CON­VEN­TIONAL WIS­DOM

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The re­cent pre­view in Melbourne of the first Freight­liner Cascadia in Aus­tralia was far more than just a peek at a new model about to un­dergo an ex­ten­sive lo­cal test pro­gram

The re­cent pre­view in Melbourne of the first Freight­liner Cascadia in Aus­tralia was far more than just a peek at a new model about to un­dergo an ex­ten­sive lo­cal test pro­gram. It was, in no un­cer­tain terms, that point where Daim­ler Trucks North Amer­ica of­fi­cially hit the ‘re­set’ but­ton in a US$100 mil­lion bid to fi­nally make Freight­liner a front-run­ner on the Aus­tralian mar­ket. Steve Brooks presents this spe­cial re­port

SOME­TIMES, you just have to go with your gut. So, here’s a tip! In a few years from now, let’s say three or four, Freight­liner will sur­pass Mack as the sec­ond-most pop­u­lar con­ven­tional truck on the Aus­tralian mar­ket. Yep, it’s a big call and al­most sure to set the dog barking. Not only that, but with Freight­liner cur­rently skew­ered on less than 4 per cent of the heavy-duty mar­ket, I could be mon­u­men­tally wrong. If so, it’ll sim­ply demon­strate a cou­ple of salient facts. One, that I’m not nearly as in­tu­itive as age and ex­pe­ri­ence might sug­gest, and two, that Freight­liner prin­ci­pals here and abroad re­main in­ca­pable of sat­is­fy­ing the sig­nif­i­cant de­mands of our supremely com­pet­i­tive mar­ket.

On the other hand, I could also be right. If that turns out to be the case, rather than high­light any in­nate in­tu­ition on my part, it will de­liver de­fin­i­tive proof that Daim­ler Trucks North Amer­ica (DTNA) is fi­nally of­fer­ing the Aus­tralian mar­ket far more than plat­i­tudes and out­dated de­signs.

Crit­i­cally, it will con­firm the Amer­i­can mar­ket leader is at long last sup­ply­ing Aus­tralia a mod­ern, ad­vanced and long overdue con­ven­tional truck which has been en­gi­neered, tested and spec­i­fied to the point where Freight­liner can ac­tu­ally do what it has al­ways been ca­pa­ble of do­ing. That is, cre­ate ner­vous con­ster­na­tion among its chief com­bat­ants by scal­ing to sub­stan­tially higher heights on the heavy-duty heap.

The prod­uct be­ing fash­ioned to drive Freight­liner to this bold new fu­ture is the lat­est Gen II ver­sion of Cascadia, or ‘New Cascadia’ as the Yanks re­fer to it, which will be launched here in 2020 af­ter be­ing sub­jected to the most com­pre­hen­sive and expensive test­ing and en­gi­neer­ing pro­gram ever un­der­taken by Freight­liner out­side the USA.

Ac­cord­ing to high-level sources on both sides of the Pa­cific, DTNA has com­mit­ted a stag­ger­ing US$100 mil­lion to a Cascadia right-hand drive pro­gram aimed squarely at ful­fill­ing the cor­po­rate gi­ant’s ul­ti­mate goal of be­ing the leader of ev­ery mar­ket it con­tests. And ac­cord­ing to the same high-level sources, that in­cludes Aus­tralia more than ever be­fore.

Funny thing, though, I’m not sure I want to be right. Like its cor­po­rate co­hort Volvo, Mack is at least lo­cally as­sem­bled, em­ploy­ing Aus­tralians in an Aus­tralian fac­tory, and for that rea­son has ev­ery right to at­tract some de­gree of pa­tri­otic fer­vour.

The same, of course, goes for that other lo­cal leg­end and undis­puted king of the con­ven­tional class, Ken­worth.

Not for a mo­ment, how­ever, does the gut or any other part of the anatomy pre­dict that Freight­liner will be knock­ing Ken­worth off its perch any­time in the fore­see­able fu­ture. That’s not to sug­gest it can’t hap­pen but, right now, given Ken­worth’s cur­rent strength and the fact it has a cou­ple of ex­cit­ing new models be­ing primed for re­lease later this year, it’s hard to see Bayswa­ter (Vic) los­ing its grip on the con­ven­tional crown.

