Surviving the earthquake
In the first half of 2011 the Japanese dominated the local market for heavy commercial vehicles, creating a risk of product shortages as a result of the earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan early in March, writes Frank Beeton.
Heavy Commercial Vehicles (HCVs), in the context of vehicle sales reported to the National Association of Automobile Manufacturers of South Africa (Naamsa), are defined as those with Gross Vehicle Mass (GVM) ratings contained in the band between 8 501 and 16 500 kg, and are, without exception, of two-axled configuration, with either the rear axle, or all wheels, driven.
Operationally, they offer nominal payload capacities in a range from slightly less than five, to slightly more than eight tons, and are positioned between the trucks and vans of the Medium Commercial Vehicle (MCV) category, and the heavier multi-axled trucks that make up the Extra Heavy Commercial Vehicle (EHCV) segment.
Most of these vehicles leave manufacturing or assembly plants as chassis/cab units, and are then fitted with insulated or refrigerated closed van superstructures, or open dropside bodies, to be employed in the distribution trade, moving a vast array of fast moving consumer goods between factories, warehouses and retail outlets.
HCV units are also widely used in support of public sector infrastructure maintenance activities, in the form of tippers, refuse compactors, vacuum and water tankers, skip loaders, roll-on/roll-off demountable body units, or as basic load carriers or service vehicles equipped with various forms of hydraulic lifting and loading devices. Some HCV chassis are also adapted to carry basic bus coachwork, most of which find their way into public sector or staff transport operations.
In the years prior to the 1980s, the HCV segment dominated the South African truck market with a share that frequently reached 80%. Subsequently, this has declined to the point where HCV sales have achieved a remarkably steady 20% penetration of the total market above 3 500 kg GVM for the past decade.
The earlier decline was primarily due to the diminishing role of the public sector as a buyer of new trucks in the period leading up to the first democratic elections in 1994, and the outsourcing and consolidation of many distribution fleets following the deregulation of road transport that gathered pace from the late 1980s. Central government, homeland government and provincial departments had previously bought large quantities of HCV-class vehicles to support their administrative and enforcement activities. The removal of the permit system that historically regulated long-distance privately-owned road transport inevitably shifted much of the market focus upwards to the premium payload EHCV category as increasing numbers of articulated line-haul rigs hit the road.
During the first half of 2011, seven manufacturers reported a total of 2 357 sales to Naamsa in the HCV category. Leading the field as volume supplier with 623 unit sales and 26,4% penetration, was UD Trucks South Africa. It was followed by Hino Trucks with 603 units sold for 25,6% share, Isuzu Truck South Africa with 479 units and 20,4% share, and Mercedes-Benz South Africa, whose Mercedes and Fuso brands combined to return 349 unit sales for a 22,5% share. The balance of the sales, in order of magnitude, was divided between Tata (213 units), the MAN Group, whose MAN and Volkswagen-badged products combined to achieve 68 unit sales, and Iveco, who reported 22 units during the period.
During this timeframe, products of Japanese origin accounted for 81,5% of all HCV sales in South Africa. This remarkable level of dominance placed this sector of the market at the greatest potential risk from product shortages that were expected to arise from the earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan early in March.
However, the fact that HCV sales made up 18,4% of the total market over 3 500 kg GVM during the first half of 2011, and strengthened its share slightly during the second quarter, indicates that the impact was less severe than had, perhaps, been anticipated. Local suppliers of Japanese brands have strived to minimize disruptions to the supply of specific models and variants to their customers, through extensive communication with their source plants and end users, and the results suggest that they have achieved a commendable level of success in this regard.
There has been a significant amount of new product activity in this area of the market during the first half of 2011. Much of this has come from the Daimler Trucks family, with upgrades being carried out on both the Mercedes-Benz Atego and Fuso ranges. The Atego changes were of both a cosmetic and technical nature, while the Fuso FK and FM Series were equipped with new Euro 2 compliant engines. The recent promotional emphasis being placed on Fuso by Mercedes-Benz SA makes it clear that these products are now expected to be more substantial players in market segments that are presently dominated by other Japanese products.
The Brazilian-built Volkswagen Constellation range, now marketed by MAN in South Africa, has also undergone some payload-boosting technical revisions, which should enhance its potential to gain a more meaningful foothold in this category.
Several Chinese manufacturers active in South Africa now seem to have developed more interest in HCV market participation, with FAW having introduced its 16.240FL and 9.130 models, while some product offerings from Dongfeng and Foton Aumark are also aimed squarely at the distribution sector. Unfortunately, none of these Far Eastern brands report sales to NAAMSA, so their level of success in penetrating the market cannot be determined.