"If I would have asked my customers what they needed, they would have said a faster horse." -- Henry Ford
No kidding, Mr. Ford. If he would have told a carriage jockey of the automated wheeled machines he was working on, Ford would have no doubt been met with unbridled enthusiasm from that pioneer hauler -- right before being told, "…But, I think I'll let the other guy try it first."
Truckers haven't changed all that much since then. A decade isn't that long in trucking when it comes to technological benchmarks.
Traditionally, the commercial vehicle industry has been at the forefront of transport innovation, but most average fleet owners -- while they often maintain their schoolboy fervor for gadgetry -- are usually slow to employ technology in a margin-thin industry that's always bracing for the next cyclical downturn.
But a funny thing seems to be happening to some of the carriers who are mapping out post-recession recovery strategies this time around.
They're realizing that in the future, position battles on the freight food chain won't necessarily be between big and small truckers as much as low- and high-tech ones.
No one truly knows what the future holds (except that the Leafs will still be without that 14th Cup), but it's a good bet that proper adoption of the right technologies will determine, more than anything else, the winners of tomorrow.
The fleets that succeed will be the ones with the ability to comply with the oncoming rush of environmental and safety mandates; meet growing customer demand for real-time communication, have interfacing and full-tracking visibility; provide an aged workforce operational flexibility plus health and wellness benefits; collect and audit data on equipment and driver performance; and reduce the risk of liability and injury on evermore congested roadways.
"Interestingly, after a very long time, truck makers are now relying on [customer] pull, not push from OEMs, to penetrate technology into the market," says hybrid and telematics market expert Sandeep Kar, a senior analyst with Frost & Sullivan in Toronto.
Over the next 10 to 15 years much of the technology we have today will gain marketshare. It's already begun. And forecasting the kind of futuristic truck technology that evolves beyond this decade is going to be, if nothing else, a lot of fun.
THE TEEN YEARS
Power & Design: The two-0-ten engine emissions deadline is behind us, and although there're still plenty of unanswered engine performance and maintenance questions, no one can be blamed for wondering what the air regulators at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are scheming up next.
It's still unclear how trucking will be affected by EPA's finding that greenhouse-gas emissions is a danger to public health, but many on the manufacturing side quietly admit that some sort of carbon-reduction regulation will likely follow the particulate matter and NOx-busting rules of the last decade.
A complete engine platform overhaul is highly unlikely in these coming teen years, so mandating or at least incentivizing some form of hybrid technology makes the most sense, considering the amount of investment vehicle makers have already made in this sphere -- whether that means drivetrain electrification, hydraulic propulsion and energy storage, liquefied natural gas power or alternative fuel cells.
Each has its own strengths and weaknesses -- limitations on battery power range and chargeable life on diesel-electrics, for example. On that front, engineers are feverishly working on enhanced propulsion systems and extending the driving range for lithium-ion batteries.
A recent study by the Boston Consulting Group stated that until those advancements are made, the costs would continue to be too high to encourage widespread consumer buy-in. But it concluded that there's no shortage of people working on solutions.
That's one of the reasons hybrid commercial trucks so far have been relegated mostly to short-haul, medium-duty delivery and, to a lesser extent, vocational and refuse in the class 8 segment. The other is fuel economy.
Fuel savings of up to 30 percent justify some of the added purchase cost for an urban stop-and-go application, but commercial viability in over-the-road, heavy-duty is a long way off when the best a long-haul hybrid truck can get today is probably in the five- to six-percent range. (Although, five points on a Toonie-a-liter, when that happens, doesn't sound too bad at all).
Still, at least until fuel economy can break into that double-digit territory, carbon reduction on the highway class 8 side might require a multi-pronged approach, including -- if Obama's EPA proves to be aggressive enough -- some sort of carbon capture and recycle technology at the exhaust system.
"There's no single bullet right now [for long haul]," says Bill Van Amburg of the green technologies consulting firm, Calstart. "Instead we like to say that there needs to be a silver buckshot.
"Emissions improvement came at a cost and all the talent was working on that problem. Now that talent can focus on fuel efficiency, which is the next big driver of innovation."
Some of the more immediate solutions manufacturers are focused on are advanced turbochargers, low viscosity lubricants, automatic transmissions, speed optimization, low-resistance single-wide tires; and design modification that includes lighter body materials and improved aerodynamics on both trucks and trailers.
On the latter front, Navistar recently hooked up with NASA at the world famous Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory to develop and test devices for reducing aerodynamic drag. Testing at the world's largest wind tunnel identified in great detail critical drag producing regions around trucks, such as the trailer base, underbody, and the gap between the tractor and trailer.
It's the kind of data that is immensely valuable to an industry that's trying to maximize fuel dollars wherever it can -- particularly, as carriers push for modified GVWD rules so that long combination vehicles (LCVs) are more prevalent in North America.
