A few, specific factors are influencing the future of medium-duty trucks, which includes emissions regulations, electrification and alternative fuels, the driver shortage, autonomous vehicles, and...

A few, specific factors are influencing the future of medium-duty trucks, which includes emissions regulations, electrification and alternative fuels, the driver shortage, autonomous vehicles, and last-mile delivery, to name a few. 

Photo: Getty Images

Trucks are an integral part of our economy. Trucks move 71.4% of the nation’s freight, by weight, according to the American Trucking Associations (ATA).

Currently, the medium-duty truck market is strong and healthy. Moreover, the future is looking pretty good. 

The Medium-Duty Market, Today

Commercial truck demand in North America and portions of Eastern Europe is expected to be relatively healthy for much of the year, according to data from Power Systems Research (PSR). At the same time, most other regions are experiencing a slowdown. PSR expects a continued slowdown in medium- and heavy-duty truck demand for most regions in 2020. 

The global construction sector has performed well, posting an overall growth rate of 9.1% in 2018. Construction economy gaining strength with low housing levels and high demand is keeping the construction industry busy.

Right now 36% of all commercial diesel trucks on U.S. roads are powered by the newest generation of diesel technologies (MY-2011 and newer), up from just 30% in 2016 and 25.7% in 2015, according to data from the Diesel Technology Forum.

Moreover, according to the American Truck Dealers (ATD) association, in 2018, franchised truck dealers sold 487,848 medium- and heavy-duty trucks. For the first half of 2019, commercial vehicle sales were just shy of 257,000 units — an increase of 13.5% compared to the same time last year. Medium-duty truck sales were up 5% through the first half of the year. ATD expects commercial truck sales to come in at or slightly above 2018 levels.

According to Kenworth, there is a greater desire for increased fuel efficiency. 

“Although gasoline engines might be applicable for the lower displacement and lower weight rating end of the market, diesel engines are still appropriate for the vocational segment of the market, where durability and power are key attributes,” said Kurt Swihart, marketing director for Kenworth.

Where We Are Headed 

The medium-duty segment has seen outstanding growth, according to Kelly Gedert, director of product marketing for Freightliner Trucks and Detroit Components. 

“Many new developments in powertrain offerings and other product options are occurring, targeting improved fuel economy, maintenance, safety, NVH, human/machine interface, and ergonomics,” Gedert said. 

Fleets and drivers are demanding more from medium-duty trucks and utilizing them in particular and dedicated applications.

Influencers on the Future

A few, specific factors are influencing the future of medium-duty trucks, which includes emissions regulations, electrification and alternative fuels, the driver shortage, autonomous vehicles, and last-mile delivery, to name a few. 

Emissions Regulations 

Model-year 2021 vehicles are affected by the next round of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction regulations. This round affects medium-duty vehicles, too, not just heavy-duty trucks. 

The regulation, Phase 2 of the Heavy-Duty Greenhouse Gas and Fuel Efficiency Standards, is a comprehensive set of engine and vehicle standards jointly adopted by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to promote the use of technology to reduce GHG emissions and improve vehicle fuel efficiency. 

The rule set three stages for model-years 2021, 2024, and 2027. It builds on standards set in 2012 for 2014 and 2017 model-year vehicles. The rules that apply to medium-duty trucks and heavy-duty pickup trucks and vans call for reductions in CO2 emissions and fuel consumption of about 16% beyond Phase 1 when fully phased in by 2027. 

The fully phased-in Phase 2 standards for medium-duty vocational vehicles call for reductions in CO2 emissions and fuel consumption of up to 24% relative to Phase 1. 

These improvements are expected to come from the engines and the chassis. 

“On the engine side, OEMs are working to improve combustion efficiency as well as the gas exchange process. This process includes how efficiently you get the outside air into the combustion chamber and back out again. They will also focus on reducing parasitic or friction losses within the engine; oil and water pumps, engine gear train, piston rings, and more,” explained Darren Gosbee, Navistar’s VP of engineering. “Mild hybridization is going to factor in the medium-duty environment. You’ll probably see engine stop/start technology coupled with energy recovery mechanisms such as regenerative braking and more efficient electric technology, depending on the class and duty-cycle of the vehicle.”

