The show floor for NTEA's 2024 Work Truck Week hit critical mass on Wednesday, March 6.   -  Photo: NTEA

The show floor for NTEA's 2024 Work Truck Week hit critical mass on Wednesday, March 6. 

Photo: NTEA

It looks like the work truck industry’s 2024 annual journey to Indianapolis resulted in record attendance. The final attendance numbers for NTEA’s Work Truck Week will only be released after an audit, but it’s shaping up that way.

Okay, we’re officially “post covid.” But not all trade shows are realizing the same success.

Here’s one reason for Work Truck Week’s continued growth — the trucks and truck equipment in that convention hall move billions of dollars of goods each year and are a leading economic indicator. The way it all happens is changing more rapidly than ever, so we get together to figure it out.

It’s going to take teamwork and partnerships, more than ever before. Here are my trendlines taken from this year’s event, along with a handful of one-off notes.

Commercial EV Market Treads Water, Regulations Push Ahead

Looking around the show floor, the number of electric truck models hasn’t abated, and they’re finally available to purchase. That said, two EV manufacturers canceled their press conferences right before the show, another sign of the disruption.

Of course, this is a work truck show, not the EV charging show, but everyone was talking about how the painfully slow infrastructure buildout is severely hampering electrification efforts.

There are fewer than 10 public charging sites for medium- and heavy-duty electric trucks compared to 60,000 charging sites for electric passenger cars, said Mary Aufdemberg, who heads strategy at Daimler Trucks North America (DTNA) in a Green Truck Summit seminar.

When asked what would help speed up the market, Aufdemberg said incentives, and “a 100% focus on infrastructure.”

In the commercial vehicle arena, the EV market right now is being driven almost exclusively by regulations, particularly in California. Despite the infrastructure challenges, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) has not reassessed its Advanced Clean Fleets (ACF) rule, which calls for government fleets to acquire 50% zero-emission vehicles in 2024, and a percentage phase-in program for private fleets that kicks in by Jan. 1, 2025.

Though not yet announced, it’s expected that at least a few of the CARB-following states will implement a version of ACF. Draconian, in light of the 24-month wait for switchgear? Perhaps. But the attitude that “CARB has to loosen this reg, so I’ll put my head in the sand” is not a strategy.

I spoke to a manufacturer who is waiting for CARB to certify his company’s electric truck, and it’s been frustratingly slow. He can’t yet sell the truck in California, yet CARB’s hefty HVIP incentives are sunsetting for fleets over 100 units on Dec. 31, 2024.

Hydrogen Puts Wheels on the Ground

Daimler’s future propulsion strategy is diesel, battery electric, hydrogen fuel cell, and hydrogen combustion. Aufdemberg said battery electric “is this decade, and hydrogen will start to snowball by the end of the decade.”

In a small sign of progress, hydrogen fuel cell electric tractors are finally hitting the road. Tom’s Truck Center in Santa Ana, California has been selling handfuls of the Nikola Tre Class 8 in the past few months.

The Nikola-owned energy producer, HYLA, recently opened a fueling station in nearby Ontario, California. Two more are set to open in the second quarter in Colton, California, and the Port of Long Beach.

Yes, the Tre can go 450 real-world miles between stops, and fueling takes 15 minutes. The trucks are ridiculously expensive, but massive subsidies help defray the initial cost. The problem, again, is infrastructure — but in the case of hydrogen, the challenges are even more acute.

Hydrogen is highly volatile and highly pressurized, and as the smallest molecule in existence, prone to leakage. Adequately storing, transporting, and piping hydrogen at scale has yet to be solved.

Another recent issue is cost: Hydrogen has skyrocketed to $33 per kilogram, with essentially one supplier. With incentives, the pump price of hydrogen as fuel nets out to three to four times as expensive as a gallon of gasoline.

ICE Sees Further Investments

Regulations are still driving massive investments in internal combustion engines (ICE). Remember before the EV revolution, when regulations focused on driving down NOx and greenhouse gas emissions into smaller and smaller boxes? That’s still happening.

Two rules dovetail starting in the 2027 model year: An EPA rule establishes revised standards for NOx emissions from medium- and heavy-duty on-highway engines that are said to be 80% stronger than current standards.

