Freightliner dealers in the American Southwest should keep an eye out for Roger Nielsen, CEO of Daimler Trucks North America (DTNA). He’s doing one final RV tour playing Secret Shopper before officially retiring on April 30th.

“I usually just show up and go to the parts department and something is usually broken. Nothing important like lost hub nut covers, ”he said. “But hey, you can always use DEF (Diesel Exhaust Fluid).”

Freightliner Custom Chassis Corp. builds the chassis on which the luxury accommodation rides. With COVID greatly reducing the use of DTNA marketing vehicles, Nielsen had plenty to choose from for his 30-day trip. He picked a Jayco Entrega.

Roger Nielsen, CEO of Daimler Trucks North America (DTNA), takes a month-long trip through the American Southwest like one in this mobile home. He visits Freightliner dealers as a secret buyer. Nielsen will retire on April 30th after 35 years.
(Photo: Jim Allen / FreightWaves)

The tour culminates in his four years as head of the subsidiary of Daimler Truck AG in Stuttgart. He is leaving the company before the trucking unit becomes an independent company later this year. That timing, he said in a FreightWaves interview, is just a coincidence.

Nielsen shared his thoughts on the rise of electrification and self-driving technology – two areas he will miss developing – and other considerations in a conversation edited for the sake of space and clarity.

How long have you been thinking about retiring?

I turned 60 in January. And that was always my plan until I was 60 to retire from Daimler. And April 28th is actually my 35th company anniversary. There were two round numbers: 60 years old, 35 years of service, I’m the healthiest I’ve ever been. And it’s time to take a little halftime, I would call it.

Do you have one thing or set of things that you need to pursue in retirement?

I still have a passion for what’s going on in battery electronics. I have a passion for what’s going on autonomously. There are many transformations [that] Haulage companies need to go through the next 10 years to prepare for new technologies. I have a passion for it. So I can’t go away I will do something.

These technologies are just getting started. Does that leave you frustrated?

It never goes fast enough, does it? We have been in the diesel engine business at Daimler for 125 years. And we’re still making changes. It will never stand still. So it’s not a good time to get out. We will have come to a point where battery-electric vehicles and diesel-powered vehicles are being offered somewhat at cost relative to total ownership. Customers no longer have to [choose]: “Do I want to spend the extra on an electric vehicle?”

Dana Inc. recently announced that its backlog will be evenly split between electric and conventional drives for the coming years.

I don’t believe all of the orders because the orders in this store are volatile. Many companies, especially startups, have to lag far behind to attract investors. And they need investor money to expand or develop their product further, as their earnings are close to zero or zero. We need the trust of the customer, who comes differently. And we don’t need orders to justify our next development.

PACCAR Inc. puts the demand for electric trucks at several hundred trucks per year in the next few years. Where do you see it

We plan that 30% of medium-duty vehicles will be battery-electric by 2030, with Class 8 probably about half of that, as we won’t have a viable solution for this man with irregular long-haul routes. This is where fuel cells come into play.

You said two years ago that you thought fuel cells were many years away.

It’s not ready for prime time. Indeed, I believe that a lot has changed in the past few years. The big thing now is that the infrastructure people are interested. [They] have been waiting for liquid hydrogen, gaseous hydrogen, to be used in vehicles for 25 years. Car guys told them: “Yes, fuel cells [are] just on the horizon. “And they were burned. And now we see them getting excited again.

So the fuel cell plays a role sooner rather than later?

The irregular long-distance trucker needs fuel cells [a driving] Area in which you don’t have to choose between diesel or battery. So we believe that fuel cells will fill a space. There is still a lot to be done in terms of costs. But I’ve seen plans to expand hydrogen fuel cells. And I’m telling you it’s going to be a cost parity with diesel before you know it. We said this decade. But I think it will be faster.

How difficult is it to reconcile current products that focus on human drivers with self-driving trucks that could replace them?

I wish the technologies were on the same development curve. Active driver assistance systems will be a completely different technology than an autonomously driving truck. It’s not that we just add a few things and get to level 4. This is where the partnerships with our stake in Torc Robotics and the alliance with Waymo give us the opportunity to work with people who have the time, energy and focus to develop virtual driving systems that we can’t because we have ours keep current customer base up and running.

They also have many partnerships with electric vehicle test fleets.

This co-creation process for battery electrics has put us on the same side of the table as our customers when it comes to any other structural problem – infrastructure, for example; trying to have the right amount of energy in the right depot at the right time; the construction costs with all of those. We are allowed to work together on these problems to find a common solution, rather than just throwing a truck in your lap and saying, “Hey, good luck.”

With the resignation of Nielsen, Daimler Trucks North America has a new CEO

FreightTech 25: No. 9 Daimler is driving the electric future of the truck

Daimler, Waymo join forces to build an autonomous Freightliner Cascadia

Click here to see more FreightWaves articles by Alan Adler.