SAE International (formerly the Society of Automotive Engineers) also noted stricter regulations as a challenge impacting medium-duty engines right now. 

“Continually making engines cleaner, more efficient, and quieter without adding too much upfront cost is a definite challenge,” noted Ryan Gehm, editor in chief of SAE International’s Truck & Off-Highway Engineering magazine. “Upcoming EPA/NHTSA Phase 2 greenhouse gas standards for medium- and heavy-duty engines and vehicles is one example. These require more advanced fuel-saving technologies, some already established in other sectors and others that still require further development and optimization.” 

Gehm has heard experts say that CO2 reduction is the main future driver for alternative fuels, including electrification.  

This chart shows the engines available with the various medium-duty trucks as reported by the OEMs. (Click here to view a larger version of this chart) - Source: Work Truck Magazine

This chart shows the engines available with the various medium-duty trucks as reported by the OEMs. (Click here to view a larger version of this chart)

Source: Work Truck Magazine


After the success seen in the passenger vehicle market, the move towards electrification is becoming apparent in the U.S. truck market. 

2018 was a breakout year for commercial vehicle electrification; with almost every major truck OEM announcing a vehicle launch and many creating dedicated internal divisions to help define their e-mobility strategy, according to Interact Analysis.

Phase 2 for 2021 could be the rule that jumpstarts the electric truck revolution. Through the magic of credits earned on more-efficient vehicles, such as battery-electric vehicles (BEVs), manufacturers could afford to apply less drastic measures to their fleet of conventionally powered vehicles. 

According to the North American Council for Freight Efficiency (NACFE), “medium-duty electric trucks — not hybrids — are not a fad. They are here as a real solution for specific applications.”

The NACFE continued that the upfront cost of an electric truck is nearing parity with a diesel medium-duty truck. 

Field history is still minimal, so total-cost-of-ownership models are still based on projections. Unknowns include regulatory issues, market issues, power issues, and battery issues. In the end, we still need more miles for real-world data. The NACFE found that return-to-base operations with fewer than 100 miles per day are still the best suited for battery-electric options. 

Gedert of Freightliner noted that diesel engines continue to be critical powertrain solutions for the next five to 10 years. 

“But, the continued advancements in efficiency and performance lead to increased demand for zero-emission battery-electric powertrains for medium-duty trucks,” Gedert said.

Over the next five years, we will undoubtedly see increasing adoption of advanced technologies and alternative propulsion in the medium-duty market, according to SAE International, much like the light- and heavy-duty markets, to satisfy an even greater need for reduced fuel consumption and emissions. Gehm also expects the mix of propulsion solutions to continue its gradual shift toward alternatives, depending on the application and specific operating cycle. 

Another major trend is the increasing use of gasoline engines in the medium-duty market. 

“A major reason for this is that they are simpler than diesel engines — no SCR, EGR, DPF, and DEF fluid. Lower up-front costs, reliable cold-weather startup, and ease of fueling accessibility are just a few factors driving gas-engine adoption,” noted Gehm from SAE International. “Diesel engines appear poised to remain the dominant power source and a subject of R&D efforts for the next decade and beyond.”

Also, according to GM, 61% of the commercial vehicle market is using gasoline engines.

Ford continues to hold top market share for Class 4-7 medium-duty trucks. - Source: ATD

Ford continues to hold top market share for Class 4-7 medium-duty trucks. 

Source: ATD

One trend seen by Kenworth is an overall increase in the number of vocational medium-duty trucks and “baby” Class 8 models. 

“The construction services and vocational markets are continuing to remain strong. This trend has resulted in greater demand for 9.0L displacement engines for these customers,” Swihart added.

Last-Mile Delivery

As more and more consumers depend on the mail for their goods, last-mile delivery services are growing. For anyone not familiar with the term, last-mile delivery helps get people and goods from a transportation hub to the final destination. 

Getting bulk goods across the country is most efficiently done by rail or over-the-road trucks. However, once in the final location, many factors make the larger trucks unappealing or impractical for delivery. This is where medium-duty trucks are coming in. For some businesses, a smaller van or — as Amazon has recently shown a small robot or drone — can get the goods from hub to destination. But in most real-world scenarios, a truck with the capacity for enough cargo that can also maneuver in urban areas is a must. 

