Ecascadia esized

Few companies illustrate the innovative capacity of Oregon’s manufacturing sector more clearly than Daimler Truck North America, which has produced big rigs in Portland since the 1940s. These days, the company is garnering attention for its work on trucks that run on alternative fuels and even operate autonomously. Decades ago, it was making waves for its use of lightweight aluminum.

The pursuit of efficiency played a significant role in the company’s foray into manufacturing. In the 1930s, Leland James, president of his own shipping company, Consolidated Freightways, asked manufacturers to consider using aluminum rather than steel to make trucks lighter and able to haul heavy loads in the mountainous Pacific Northwest. They weren’t interested, so he decided to do it himself by establishing the company that would come to be known as Freightliner. Its Portland manufacturing facility opened in 1947.

In 1981, Freightliner was bought by Daimler-Benz AG. Several other acquisitions ensued, including Thomas Built Buses and Western Star Trucks. By 1992, Freightliner had become the nation’s leading producer of heavy-duty trucks. And in 2004, Freightliner – still focused on efficiency – opened a full-scale wind tunnel in Portland. It was the first wind tunnel in North America designed to test full-size commercial vehicles.

In 2008, Freightliner assumed the name Daimler Truck North America, which later changed to Daimler Truck North America in 2021 when the company was part of a spin-off from the German industrial manufacturing conglomerate Daimler AG, also parent company of Mercedes-Benz cars. Daimler Truck North America continues to produce more medium- and heavy-duty vehicles in North America than any other company. While Daimler Truck’s manufacturing operations are located in several states, the company’s headquarters, testing and key manufacturing functions remain in Oregon.

Most of the company’s Oregon activity happens on Portland’s Swan Island. Financing, accounting, sales, marketing and related work takes place in Daimler Truck’s LEED Platinum-certified headquarters on the banks of the Willamette River. The company’s wind tunnel is located nearby, as is the facility at which Daimler manufactures its burly Western Star line of trucks, which have specialized uses such as hauling very heavy loads and operating off-highway.

The Western Star facility is unique in that it also manufactures Daimler Truck’s electric vehicles. Production of the heavy-duty Freightliner eCascadia began last year. Production of the company’s electric box truck, the eM2, will begin by the end of this year, says Daimler Truck North America spokesman Fred Ligouri.

Demand for battery-powered big rigs is constrained currently by limited recharging infrastructure, says Ligouri. However, battery-powered trucks are well-suited to specific applications such as local pickup and delivery as well as drayage, which involves the delivery of container trucks from ports to nearby repackaging centers.

Battery power also works well for school buses, says Ligouri, because they have a very defined duty cycle. They drive around in the morning, return to a bus depot in the middle of the day, then drive around again in the afternoon. The mid-day pause is perfect for recharging. About 400 electric buses manufactured by Daimler Truck’s South Carolina-based Thomas Built Bus line are now on the road.

Daimler Truck’s commitment to zero-emission trucking led to the opening in 2021 of “Electric Island,” a charging station for battery-powered commercial vehicles. A partnership with Portland General Electric, the facility is located across the street from Daimler Truck’s headquarters, and the charging station is open to the public.

Daimler Truck North America operates a very different type of facility in Madras. All of the company’s reliability and durability testing takes place at its High Desert Proving Grounds, an 87-acre facility located about 120 miles southeast of the company’s headquarters. The 3.5-mile test track allows the company to simulate a vehicle’s full life cycle in only six months.

The Madras facility also allows Daimler Truck to test new technology away from busy roads and highways. In addition to its electric vehicles, Daimler Truck has used the proving grounds to test autonomous trucks, which the company hopes to produce at scale by the end of the decade. To that end, Daimler Truck acquired Virginia-based Torc Robotics in 2019 and partnered with Alphabet subsidiary Waymo in 2020. Waymo is a leading developer of automated driver technology.

Daimler Truck’s work in Oregon generates significant economic and environmental benefits. The company employs about 3,000 people in Oregon and southwest Washington, says Ligouri. And the design and development work orchestrated from and tested in Oregon continues the pursuit of efficiency that began back in the 1940s. The company’s Cascadia on-highway truck has become 35% more efficient since its introduction in 2007, says Ligouri, and Daimler Truck aims to produce only vehicles that are CO2-neutral in driving operation for its core markets by 2039.

eM2 small

Freightliner’s electric eM2 box truck will be manufactured in Portland.

Western star small

Daimler Truck manufactures its heavy-duty Western Star truck line in Portland.