Again, I could be wrong but, in this in­stance, I think not. Still, there’s a big gap be­tween Mack and Ken­worth, and it stands to rea­son that in any ef­fort to climb to higher rungs on the heavy-duty lad­der, forg­ing past the bull­dog will be Freight­liner’s first hur­dle. Like­wise, it’ll also be the first in­di­ca­tor of whether Freight­liner truly has its act to­gether or not.

Nonethe­less, it’s a highly com­pet­i­tive com­mer­cial world we live in and no mat­ter where a truck’s made, the sim­ple re­al­ity is that if the prod­uct’s right, if the price is right, and if the sup­port net­work’s up to scratch, most trucks will sell well no mat­ter where they’re made or whose badge is on the hood.

Still, that’s a lot of ‘ifs’ and, up to this point, Freight­liner hasn’t done a par­tic­u­larly good job over the past two decades of achiev­ing even a re­spectable por­tion of its in­her­ent po­ten­tial. In fact, it could be eas­ily ar­gued that no brand of heavy-duty truck in the mod­ern his­tory of the Aus­tralian trans­port in­dus­try has been ca­pa­ble of so much yet de­liv­ered so lit­tle of its in­her­ent prom­ise.

Then & now

Freight­liner’s Aus­tralian his­tory starts in 1989, about eight years af­ter the trou­bled US brand was ac­quired by Ger­man gi­ant Daim­ler-Benz. For our neck of the woods, the foun­da­tions were built on the durable ver­sa­til­ity of the sim­ple, strong FLC112 model, a truck con­fig­ured specif­i­cally for the Aus­tralian mar­ket and is still to be found earn­ing an hon­est keep in many ap­pli­ca­tions. For good rea­son, the FLC won a bur­geon­ing band of fol­low­ers and, for Freight­liner, the fu­ture looked re­mark­ably bright.

In fact, the fu­ture shone like a ris­ing star when the late ’90s brought the Ar­gosy cab-over and Cen­tury Class con­ven­tion­als to an Aus­tralian mar­ket openly grate­ful for a US-sourced al­ter­na­tive to Ken­worth prod­uct, espe­cially the aged K-se­ries cab-over. Com­pared to what was avail­able at the time, Ar­gosy was a rev­e­la­tion in US cab-over de­sign and while they would never ad­mit it, Ken­worth in­sid­ers were wor­ried.

How­ever, prob­lems weren’t long in damp­en­ing the early eu­pho­ria. Sim­ply put, Freight­liner had been in­cred­i­bly for­tu­nate with the FLC112. Based on a con­struc­tion truck plat­form and with a cab largely sourced from proven Mercedes-Benz stocks, FLC sur­vived de­spite lim­ited lo­cal test­ing prior to its Aus­tralian in­tro­duc­tion.

On the other hand, Ar­gosy and its con­ven­tional kin were ef­fec­tively right-hand drive copies of their US coun­ter­parts and, with al­most no lo­cal test­ing to ex­pose dura­bil­ity

“Aus­tralia is vastly higher on the Freight­liner agenda than ever be­fore.”

de­fi­cien­cies in Aus­tralian con­di­tions, cracks were quick to ap­pear. Lit­er­ally and phys­i­cally. Mak­ing matters pro­foundly worse, US en­gi­neer­ing re­sources were slow to re­spond to dilem­mas down un­der and that, in a nut­shell, has been a ma­jor fac­tor in Freight­liner’s steady slide to medi­ocrity over many years.

So, given these is­sues, and the some­what hol­low as­sur­ances by top-level US ex­ec­u­tives over many years that Aus­tralia was be­ing given a new im­por­tance in Freight­liner’s fu­ture, why should the pre­sen­ta­tion in Melbourne of a lone left-hand drive Cascadia pro­voke such gut-given con­fi­dence that things will be vastly dif­fer­ent this time around?