Gedert of Freightliner noted that applications such as pickup and delivery and last-mile logistics are an ideal fit for electric medium-duty trucks with dedicated, repeatable routes that have a distinct range radius and an operating model that provides time for battery recharging. 

Not only is the growth in last-mile delivery impacting the need for medium-duty trucks and the engines that power them, but also upfitting needs. These trucks now must deliver a product to a destination, often a business or an office building, not to a hub with a loading ramp. 

The home delivery grocery market is set for growth. According to a study by the Food Marketing Institute, online grocery sales are predicted to be 20% of total grocery retail by 2025 and reach $100 billion in consumer sales.

That’s a lot of groceries that need to be delivered anywhere from tight urban markets to more rural districts.

One last-mile delivery fleet is A. DuiePyle, which was one of the first carriers in the U.S. to add all-electric Fuso eCanter medium-duty trucks to its fleet. They are looking at electric for increased sustainability efforts. 


In 2018, Toyota and Volkswagen announced a partnership for an autonomous medium-duty truck. While the two automakers are fierce competitors in the passenger vehicle market, the commercial market requires additional collaboration. 

Earlier this year, TuSimple announced plans to operate the world’s largest autonomous truck fleet, increasing their fleet to 40 vehicles with an eventual goal of 200 trucks. The freight hauler still utilizes a “back-up driver” in each truck. 

Increased Tech

According to Navistar, the large fleets that use medium-duty trucks are more and more safety-conscious. There is an increased focus on active safety technologies, such as collision mitigation systems. 

Gedert of Freightliner agreed, noting that there is a growing interest in solutions that contribute to the increased safety of drivers and the motoring public. 

“For the medium-duty segment, safety features and telematics solutions seen in our Class 8 trucks are becoming more prevalent,” Gedert said. 

There will be increased adoption of technologies more commonly deployed in the light-duty segment today, such as start-stop systems and cylinder deactivation under certain low-load conditions, according to Gehm from SAE International. 

One example of this would be connectivity solutions — similar to what is currently on on-highway trucks — are becoming more popular with fleet customers as they want more info and data on the health of their fleet while on the job, according to Gedert of Freightliner Trucks. 

Gedert added that, while a large percentage of over-the-road fleets have embraced telematics data, medium-duty customers are just beginning to utilize the data available to them. Freightliner sees trends in remote and proactive diagnostics becoming more common in medium-duty applications in the future.

The Driver Shortage

There has been a lot of talk about the driver shortage in the news. According to data from Bloomberg, the U.S. truck driver shortage is expected to double over the next decade as the industry struggles to replace aging drivers. The shortage swelled from more than 10,000 drivers to 60,800 drivers in 2018 from the year prior, according to the ATA. 

Also, while the shortage is mainly impacting long-haul, over-the-road truck fleets, there is a trickle-down to medium-duty. 

What’s additionally confusing the matter is that the actual number of truck drivers is increasing. The shortage is being enhanced by the sheer demand for truck drivers to haul goods. Some additional items contributing to the shortage is the driving age requirement of 21, meaning it’s not a vocation for those just out of high school. 

Efforts are being made to lower the required driving age and help more teenagers get excited to get their driver’s license, as well as increase the number of veteran and women drivers.

The Bottom Line

The future is bright for medium-duty trucks. Fleets and drivers are demanding more. Consumers are buying more. People are building more. The need for medium-duty trucks is there and will continue to be there. This means more is being demanded from engine performance, more work is being accomplished, and higher quality is a necessity. 

Fleet managers are still very focused on reducing downtime. This aim for increased quality will drive engine replacement rates. Higher quality means fewer issues. 

When speaking with the automakers of medium-duty trucks there was a resounding agreement: the future of medium-duty trucks is looking good. 

Gehm from SAE International summed it all up: “No matter the solution, it must overcome certain barriers to adoption such as acceptable payback time and reliability. Reliability and durability are musts in medium-duty commercial vehicles.” 

About the author
Lauren Fletcher

Lauren Fletcher

VP of Content

Lauren Fletcher is Vice President of Content. She has covered the truck fleet industry since 2006. Her bright personality helps lead the team's content strategy and focuses on growth, education, and motivation.

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