In California, CARB’s proposed Tier 5 rulemaking looks to reduce NOx and particulate matter emissions on off-road engines to near zero. Remember, what starts in California doesn’t necessarily stay there.

The 2027 model year is coming quickly. Manufacturers are working on engine controls to bring NOx into an even tighter emissions band. On the fleet side, remember regulation pre-buys? We will likely see them again.

Consolidation of Upfitters, Body Builders

The percentage of regional upfitters and body companies is shrinking, thanks to consolidation.

At this year’s show, JB Poindexter & Co., with nine business units under its umbrella, announced the acquisition of Transit Corp. of Quebec, on the heels of acquiring Houston-based General Truck Body.

Shyft Group, also with nine brands, bought Southern California-based Royal Truck Body in 2019. Royal will expand its product offerings with new facilities coming online in Florida, Tennessee, and Michigan.

Safe Fleet, with 30 brands, announced at the show it has been acquired by Clarience Technologies. With the Safe Fleet purchase Clarience now controls 41.

Combined, Safe Fleet and Clarience offer complementary products and services, according to Clarience EVP Mark Johnson. The goal is to a) bring an integrated ecosystem of vocational, safety, and data products under one roof and b) allow for seamless product interoperability on the truck, Johnson said.

Of course, many regional upfitters are still running strong businesses, and I asked one about consolidation. His response: “When the boomers retire and don’t have a family succession plan, they’re selling to a bigger corporation.”

Under the consolidation trend, Safe Fleet announced  it had been acquired by Clarience Technologies. With the Safe Fleet purchase, Clarience now controls 41 business units.  -  Photo: NTEA

Under the consolidation trend, Safe Fleet announced  it had been acquired by Clarience Technologies. With the Safe Fleet purchase, Clarience now controls 41 business units.

Photo: NTEA

Filling the Small Cargo Van Void

While the traditional compact commercial vans are all gone, creative solutions have sprung up to fill the void and were on display in Indy.

Kia brought its modular, electric commercial van concept, the PBV series, to the show. The flexible platform is still in the design phase but should satisfy compact van duties, particularly in urban areas. Kia is targeting Q1 2026 for initial production.

Last year, JB Poindexter & Co. announced that Morgan Olson would provide Canada Post with its C250 body, on a Ford F-150 chassis, for mail delivery vehicles. (C is for Curb, with 250 cu. ft. of cargo space.)

This year, Morgan Olson announced a partnership with Rivian to put the C250 on Rivian’s electric chassis. The integration could be made available to other fleets and with other bodies.

Pickup trucks can’t replace cargo van’s last-mile delivery services, but there’s a lot they can do when adding a cap, pullouts, and racks. Adrian Steel displayed its new Integrated Truck Solution, consisting of a bed pullout with a 110% extension and 1,200 lbs. of capacity, a modular truck cap, configurable shelving, and a ladder rack.

Ranger Design revealed what it's calling a new upfit category, the “truck utility system,” a fully integrated cap, rack, and toolboxes for Ford, GM, and Ram pickups.

Regarding the lack of van supply in general, there is some relief on the way: Ram announced that it is stepping up ProMaster production capacity in the coming weeks, with seven new rail lines to speed delivery. Fleets should see results on the ground by mid-June.

Ram Goes Professional

Speaking of Ram: Ford created Ford Pro; GM followed with GM Envolve. It was only a matter of time until Ram reorganized its commercial unit similarly.  

At the show, Ram announced the new Ram Professional commercial vehicle division as a separate business unit for North America under Stellantis Pro One’s global umbrella.

Like Ford and GM’s commercial unit reorgs, Ram Professional is “the next generation in commercial customer vehicle ecosystems.” It’s built on the premise that fleets moving toward electrification will need new services around charging and connectivity, and Ram wants to retain this business from third parties.

But it’s more than electrification, with upfits, conversions, and connected services available through a single point of contact. The consolidation brings Stellantis’ Mobilisights unit, which gives access and insights to embedded data from Stellantis’s 14 brands, and free2move Mobility and free2move Charge

It’s All About Weight

“Everything is about weight,” said Joe Birren of Merchants Fleet, when asked about a trendline for commercial vehicles.