Well, a num­ber of things, not least the sim­ple be­lief that Freight­liner has prob­a­bly learned more from lost op­por­tu­ni­ties than any other high-pro­file brand on the Aus­tralian mar­ket. Most com­pelling of all, how­ever, was a lengthy oneon-one dis­cus­sion with Richard Howard, DTNA’s se­nior vice-pres­i­dent of sales and mar­ket­ing, the day be­fore Cascadia was pre­sented to Aus­tralia’s trans­port press in a Melbourne stu­dio. The mes­sage was sim­ple: “Im­prove­ment means un­der­stand­ing why we didn’t get the re­sults we want. If you lose, don’t lose the les­son.”

Clas­sic evo­lu­tion

Be­fore we get to that, how­ever, it’s worth putting Cascadia’s cre­den­tials into per­spec­tive. The first ver­sion, now re­ferred to as Clas­sic Cascadia, was launched in the US in 2006 and quickly be­came the flag­ship for Freight­liner’s as­cen­dancy to Class 8 (heavy-duty) lead­er­ship. Rid­ing the crest of a wave, noth­ing much changed on the prod­uct front un­til 2013 when aero­dy­namic en­hance­ments cre­ated Cascadia Evo­lu­tion.

Then, in a huge re­de­vel­op­ment, which saw around US$400 mil­lion in­vested in a swathe of new de­sign, driv­e­train and safety fea­tures, ‘New Cascadia’ was launched in late 2016. Suc­cess was im­me­di­ate. Cascadia re­mains Amer­ica’s top-sell­ing Class 8 (heavy-duty) truck by a coun­try mile.

Ac­cord­ing to Howard, around 85,000 units have been or­dered since the new model’s launch, and Freight­liner cur­rently holds a stag­ger­ing 40 per cent share of a US Class 8 mar­ket that will con­sume at least 280,000 trucks this year. What’s more, Freight­liner now holds sim­i­larly strong shares of buoy­ant Cana­dian and Mex­i­can Class 8 markets, mean­ing Cascadia is pos­si­bly the most suc­cess­ful line-haul truck in North Amer­i­can his­tory. That’s big!

As for the de­sign and fea­tures of the new model, an up­beat Howard said sim­ply: “Our cus­tomers have their fin­ger­prints all over this truck.”

Even so, his­tory shows suc­cess on the North Amer­i­can mar­ket is no guar­an­tee for suc­cess in any other part of the world, espe­cially ours, and while hold­ing true to cor­po­rate doc­trine, Howard was ea­ger to get the mes­sage across that Aus­tralia is vastly higher on the Freight­liner agenda than ever be­fore. One hun­dred mil­lion dol­lars higher.

“In years past,” he ex­plained, “we had more of an ex­port men­tal­ity. We dealt with 40 markets glob­ally but three years ago we de­cided to move to a more in­ter­na­tional busi­ness struc­ture which will see Freight­liner bring the best of the best [a term he reg­u­larly used to de­scribe ‘New Cascadia’] to five key markets out­side the USA and Canada.”

Those markets are Chile, Peru, Mex­ico and the

only two right-hand drive coun­tries, Aus­tralia and New Zealand.

“That means Aus­tralia will get the best we have in on-high­way trucks, as well as be­ing specif­i­cally de­signed for the Aus­tralian mar­ket. We know we have to bring that prod­uct here if we are to have the op­por­tu­nity to be an undis­puted leader in the Aus­tralian mar­ket.”

Vi­tally, Cascadia’s in­tro­duc­tion here will sig­nify that Freight­liner prin­ci­pals in Aus­tralia and the US are singing from the same song sheet at long last. Read­ing from the same script. Work­ing off the same plans. Pulling on the same rope. Drink­ing from the same trough. Tap­ping into the same keg. Shop­ping in the same store. Snug­gling in the same cot. Chew­ing on the same chop, if you get my drift. But if that’s not clear enough, it means right-hand drive models are now an in­te­gral part of Freight­liner’s main game rather than a sec­ond-string ‘Spe­cial Pro­jects’ off-shoot as it has been for most of the past 20 years.

Mar­ket watch

An English­man based at DTNA head­quar­ters in Port­land, Ore­gon, Howard has a strong back­ground in cor­po­rate fi­nance and is quick to em­pha­sise that in­vest­ments of this mag­ni­tude are only made af­ter care­ful anal­y­sis of a par­tic­u­lar mar­ket’s po­ten­tial for sales lead­er­ship.

