DTNA, Freightliner boss: No turning back from final mile, e-commerce impact shift on trucking

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Updated Mar 10, 2022

Daimler Truck ended last year in a position starkly different from the condition in which it entered 2021. Daimler's commercial truck business had been an offshoot of its Daimler parent for the entirety of its existence, but last December the company was spun off, allowing it to "focus entirely on commercial vehicles," said Daimler Trucks North America CEO and President John O'Leary. 

O'Leary, who gave the opening keynote address Tuesday at the Technology and Maintenance Council's 2022 Annual Meeting & Transportation Technology Exhibition in Orlando, noted the commercial truck business' ability to stand on its own two feet comes at an interesting time – specifically a time when the transportation industry is among the primary forces keeping the economy chugging along amid a global health crisis. 

"While I think most of the American public has learned far more about domestic and global supply chains than they ever cared to, the silver lining – if we are to find one ­– is that the customers we serve with trucks, with parts and with service have taken their rightful place as the heroes of our world," he said. "The shifting dynamics of global commerce we’ve observed these past couple of years are not, by our estimation, fads. Instead, we believe we’ve seen changes in buying habits and dynamics that will last long beyond the recent crisis."

O'Leary conceded that the mass embrace of e-commerce has been ongoing pre-pandemic, but he said there are signs there's no turning back, citing reports from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics that estimates the value of freight shipments by truck will double from 2018 to 2045 and that final-mile delivery will grow by 15% in the next four years. 

"We’re looking at nothing short of a fundamental change in the way that people order and receive everything from furniture to prescriptions to groceries," he said. "That overwhelming demand is going to put more commercial vehicles on the road than ever before, and it’s coming at a time when our industry is expected to transform in numerous ways of our own."

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Trucking is coming to grips with three transformations simultaneously: improved safety, reduced congestion and decarbonization, and O'Leary noted each "represent a tremendous rethink of both our equipment design, as well as our manufacturing operations and your service offerings."

"Any one of these three goals require technological innovations that, by themselves, would have historically taken decades to accomplish," he said. "Instead, we’re looking at doing all three at once and against an aggressive timeline – all while the industry is tasked with keeping an ever-increasing number of trucks on the road. I tend to shudder at the thought of the capital investment it will take to accomplish the transformation of our industry."

Connectivity, autonomy and electrification are major technological themes, and "each one is reminiscent of something from a science fiction movie, and each one has massive implications for our industry," O'Leary said.

Seeing the advancements made to date in these initiatives, O'Leary said he is confident in Daimler's ability to deliver them with a high degree of reliability, but "the predicate for all of these technologies will be access to data or connectivity. It’s not just big data but the little data."

O'Leary credited Platform Science CEO Jack Kennedy with the idea that "it’s not the aggregated data from an entire fleet alone that is making the difference," he said. "It’s the vehicle-specific understanding we glean from the data coming off each unit, which makes the difference to keep customers on the road."

Much of this data flies around in the cellular network, which is undergoing a transition from 3G to 4G – speeds that increase connectivity by upwards of 15 times.

"On top of that, 5G, when it comes, will increase that data pipeline by up to 100 times over 4G," O'Leary said – a level "that is nothing short of a game changer."

The rapidly increasing growth of this technology, O'Leary said, will lead to “smart” trucks, which will continue to roll out until the entirety of the nation’s fleet is connected.

"It also means that service operations will be better informed about what truck is coming in for service, why and what parts are needed when that truck arrives," he added. 

The power of the underlying connectivity enables other benefits, including advanced safety systems that improve on-road safety, but "to get there, we see a long glide path remaining – one whose timeline will be dictated exclusively by safety," O'Leary said. "The reason for this is that designing and releasing a truck that follows the commands of an autonomous system basically requires us to reinvent the truck."

The “reinvented truck," O'Leary added, requires redundancy in nearly all of its systems, specifically in braking and steering.

While many fleets see the evolution of autonomous driving as an eventuality, the march toward improved freight efficiency is very much here and now. 

"When I look back on how far we’ve come with our own Freightliner Cascadia, I’m proud to say that we’ve improved fuel efficiency for our flagship truck by over 35% since its introduction in 2007," O'Leary said, adding that many of those gains came from aerodynamic efficiencies and improvements to Detroit engines. "Let me be abundantly clear that while we very much believe in [battery-electric truck] technology, we are looking, not at a light switch moment, but at a long ramp-up period wherein diesel continues to serve the bulk of industry needs. But the day is coming when zero-emission propulsion systems will become the dominant technology."

O'Leary said DTNA's goal for the U.S. is to offer exclusively CO2-neutral products by 2039.

"We’ve deployed over 40 pre-production Class 6 and 7 eM2s and Class 8 eCascadias to customer operations in the past two years, mainly in Southern California but also in other markets across the U.S. and Canada," he said. "These are real trucks that have been performing real work in the real world."

Those trucks, he said, have accumulated more than one million miles and provided Freightliner with input for the final design of its series-produced trucks.

"Last year, we opened the order boards for both models, and starting late this year the eCascadia enters series production with the eM2 following shortly thereafter in early 2023," O'Leary said. 

But when it comes to zero-emissions vehicles, O'Leary said it's likely to take several combinations of methods to get there, including the deployment of hydrogen. 

"Late this decade, with our cell-centric powertrain offering, we will introduce a hydrogen powered truck to our portfolio," he said. "The technology is well-suited to address the longest-haul segments where battery electric trucks will continue to be challenged until battery density increases by orders of magnitude."

To support the green-transition effort, DTNA established its own in-house e-consulting team to offer everything from chargers to assistance with much larger infrastructure projects such as distributed energy services like onsite energy storage and solar arrays.

"To date, we’ve assisted more than 40 customers with infrastructure installation through our Freightliner Electric Innovation and CX demonstration fleets," O'Leary said. 

Jason Cannon has written about trucking and transportation for more than a decade and serves as Chief Editor of Commercial Carrier Journal. A Class A CDL holder, Jason is a graduate of the Porsche Sport Driving School, an honorary Duckmaster at The Peabody in Memphis, Tennessee, and a purple belt in Brazilian jiu jitsu. Reach him at [email protected]