Truck Tech

The Future Revealed

December 28, 2016

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Autonomous truck technology like that in Freightliner's Inspiration Truck is part of a sweeping wave of technology. Photo courtesy of Freightliner
Autonomous truck technology like that in Freightliner's Inspiration Truck is part of a sweeping wave of technology. Photo courtesy of Freightliner

I turned 50 in 2016. I suppose that’s the first thing that comes to mind when I look back on the year past… I mean, for me personally, that was a pretty big deal. In the grand scheme of things, it was also a definitive year in many ways, from a tumultuous year in politics to the deaths of too many touchstone pop culture icons.

Narrowing the focus and looking at 2016 through my trucking lens, this was a year that confirmed that a new wave of technology is, in fact, going to sweep through the North American trucking industry. And this wave of newness will be more sweeping, and happen faster, than most American truckers are prepared for.

Two events during the course of the year convince me of this notion.

The first happened early in the year, when I flew to Dusseldorf, Germany, to see Daimler Trucks unveil its Highway Pilot Connect truck platooning technology. Of equal importance was the fact that the Daimler launch dovetailed with a larger demonstration event in which multiple European truck OEMs ran multi-truck platoons into Rotterdam, The Netherlands, to demonstrate the reliability of their own platooning capabilities. 

Industry experts, notably Peloton Technology, have been working for some time now on platooning technology, which is essentially using modern vehicle-to-vehicle communications systems and integrated safety systems to run trucks safely in convoy formations. Doing so offers impressive fuel economy boosts that engineers say are  beyond any vehicle design or powertrain enhancements available today.

But what made Daimler’s Highway Pilot Connect jump out was the fact that Daimler took all the established elements of platooning technology and combined them with its leading work on autonomous vehicles to showcase a highly convincing vision of trucking’s near future.

Unlike more conventional platooning systems (I chuckled as I wrote that: It makes me realize how far down the technology rabbit hole we already are), which still rely on drivers physically steering the trucks while the platooning system handles vehicle intervals and braking, the Daimler system operates seamlessly at Level 4 Automation: Which means that in a three-truck convoy, all of the vehicles were driving themselves down a crowded, public stretch of the autobahn, taking their command cues from the lead vehicle.

At a time when people are still trying to wrap their heads around the concept of a single, driverless car working its way through San Francisco, Daimler’s demonstration was a true leap forward and a clear indication that, like it or not, autonomous vehicles work well – particularly in coordinated applications like platooning.

For me, it wasn’t hard to look at the three Mercedes tractors tooling down the autobahn in perfect coordination and start thinking about how different that drive would be if every vehicle on that highway was, if not under autonomous control, then at least communicating to the infrastructure and cars and trucks around it. You don’t have to ponder long before you begin to see a transformative new future for truck-based logistics just over the horizon.

The second ground-shaking event in trucking this year for me was the unveiling of the Nikola One all-electric Class 8 tractor, which raised my eyebrows for several reasons.

First off, it’s an all-electric Class 8 tractor! Up until 2016, the general belief was that limited battery capacity, combined with size, weight and packaging issues, would limit electric vehicles in trucking to the light end of the spectrum; urban P&D applications were already accepted as inevitable. And, over time, experts theorized that they might migrate into medium-duty applications as battery technology improved.

And then Nikola upended all expectations by not only announcing that it was working on a Class 8 EV, but actually launching a prototype vehicle before the year was out.

It was a stunning revelation, and one that put the industry on notice that nothing was off-limits technology-wise now. Moreover, it was a shot across the bow for many old-timer players in trucking. That’s because this industry has been dominated by companies that, in many cases, have been developing trucking technology for over a century. Trucking was widely seen as such a specialized transportation niche, that few new players dared to enter the market – and ones that did (with promising new products, ideas or technology) were often quickly snapped up by the long-established industry players.

All that is changing now as new players such as Peloton, Nikola and Otto are suddenly standing long-held industry conventions on their heads. And this influx of new thinking will have profound implications for the industry in the coming years: A scramble to perfect emerging vehicle technologies and be first-to-market with them is already under way, and that race will eventually affect the technology you use to deliver goods every single day.

My final thought as we close out 2016 is a positive one: The reason all these companies are working so hard to develop all these new technologies and get them out into fleets is not because they want to show off the cool stuff they can do now, or wring more money out of your pocket or make you miserable trying to learn to use a bunch of new stuff you really, deep down, don’t feel you need.

No. They’re doing all of this because trucking is important. And they all understand that as important as trucking is today, it’s only going to get exponentially more important in the coming years as the global economy and the internet take even deep hold in our everyday lives and the global transportation network moves into the 21st Century. Moreover, they understand that because trucking is so important, there is money to be made in it. And the OEMs and suppliers that give fleets the tools they need to deliver goods faster, cheaper and more efficiently will be financially rewarded – as will the fleets that adopt and master all the technology that will be mandatory from a competitive standpoint very, very soon.

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Author Bio

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Jack Roberts

Senior Editor

As a licensed commercial driver, HDT senior editor Jack Roberts often reports on ground-breaking technical developments and trends in an industry being transformed by technology. With more than two decades covering trucking, in Truck Tech he offers his insights on everything from the latest equipment, systems and components, to telematics and autonomous vehicle technologies.

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