Nextgen Fuels: Despite lingering doubts over ethanol's and biodiesel's net environment benefit, the industry isn't going anywhere anytime soon.
Those who are concerned that crop-based biodiesel substitutes food for oil have been told that algae biodiesel is the solution. They're supposed to produce 60 percent of their weight in oil and can be grown in salt water or wastewater. Of course, to green types who are just now waking up to the fact that water vapor is a far more potent GHG than CO2, algae might one day draw complaints too. Yes, we know, all the contradiction is so hard to follow. But nothing is easy when politics and science collide -- or collude, for that matter.
One thing's for sure, though. Diesel, for as long as we have it, will no longer be exclusively derived from petroleum crude. Volvo is one truckmaker that has been busy exploring a variation of other carbon-busting, renewable and gaseous fuels, such as biogas (comprised of hydrocarboned methane) -- either as a standalone or mixed with hydrogen gas -- DME (dimethyl ether), methanol, and synthetic diesel.
It's tough to say yet which fuel has the most upside. "It depends on local conditions," states Volvo, "[but] second-generation biofuels are very promising."
Telematic Safety & Cab Comfort: If there's one thing governments appear more eager to regulate than truck emissions, it's truck safety.
Fleets should be bracing for an onslaught of mandates over the next decade. Among them: hands-free and voice-activated communications, electronic onboard recorders (EOBRs), disc brakes and bigger drums to meet stop distance rules, sleep apnea testing, stability control, and auto tire pressure monitoring.
Also jostling for marketshare will be a host of voluntary (for now) safety-oriented systems that includes anti-collision sensors and video, lane departure detection, active cruise with automatic braking, blind-spot detection, and nextgen fatigue monitoring technology.
According to research by Frost & Sullivan's Sandeep Kar, vehicle telematics is nearly a $1 billion industry today. That number is expected to rise to $6.5 billion by 2015, likely spurred on by the biggest fleets in North America. "Anything that helps reduce operating costs and downtime is something our research shows fleets will buy," he says. "More than 50 percent of top 100 fleet managers indicate they are interested in these technologies."
Integrating many of these systems to limit distraction, shore up individual weaknesses of the devices and leverage economies of scale is what truckmakers and their suppliers are focused on today, says Fred Andersky, Bendix's director of marketing.
"Right now … these technologies are often looked at as separate systems and are often sold that way," he says. "We see a future platform … where all these things work together to help drivers avoid collisions and loss of control while also limiting distraction.
"So an integrated approach into the dash or into a single driver interface is where things are going to go."
And the drivers? All the slack capacity in this stagnant market has masked the demographic reality that good drivers will once again be in short supply and fleet owners will need to refocus on retention.
"Driver connectivity as well as health and wellness is the next vehicle differentiation parameter for truck makers in the new decade," says Karr. "This includes sight and vision, touch and feel, noise and temperature, security, a sense of connectivity with the outside world and connectivity to families in real time."
One reasonably inexpensive way to keep drivers happy would be to modernize the one part of a truck that drivers spend the most time in -- their seats. "Humans," Thomas Frey tells Today's Trucking, "have three major touch points with the physical world: the shoes we walk in, the beds we sleep in and the chairs we sit in."
And considering the amount of time the aging driver population spends on its rear, "it's no time to get cheap when it comes to seats," says Frey, a former IBM human factors engineer who's now with the DaVinci Institute in Colorado and is Google's top-rated futurist.
While advancements are being made in this area, most seating technology still only cushions bumps and vibrations. By using expanding polymeric gel technology -- a gel that expands 1,000 times from its original size -- future "smart" seats will have the capability of sensing weight and space distribution to alleviate circulation problems and sore points. Under extreme driving conditions, gel cells could dynamically cradle operators. "In the event of a crash, gel cells will expand … to hold people in place," says Frey.
THE ROARING '20s & BEYOND
Most drivers would love to park themselves in chairs like that. But what other comforts will a future truck cab provide? Right now researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) are working with Ford Motor Company to produce on-board sensors in a vehicle smart enough to measure a driver's emotional state.
For instance, a seat that starts massaging a driver's back when the sensor determines that he's getting restless or uncomfortable or raises the radio volume to snap drivers to attention if they've been zoning too long.
"Just think about how people respond to the little avatar fitness instructors on the Wii Fit," Joseph Coughlin, a director of the MIT-School of Engineering's AgeLab, tells us. "Those games sense your balance and fitness levels and then tell you what you have to do. "Why can't," he asks, "a [vehicle] do the same thing?"
There are plenty of far-out transportation tools and toys engineers are modeling today. Some ideas will be a reality in the next 25 or 30 years, while others could end up as screenplay fodder for a Cannonball Run reboot, circa 2020.
