous vehicle. That’s the one we’ll be getting a variant of. From day one we’ll be bang up to date. History is history, and there’s no way Daimler intend to have the golden child come south only to make an arse of itself. Next month, a closer look at that golden child.