Where in the same exhibit hall could you see a stagecoach (courtesy of Wells Fargo), a trailer from the early 1900s (at the Utility Trailer booth), a 1964 White Freightliner cabover (ConMet), an '85 Dodge Ram (Cummins) … and a sleek Jetsons-like tractor-trailer with a carbon fiber trailer, plus the Transformer Optimus Prime in the flesh? (er, metal).
The Mid-America Trucking Show, of course. I was one of nearly 250 reporters and more than 79,000 attendees who converged on the Kentucky Fair and Expo Center last month in Louisville, Ky.
It was a perfect snapshot of trucking, in a way. This industry draws on a rich, colorful history and tradition, yet marches into the future with amazing aerodynamic advances, safety and communications technology unheard of when this show was founded in 1972.
I thought I'd share a peek at a few of the interesting future technologies shown or discussed at the show:
Walmart's WAVE concept truck was an attention-getter. Photo: Evan Lockridge
WAVE concept truck: One of the most-talked-about displays was the Walmart Advanced Vehicle Experience concept tractor-trailer at the Great Dane booth. The company believes it could be 20% more aerodynamic than current trucks, with a microturbine hybrid powertrain, a dramatically streamlined cabin built around a single driver sitting in the center, and a carbon-fiber trailer with a rounded nose. The practicality of some of the features is up for debate, but that's why they call it a concept vehicle, after all.
Waste heat recovery: This has been discussed for several years as a way to improve engine efficiency and fuel economy. It's part of the concept rig put together by Cummins, Peterbilt and other partners are part of the EPA's Super Truck program, which recently got 10.7 mpg in a real-world driving test.
When asked how close we are to actually seeing it on a production engine, Jennifer Rumsey, engineering vice president for Cummins' engine business, noted the company has multiple trucks that are running with a waste heat recovery system on a test basis.
"We do believe the technology is getting to the point where we understand what it takes to optimize it to get a return on the investment," she said. "It remains to be seen if regulatory requirements or customer pull will drive it. It's not in our current development, but it's not too far away."
Optimus Prime offered a sneak peak at the newest Western Star. Photo: Evan Lockridge
Optimus Prime: Another big buzz generator was a Western Star decked out as Optimus Prime. But this was not simply a promotion for the latest Transformers movie, in which the rig stars. It's very close to a new aerodynamic Western Star on-highway vehicle that will be unveiled this fall and badged as a 5700. When asked whether we might see a special-edition "Optimus Prime" version of the truck, DTNA officials said it was possible – without the half-dozen exhaust stacks and several other decidedly un-aerodynamic decorative extras.
Bendix's Fred Andersky says the prospect of autonomous trucks won't have him giving up his CDL anytime soon.
Self-driving trucks? While Google's self-driving car resulted in breathless headlines predicting "the end of driving as we know is," and there are some research projects on "platooning" commercial vehicles under way in several countries, Bendix's Fred Andersky told reporters that autonomous vehicles still have a ways to go.
The issue with driverless vehicles, he says, is not the technology. What will slow their adoption are cost, public acceptance, privacy and liability issues. After all, who's responsible when two Google cars get in a crash?
Predicting that it will be the mid 2020s at the earliest before we see significant progress, Andersky said, "I'm not going to give up my CDL any time soon."