Are Semi Trucks Portland's Most Visible Product?

Freightliner’s chief looks to keep America (and Portland manufacturing) rolling.

By Zach Dundas September 2, 2014 Published in the September 2014 issue of Portland Monthly

"We make the most visible Portland product in the nation,” Martin Daum claims in an avuncular German accent. “On any highway in the US, it takes you one minute to see a Freightliner truck. The driver might be wearing Nike shoes, and the truck might have an Intel chip in it, but you don’t see those.”

From his Swan Island office, the Stuttgart-raised president and CEO of Daimler Trucks North America—subsidiary of the German automotive giant best known for Mercedes-Benz cars—enjoys an unusual perspective on Portland’s influence over American commerce. Yes, we export quirky indie bands. But we also make the nation’s semis. 

Daimler, which includes the Portland-rooted brand Freightliner, builds 50 percent of the freight trucks on American highways. While DTNA manufactures here and elsewhere, its 2,800 Portland employees include about 800 engineers, a concentration of talent that makes our city the focal point of DTNA’s $350 million in annual R&D spending. And with DTNA building a new, $150 million headquarters planned to open by 2016, Portland’s influence on how the consumer economy rolls seems set to grow.

The 54-year-old Daum, who took the reins in 2009, tends toward sweeping statements. “To move freight is the backbone of the country,” he says, portraying the burly industry as a boost to cherished Portland values like sustainability and innovation. 

“We fit the Portland spirit exactly,” Daum says, “in that we make environmental products that make sense—being as green as possible, and as innovative as possible.” He points to the 2012 Cascadia Evolution, a model that crossed the continent on nine miles per gallon, a radical improvement over the industry standard. Advances in onboard electronics and communications, in his eyes, point to an ever-more-efficient future. “I can imagine algorithms that tell you when an individual driver is using the wrong gear or being too aggressive. We can teach them to become a perfect driver, and that leads to huge fuel savings.”

Freightliner started here in 1942, but an inimitably German mentality shapes DTNA’s future. “We’re here for the long haul,” Daum says. “We have the best truck now because we decided in 2009 that we wanted the best truck. It’s a German way to think, for sure. But a company forms in a place. Portland made great trucks 60 years ago. I hope that 60 years from now, we’re still making great trucks here.”

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