“We are com­mit­ting re­sources, money and time to the Aus­tralian mar­ket in ways we have never done be­fore,” he con­tin­ued. “That’s the big dif­fer­ence to­day, that we are in­vest­ing to be num­ber one.”

Main­tain­ing the mes­sage, “Ev­ery mar­ket is dif­fer­ent [with] dif­fer­ent ap­pli­ca­tions and dif­fer­ent cus­tomer needs. We un­der­stand that, and all our key markets must be on the same prod­uct plat­form so we can bring all new de­vel­op­ments and lead­ing tech­nolo­gies to­gether for those markets at much the same time.

“So when it comes to prod­uct, we’re all on the same page with ‘New Cascadia’, whether it’s the US, Canada, Mex­ico or Aus­tralia. That’s crit­i­cal when you con­sider the ad­vances we’re achiev­ing with en­gines, trans­mis­sions and driv­e­lines.”

Ob­vi­ously keen to push the prod­uct pro­file, a con­fi­dent Howard said that while ‘New Cascadia’ of­fers some en­gine and driv­e­line op­tions (specif­i­cally Cum­mins, Ea­ton and Al­li­son), the propen­sity is for an all-Daim­ler en­gine and driv­e­train pack­age. He says that on cur­rent fig­ures, 99 per cent of Cascadia buy­ers in the US are opt­ing for a Detroit

“We’re all on the same page with ‘New Cascadia’.”

en­gine, 94 per cent are opt­ing for Daim­ler’s DT12 au­to­mated trans­mis­sion and, sig­nif­i­cantly, close to 70 per cent are spec­i­fy­ing the ‘Detroit As­sur­ance’ ac­tive safety sys­tem. Lo­cally, Cascadia is al­most cer­tain to be the first con­ven­tional truck on the Aus­tralian mar­ket to of­fer a highly ad­vanced in­te­gral safety sys­tem, in­clud­ing the stan­dard pro­vi­sion of a driver’s airbag and pos­si­bly side airbag.

The ‘Detroit As­sur­ance’ safety pack­age de­liv­ers a full suite of ad­vanced sys­tems and, ac­cord­ing to Howard, “It’s the elec­tri­cal ar­chi­tec­ture of Cascadia that pro­vides the plat­form for us to do that [and] there are large US cus­tomers who tell us that be­fore the in­tro­duc­tion of the ac­tive safety sys­tems, they had a one-in-four in­ci­dent rate which is now down to one in 19.

“It has also led to a huge re­duc­tion in re­pair costs due to the sys­tem’s abil­ity to re­act in an­tic­i­pa­tion of a col­li­sion, less­en­ing the im­pact to the point where, in one fleet’s ex­pe­ri­ence, the av­er­age re­pair cost has dropped from $7,000 to $300. Other cus­tomers tell us they’ve elim­i­nated rear end col­li­sions al­to­gether,” he as­serted.

Great, but how did Freight­liner, or rather DTNA, man­age to get the Aus­tralian mar­ket so wrong for so long?

Re­flec­tions for the fu­ture

“The num­bers tell the story and none of us are happy about where we are in terms of mar­ket share in Aus­tralia,” Howard said bluntly. “We have a good team in Aus­tralia but in prod­uct terms we have to bring the best of the best to this mar­ket and that means a truck which is ab­so­lutely set for Aus­tralian con­di­tions.”

Yet while choos­ing his words care­fully, and cit­ing the se­verely neg­a­tive in­flu­ence of the Global Fi­nan­cial Cri­sis (GFC) on de­ci­sions at the time, he con­ceded it was a mis­take to en­dure with a tired Cen­tury Class rather than in­tro­duce the orig­i­nal Cascadia to Aus­tralia in the first few years af­ter its US re­lease in 2006.