Wireless World: Frey estimates that in 10 years wireless connectivity will be so pervasive that "virtually at anytime you'll be able to connect to the Internet anywhere in the world," including from our vehicles.
"What that will spawn is the on-demand transportation model," where cars and trucks will be able to communicate with each other as well as with the highway system and the larger outside world.
Imagine a truck smart enough to tell you that up the road, at 200 feet, another vehicle is approaching the intersection from your right and is not slowing down fast enough to come to a complete stop in time.
With the advancement of sensor-based intelligent transportation systems imbedded in the highway and a WiMax wireless network linking to your vehicle, the reality isn't too far off, says Carl Kuhnke, executive director of ITS Canada.
Such a system, which would also include virtual roadside enforcement tools like weigh-in-motion capture, is already in the works stateside. The U.S. DOT IntelliDrive program, for example, is focused on building connectivity among vehicles and infrastructure to enable crashless vehicles and access to real-time data on the status of both vehicles and the roadway.
Energizbrids: In 1964, William C. Brown under contract to the U.S. Air Force demonstrated on TV a mini helicopter powered by a microwave beam. "Naturally any pigeon that would fly in the way would be toast," jokes Thomas Frey, "but other than that it was quite remarkable."
The technology continues to provide a roadmap for people in the space industry, who Frey says are still trying to figure out how to create a broad enough band that could beam power to a vehicle.
Who knows what'll come of it, if anything, but at the very least, cooking frozen dinners from the road will be even more effortless!
Another potential energy source that once showed promise and refuses to fade away is solar power. That's right, says C3 Network's Derek Kaufman, a transportation futurist who once held top technology development roles at Penske, Freightliner and Hino.
Over the next 20 years nanotube solar arrays and storage devices will greatly increase the capacity for converting the sun's energy to electricity, he told an audience of truck manufacturers and suppliers at the recent Heavy Duty Dialogue in Las Vegas.
Today, the highest commercial silicon flat panel collector is at about 20 percent, but in the future three-dimensional microscopic nanotubes will cover greater surface space -- like, for instance, on the roof of a 53-ft trailer -- and will absorb solar light as the sun's position changes at a 300 percent increase in the efficiency.
Ready for Takeoff: The inside of a truck cab these days looks a lot like an airplane's cockpit, so it's no wonder that in the future they'll be built similarly and require kindred professionals to commandeer them.
Take drive-by-wire technology. Like modern planes, cars and trucks will eventually be rid of many moving parts, relying mainly on computer electronics to control a wide range of operations such as acceleration, steering and braking.
As Thomas Frey explains, individual tiny motors and electronics will be fitted all over the vehicle to propel main systems, eliminating the need for traditional components like a steering column, shafts, belts, hoses and liquids.
Drive by wire, then, would place less emphasis on a single large block power source, like a common heavy-duty drivetrain.
Meanwhile, fully autonomous vehicles are no longer just for Hollywood studios. The technology isn't yet seamless, but engineers have already put robotic vehicles on the road with no human intervention. Anyone who watches the Discovery Channel might have seen this demonstrated at the annual DARPA challenge, a Department of Defense-sponsored event which began years ago on a 132-mile course in the desert and has since expanded to prove you can drive through an urban area without a driver.
And not just small vehicles have been successful at DARPA. Severe-duty vehicle maker Oshkosh's TerraMax is completely autonomous, requiring no driver and no remote control. The military contractor has already integrated the complex sensing systems, high-power computers and drive-by-wire technology to a 10-wheel tractor-trailer.
"While that technology is far from being commercially [viable], it certainly has potential," says Frey.
Although a few fleet owners with human-resource issues might wish for it, a national pool of fully independent, driverless delivery trucks are unlikely to be witnessed in most of our lifetimes. But the telematic fusion of driver and truck is well underway through steering assist technology, automated navigation, odometry and adaptive cruise control via magnets and ultrasonic sensors.
In 20 years or so a truck driver with a back-end support team could conceivably lead a convoy of manned or driverless cargo units down a roadway.
SARTRE, a pretty bad acronym that stands for Safe Road Transportation for the Environment, is a project that set out to prove that a road train is possible without short-range communication or expensive embedded wires in the highway, says Kaufman. "When you want to leave the train, you signal your exit and steer out of the train and the vehicle behind you closes the gap," he says. "It's being tested right now, and working well."
Truck drivers probably won't ever end up just being passengers in their own vehicles, says Bendix's Fred Andersky, but, like airline pilots, they'll have plenty of navigation assistance to offset distraction and cut down on stress.
"The driver is always going to be an integral part of the picture," he says. "No matter what we have, it isn't going to replace the need for good drivers and good driving practices."
In fact, as he and others note, it raises the bar and could attract a whole new kind of driver to the industry.
Like the sort who can't wait to be the first to say "beam me up good buddy."