What’s old is new: The Work Truck Week show floor has been dotted with “this truck body is 15% lighter” marketing placards for years. Those same signs were there this year, showing that further lightweighting is possible. It makes sense in this era of gaining diamond-sharp efficiencies in every area of operations.

Lightweighting helps trucks stay under 10,000 lbs. GVWR to avoid DOT compliance and under 25,000 lbs. to avoid a CDL. In the transition to EVs, every pound saved adds a pound back to payload.

How are the pounds coming off? Steel gave way to aluminum sheet and post, which was encroached on by fiberglass-reinforced plywood. The new tech is “duraplate,” an aluminum sandwich with polyethylene honeycomb in the middle, and SMC, which stands for sheet-molded compounds, Birren said.

Lightweighting also means better load management. Birren’s advice: Load your trucks to their maximum, go to a truck scale, and weigh them. You might be surprised. Knowing your trucks’ actual weight will allow you to more precisely right-spec your vehicles.

Propane Drives ESG Goals

Propane will always be a niche play, as OEMs don’t offer propane-gaseous engines from the factory. But with frustrations in electrification, propane should gain new eyeballs for commercial fleets looking for meaningful carbon emissions reductions right now.

Yes, propane is a fossil fuel. Some metrics culled from my annual sit down with the Propane Education Research Council (PERC): The carbon intensity score of the national electric grid is 131, while domestic propane is 79.5, according to PERC. Renewable propane autogas blends are now available, which can even make the fuel net positive to the grid.

In a fleet manager-led discussion at Green Truck Summit, panelists were asked about direct paths to carbon reductions. Propane is the easiest alt fuel/alt propulsion to get into today in terms of conversions and infrastructure, said Eric McCann of Bimbo Bakeries.

Propane is also a great fuel for mobile EV chargers. Would anyone want to power a mobile EV charging unit with diesel? Oh, the irony! Propane is easily transportable, cheap, and burns clean at the charging unit’s site.

Can propane as a fuel grow? Some metrics from PERC:

  • Total propane autogas gallons in 2023: 185 million
  • Total renewable propane gallons in 2023: 4 million
  • Potential growth of renewable propane by 2025: 15 to 20 million
  • Potential growth of renewable propane by 2050: 1 billion

For perspective, there are  44 billion gallons of diesel fuel in the supply chain today. Renewable propane growth to 1 billion is still a small piece of the market, but a much larger percentage than today.

Overheard and Revealed at the Show

This is only one sliver of the action:

  • Del Underwood, who runs the fleet at Hometown Services, a plumbing and HVAC company, said that downtime for one truck can cost $12,000 to $22,000 a day. 
  • Thirty years ago, one truck produced more emissions than 60 trucks today.
  • The Department of Energy’s Clean Cities program is now called “Clean Cities and Communities.” The new name acknowledges that its coalitions exist in diverse areas, not just urban environments.
  • On its P7-C chassis cab, REE Automotive showed off its x-by-wire technology, with steer-by-wire, brake-by-wire, and drive-by-wire independent wheel control. With no drivetrain and a module on each wheel, the Class 4 truck has a 39-ft. turning radius. For reference, Chevy Equinox has a turning radius of 42 feet.   
  • Legend Fleet Solutions introduced a step that holds 750 lbs. that mechanically retracts upon door opening. The step fits Transit, ProMaster, and Sprinter models.
  • Nissan is upfitting its Frontier pickup for mobile service that enables dealers to service Nissan’s commercial clients on the road. The package consists of a power station and a space for tools to charge, storage for expendable parts, a bed slide, and a Yakima awning to provide a shaded workspace.
  • During a fleet manager’s roundtable, one overlooked challenge on the path to electrification is “change management.” Matt Betz of DTE enrolled enthusiastic drivers, technicians, and administrators as EV ambassadors to help change the culture from the ground up.
  • In a sit down with Ty Layman of Verizon Connect, he showed off Reveal System’s EV sustainability tool, which highlights which fleet vehicles can be replaced by EVs, with graphical data to support. Pretty cool: No input is required; the system does the analysis automatically. Verizon Connect is partnered with Sawatch Labs to plan EV strategies.
About the author
Chris Brown

Chris Brown

Associate Publisher

As associate publisher of Automotive Fleet, Auto Rental News, and Fleet Forward, Chris Brown covers all aspects of fleets, transportation, and mobility.

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