While trucks are often thought of in terms of steel, iron, aluminum and fiberglass, the underlying electronics are powering their future – as the industry drives further in the direction of advanced safety systems, electrified vehicles, and autonomous technology.
It’s a global business, too. As advanced as equipment is becoming in North America, Chinese and European markets are on similar journeys of their own.
Those trends are increasingly evident in the global nature of the truck makers and component suppliers. Take Knorr-Bremse, for instance. You may know the name as the parent company of Bendix. Bendix Commercial Vehicle Systems LLC had been operating as a joint venture between Honeywell and Knorr-Bremse AG since 1993, and the German company took full control in 2002.
While other parts of the world are seeing some of the same commercial-vehicle trends, they’re influenced by different forces.
In North America, today’s evolving safety systems are largely driven by a desire to make driving jobs more comfortable, helping to address the challenge of hiring and retaining truck drivers, Hawthorne says. “You’re trying to ensure you can compete for that talent,” explains Bendix President and CEO Michael Hawthorne.
In China and Europe, there are more regulatory forces at play.
China, for instance, is regulating pedestrian automatic emergency braking systems and mandating electronic stability controls for trucks that haul dangerous goods. Its latest Five-Year Plan even includes commitments to develop highly autonomous vehicles.
European trucks and buses will soon need systems to eliminate blind spots that might otherwise hide cyclists and pedestrians, adding to mandates for emergency braking systems. And Peter Laier, the member of Knorr-Bremse’s executive board responsible for Commercial Vehicle Systems operations (including Bendix), believes systems to help with steering will not be far behind.
Steering to the Future
Knorr-Bremse has assembled many of the pieces to make a new generation of steering controls a reality. It recently acquired R.H. Sheppard, a well-known maker of steering gear, from Wabco Holdings. But that $149.5 million deal wasn’t the only one. It’s also picked up J.M. Engineered Products’ ProSteering Business, Japan’s Hitachi CVS Steering, and tedrive Steering, and expanded a joint venture with Dongfeng Motor in China.
What’s emerging are systems that can help keep trucks in their lanes, compensating for issues such as the crown on a road or cross winds, as well as tracking between the lines.
“Truck motion control is really the product,” says Hawthorne.
In the process, advanced braking systems and the steering controls combine to support the development of highly autonomous vehicles.
The journey to autonomous vehicles is not about building trucks that can travel from L.A. to New York under autonomous controls, Laier says. He sees them making more sense in confined settings such as harbors and logistics centers.
“I think we have two countries in the world where it will come first – that’s the U.S. and China,” he adds. In the U.S., the interest comes through the business case and the shortage of drivers. In China, the targets are set by the state.
Lower Emissions and E-Mobility
Advances for future trucks are not limited to steering and braking and autonomous technology, of course. Global markets are placing an increasing focus on e-mobility, whether it comes in the form of a battery-electric vehicle or hydrogen fuel cells.
In Europe, the interest is largely driven by emissions-related regulations. The European Commission wants to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 55% by 2030 compared to 1990 levels.
In North America, the strongest push to electric trucks has been more regional. Every new truck sold in California will need to be a zero-emission vehicle as early as 2045, and the shift from diesel to zero-emission offerings is scheduled to begin in 2024.
“That’s ambitious, and I want to see how hard they hold that line,” Hawthorne says of the timelines, referring to some of the underlying challenges that still need to be addressed.
One California fleet recently noted that just five of its 125 depots had access to the infrastructure needed to charge electric trucks, he says, referring as well to sagging and aging powerlines that contributed to recent wildfires. “You just can’t get access to the electricity.”
But there’s no question that electric trucks will play a part in the future. Knorr-Bremse’s eCubator development arm was established specifically to adapt products for e-mobility needs, as well as to identify growth opportunities in the field.
Laier says he expects a mixture of powertrains to come, with manufacturers offering a combination of highly efficient diesel engines, battery-electric systems, or hydrogen fuel cells depending on the application.
The business cases vary from one operation to the next, and some are undeniably closer to electrification options than others. Package delivery is one example of one application well-suited to e-mobility.
“You don’t have to do it because you’re a good steward of the earth. You do it because it’s good business,” Hawthorne says.
Decisions will even need to be anchored in brakes, he says, referring to other questions that need to be answered: Will they be driven electrically, or rely on compressed air?
That isn’t the only way brakes themselves continue to evolve. Although North America continues to lag behind the European adoption of disc brakes, they are becoming more popular on this side of the Atlantic.
The main barrier for disc brakes is the customer experience, Hawthorne says. “There’s a familiarity with drums. It’s a historically understood product.” Disc brakes cost more than drums, as well.
But there’s no denying the benefits. Discs aren’t prone to fading like drum brakes. The servicing is easier, too, Laier says. It explains why adoption rates exceeded expectations last year and this year.
Knorr-Bremse’s corporate strategies are supporting growth in this area as well. A wheel-end manufacturing facility in Kentucky is being expanded to meet the higher demand.
There’s no stopping the journey to the future, even if that future involves new and better ways of stopping.
John G. Smith is the editorial director of Newcom Media's trucking and supply chain publications – including Today's Trucking, trucknews.com, and others. A version of this article first appeared on trucknews.com and was used with permission from Newcom Media as part of a cooperative editorial agreement.