Peering into a crystal ball to try to predict the future is always a tricky thing. Yet if you’re paying attention, there are always well-defined trends in motion that can give you some solid clues as to what a new year may bring. Based on those ongoing industry currents, here’s what I’m looking for this coming year.
Generally, I think we’re on the dawn of a new and exciting chapter for North American trucking, both in terms of general business and technology.
After almost two years of economic uncertainty driven by the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s a definite sense the country is ready to move ahead and return to whatever a post-pandemic “normal” will be.
Trucking, of course, is vital to making that happen. But how effective our industry will be in helping sort out supply chain issues and hasten a return to normalcy is, ironically enough, also directly impeded by the current supply crisis — particularly the ongoing shortage of microchips. The good news is I think we’ll see real progress on this front next year, as more and more critical parts and components start to appear on shelves in dealerships and stores.
As we get those supply chain issues get sorted out, we’ll start to see more new products and systems rolled out by truck makers and suppliers that have been busily working on projects even during the pandemic. I’m hoping we’ll have plenty of new product news to sort through in the coming year, with lots of new ideas and technologies entering the marketplace.
We should also start to the first infrastructure projects resulting from the Biden infrastructure bill get under way, which will fuel more business for many types of fleets and demand for vocational trucks, which have been less-affected by chip shortages than their over-the-road counterparts. One only has to look at the economic boom sparked off by the construction of the Interstate Highway System in the mid-1950s for some historical perspective as to just how big a deal this new infrastructure package is going to be for trucking.
Electric and Autonomous Truck Outlook
On the technology front, electric trucks have arrived and will begin to make their presence increasingly felt in the industry beginning next year. There seems to be a surprising — but genuine — amount of momentum behind electric vehicles in general at the moment. The numbers of electric trucks ordered and produced will still be small, but I expect to see significant signs of market penetration by EVs in certain applications and locations as 2022 gains steam. But I also expect to hear a lot more talk about the lag in charging infrastructure for those trucks.
The crystal ball is a bit cloudier when it comes to autonomous truck technology. Currently, a majority of autonomous technology developers such as Daimler, Torc, Aurora, and Volvo are slow-walking the advent of this transformative new way of operating trucks. Their position, by and large, is that it will be the end of the decade before we see market-ready autonomous trucks ready to go.
On the other hand, more aggressive tech start-ups, such as TuSimple, are on record stating that they plan to have autonomous trucks ready for fleet operations sooner — by 2024 in TuSimple’s case, with the help of OE partner Navistar.
So barring surprises, I suspect 2022 will be more of the same on the autonomous truck front: Slow, incremental, methodical, safety-based research and development. My guess is we’re past the point where we’ll see any bombshell breakthroughs with this technology. The overriding task now for both OEMs and tech developers seems to be working to refine and incrementally expand their current operating systems to meet their internal timetables to go to market.
While it’s possible that one of the companies developing this technology could achieve some sort of breakthrough putting them solidly ahead of their competitors, the ongoing lack of systematic federal regulations addressing the real-world deployment of autonomous trucks makes me skeptical that we’ll see any sudden developments in terms of commercializing this technology in the coming year.
In other words, I don’t yet see the sort of groundswell movement from all the disparate players in trucking signaling a major move is coming with autonomous trucks soon. In comparison, we’re most certainly seeing that momentum in battery-electric trucks already. Work also continues on development of fuel-cell-electric trucks for long-haul applications.
In general, I anticipate a good — and interesting — year ahead for trucking in 2022. The trucking industry is at the beginning of a transformative time. And the coming year will give us more clues as to how all of these new ideas and technologies will play out this coming decade.