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Perspective, People: The onslaught of new technology is fascinating, but who really cares?

Posted: January 9, 2018 by Rolf Lockwood

Amidst the astonishing flood of electric this and autonomous that lately, I wonder who actually wants any of this stuff. I mean out there in the land of real trucking, not in the offices of mega-fleets with the means to experiment and play image games. I mean the smaller operations in Dartmouth and Brandon and Kamloops. Do they care? Can they afford to play with new gizmology? Can they even keep up with what’s on offer? I think the answer is “no” to all three of those questions.

Once upon a time the technology side of this industry was pretty quiet. Breakthroughs were few and far between on the hardware front, and of course there wasn’t a software front at all back in the 1970s and early ’80s. People spec’d their engine of choice, stuck an Eaton Fuller transmission behind it, and that was that, a combination that dominated the scene for many years and demanded relatively little thought. You wanted 300 horsepower? Maybe 400? A nine-speed box? OK, a 13-speed? Easy, peasy.

Disc brakes were one of the more important launches back in those days, but the product just wasn’t that good, and the market quickly soured on the idea. It’s only barely recovering now. Anti-lock brakes and electronically controlled engines weren’t greeted with open arms, and at first they didn’t work all that well, either. We have them because, in large part, one way or another, they were mandated. No truck buyer was sitting on the edge of his seat, eagerly waiting for the next wondrous gizmo to hit the street.

Nowadays they’re cowering, hiding behind old file cabinets, inundated with new tech that few folks understand. Or care about. Or will have access to, frankly. Let’s look at electric trucks, for example.

Somewhere in the midst of my many, many recent conversations about electrification, I joked that 99.56% of my readers couldn’t care less about this phenomenon. I exaggerated, for sure, but the truth is that full-bore electric plug-in technology isn’t fully ready for prime time — for most trucking operations, that is — and certainly not ready yet for anything approaching the long-haul world. It’s all going to take a while, and I don’t believe that Elon Musk will actually be delivering a Tesla Semi to anyone in 2019, as promised. Quite apart from range and charging infrastructure issues, there’s not even a whiff of an indication as to where a Tesla Semi might be serviced. That’s among countless questions yet to be answered.

Cummins, with nearly 100 years of diesel engine manufacturing behind it, has responded to all this. It surprised a lot of people a few months back with the launch of its all-electric concept truck, the AEOS, so it’s quite obviously serious about this electric thing. But a few weeks ago the company published a statement on the subject. It concluded with this:

“Electrification does not spell the end of diesel or other forms of energy any time soon. About 75% of the trucks on the road today are powered by diesel engines, including more than 90% of the long-haul trucks. Just based on sheer volume, it’s going to take years before anything replaces that many diesel trucks.

“In addition, diesel fuel is the most energy-dense liquid fuel available, and advances in engines, emissions control technology, and cleaner diesel fuels have led to some remarkable environmental gains. In the past 25 years, for example, there’s been a 95% reduction in Nitrogen Oxide (NOx) emissions, a key contributor to smog… Diesel is also proving to be a good platform for hybrid powertrains, including the use of electrification.”

Sure, Cummins obviously has a vested interest in diesel, but they’re right on this one. Relax, people.


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