“Cen­tury Class has not been in the US mar­ket for many, many years, so Aus­tralia is now run­ning on a gen­er­a­tion of prod­uct which is quite dif­fer­ent to our lead prod­uct for North Amer­ica,” he com­mented. “When I look at how we ap­proached things in the past, dur­ing the time of the GFC, I can un­der­stand the rea­sons why we didn’t bring Clas­sic Cascadia to Aus­tralia. Even so, it was a mis­take not to in­tro­duce it here at that time.”

Quiet for a few mo­ments, a thought­ful Howard con­tin­ued: “I know we’re at a low ebb at the mo­ment in terms of cur­rent mar­ket po­si­tion but, on the prod­uct side, our best is yet to come. But no mat­ter what the prod­uct, we have to con­tinue to do the right thing by cus­tomers and deal­ers.”

Asked if Cascadia is a case of Freight­liner ask­ing the Aus­tralian mar­ket for an­other chance, he res­o­lutely replied: “I wouldn’t say an­other chance, but I think we owe our cus­tomers the best choice. Our cus­tomers in Aus­tralia de­serve the same choices as the US or Canada, and that’s what we will do.”

But hasn’t cus­tomers’ faith in Freight­liner been bruised, even abused by con­tin­u­ing to de­liver such an out­dated prod­uct range? “I wouldn’t say abused but trust is the key,” he replied. “Our rep­u­ta­tion and char­ac­ter are often the only things we have in life and we’ll do ev­ery­thing we can to sup­port our cus­tomers, what­ever mar­ket we’re in.”

But that said, Freight­liner pulled out of the right-hand drive South African mar­ket some years back, so is this push with Cascadia a ‘make or break’ ef­fort for Freight­liner on the Aus­tralian mar­ket? A def­i­nite Howard said abruptly: “No. We are fully com­mit­ted. There’s no make or break about it [and], by de­vel­op­ing an in­ter­na­tional mar­ket fo­cus, we have a clear strat­egy now on how we want to get to a top po­si­tion in the fu­ture.

“That strat­egy is 100 per cent com­mit­ted. We are in for the long haul.”

So, he’s ba­si­cally giv­ing our mar­ket an as­sur­ance that Aus­tralia is a crit­i­cal part of DTNA’s fu­ture? “Ab­so­lutely. This coun­try is a key piece of our strat­egy for the fu­ture. It is an ab­so­lutely crit­i­cal mar­ket.”

It was a sim­i­larly res­o­lute Howard who as­serted there will be no re­peat of the slow re­sponse to en­gi­neer­ing re­quire­ments if is­sues arise dur­ing Aus­tralian test­ing or later, when Cascadia is in full ser­vice here.

Im­por­tantly, he in­sists Amer­ica is well aware of Aus­tralia’s abil­ity to un­earth prob­lems that oc­cur nowhere else.

“Aus­tralia will get the best we have in on-high­way trucks.”

“De­spite the im­mense amount of test­ing that has been done and con­tin­ues to be done in Amer­ica, it’s al­most cer­tain there will be things we find in test­ing here that we haven’t seen any­where else.

“Again, it’s crit­i­cal we re­spond in a timely man­ner to those de­vel­op­ments. Aus­tralia is the first ex­port mar­ket for this new-gen­er­a­tion of Cascadia and we will be mak­ing ab­so­lutely sure there will be a quick and thor­ough re­sponse to any is­sues that arise,” he con­firmed. For now, that’s it!

Test­ing times

Lo­cal test­ing has started in earnest and the day cab model, on show in Melbourne with its spec­tac­u­larly vivid ‘cam­ou­flage’, was sim­ply the first of many. As we’ve al­ready re­ported, “the first test trucks will be left-hand drive – equipped with cam­era and mon­i­tor tech­nol­ogy to safely op­er­ate on pub­lic roads – be­fore an in­creas­ing num­ber of right-hand drive models join the pro­gram.”

What’s more, as Freight­liner added in a re­cent press state­ment, the “ex­haus­tive multi-mil­lion dol­lar test pro­gram for the truck in lo­cal con­di­tions [is] to en­sure the best pos­si­ble spec­i­fi­ca­tion is se­lected and that it stands up to Aus­tralia’s tough roads and con­di­tions. This will be in ad­di­tion to test­ing that will be car­ried out by the re­search and devel­op­ment team at DTNA in the US.”

While guard­ing spe­cific de­tails, Freight­liner in­sid­ers con­ceded the test pro­gram will in­clude day and sleeper cab models with var­i­ous spec­i­fi­ca­tions on bumper to back-of­cab (BBC) di­men­sions from 116-inch to 126-inch, pow­ered by 13-litre and 16-litre Detroit Diesel en­gines with SCR emis­sions sys­tems, driv­ing through Daim­ler’s 12-speed DT12 au­to­mated trans­mis­sion.

Ul­ti­mately, the Cascadia range will cover ap­pli­ca­tions from lo­cal and re­gional dis­tri­bu­tion up to road train triples com­bi­na­tions. Cascadia will, of course, re­place the aged Cen­tury Class range of con­ven­tion­als but it’s not yet clear if it will also lead to the demise of the Coron­ado model. Typ­i­cally, time will tell, though it’s hard to see Coron­ado con­tin­u­ing when the full Cascadia range is up and run­ning.

Mean­while, the ex­cite­ment within the lo­cal Freight­liner camp is al­most pal­pa­ble, with none more ex­cited than the brand’s Aus­tralian di­rec­tor, Stephen Downes. You get the dis­tinct im­pres­sion the next 18 months to the launch of Cascadia can’t come fast enough.

Fair enough, too, given that since his ar­rival at Daim­ler Trucks Aus­tralia from Ken­worth, Downes has had to con­tend with the in­her­ent is­sues of a tired and in­creas­ingly un­com­pet­i­tive prod­uct range. Ba­si­cally, the same is­sues con­ceded by Richard Howard.

Ad­mit­tedly, a quick glance at the first Cascadia in Melbourne was noth­ing more than a snap­shot of what’s to come. A cou­ple of things were, how­ever, en­cour­ag­ing. Sim­ple things, like the way the doors close firm and strong, the de­sign and ap­par­ent strength of mir­ror brack­etry, the neat and easy lay­out of switchgear, wands and in­stru­men­ta­tion, and, most ev­i­dent of all, the sim­i­lar­ity of some in-cab com­po­nents and con­trols with the new Mercedes-Benz cab-overs.

And therein comes the crit­i­cal ques­tion of: what will Freight­liner do to fill the cab-over void left by the de­par­ture of Ar­gosy? The an­swer is … noth­ing!

Sim­ply, there will be no Freight­liner cab-over and that should sur­prise no one, par­tic­u­larly given the fact the North Amer­i­can mar­ket for cab-overs has been dead and buried for well over a decade. To be blunt, Ar­gosy has been liv­ing on bor­rowed time for years.

So, just as Volvo sells cab-overs only and Mack sells con­ven­tion­als only, Daim­ler Trucks Aus­tralia will be on the same path, with Freight­liner go­ing all out with Cascadia and Mercedes-Benz con­tin­u­ing to make big in­roads with its new gen­er­a­tion of cab-overs.

Fol­low­ing sev­eral years of in­tense test­ing on the Aus­tralian mar­ket, the res­ur­rec­tion of the Benz brand has been noth­ing short of out­stand­ing. The first half of this year, for in­stance, has seen Mercedes-Benz move past Mack into fourth place on the heavy-duty lad­der. In a few years from now, let’s say three or four, it’s a fair bet Freight­liner will be do­ing ex­actly the same.

“It’s crit­i­cal we re­spond in a timely man­ner to those de­vel­op­ments.”

Above: A pen­sive Richard Howard. “We are com­mit­ting re­sources, money and time to the Aus­tralian mar­ket in ways we have never done be­fore”Be­low: The first test unit is a stan­dard day cab model. Prac­ti­cal­ity is high but more elab­o­rate ver­sions are on the way. Aus­tralia will draw on an ex­tremely com­pre­hen­sive range of Cascadia models

Pre­view. Aus­tralia’s first Cascadia test unit. It will be the first of a range of test trucks be­fore a full-scale launch in early 2020

Above: Freight­liner’s Aus­tralian di­rec­tor, Stephen Downes. You get the im­pres­sion Cascadia can’t come quick enough

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