A new, technology-filled future is dawning for trucking.  -  Photo: Jack Roberts

A new, technology-filled future is dawning for trucking.

Photo: Jack Roberts

We tend to think of “technology” in terms of products and services. But, in reality, technology is more of a process that moves along in fits and starts as we learn how to use it effectively. There are a lot of dead ends. There are a lot of good ideas that require considerable refinement. It's a process, as a certain football coach likes to say.

The end of the year is always a good time to take stock of where things stand. It’s particularly useful when an industry is inundated with new technology and struggling to make sense of it all and apply it effectively. Which is where trucking is today — and where it is likely going to be for many years to come.

Looking back over the past 12 months, here are my picks for the Top Tech Trends in Trucking as 2023, along with a few thoughts on why I think each one is important.

1. We’re Starting to See Movement Toward Open and Integrated Telematics Platforms

I’ve got too many communications portals I’m expected to monitor and respond to during the course a work day. And I'm sure you can relate. There’s Outlook, Calendar, Zoom, Teams, Asana — and I’m probably forgetting a few.

If you’re a fleet manager, on top of that, you may have a web portal for each OEM’s telematics, you might have another for each engine brand and powertrain. And another for tires. And another for the trailer. And another for the exhaust system. And another for driver safety. And another for… Well, you get the picture.

An open platform that lets fleet managers plug in any telematics system they want would be transformative for fleet maintenance.   -  Photo: Jack Roberts

An open platform that lets fleet managers plug in any telematics system they want would be transformative for fleet maintenance. 

Photo: Jack Roberts

What fleet managers need is an open platform for telematics. A single, customizable, system/portal they can set up however they want, with alerts going to who they want in a manner that they want.

The good news is, we’re starting to see some movement toward that kind of integrated approach to telematics. It’s long overdue, and such a solution has the potential to exponentially empower fleet management, from maintenance practices to driver safety.

2. Electrified Trailer Axles are Starting to get Taken Seriously

To me, small, “smart" electric motors on trailer axles have always seemed like one of the most elegant and easy solutions out there for reducing diesel emissions and boosting fuel economy. These motors are able to “sense” when a tractor-trailer’s diesel engine needs help and can immediately support extra horsepower and torque when the truck is just getting rolling in low gears or needs some extra oomph to get up a steep grade. Power is supplied via the truck’s alternator along with regenerative braking or solar panels adhered to the roof of the trailer.

In 2023 tests, Mesilla Valley Transport Solutions found Range Energy powered trailers boosted tractor-trailer fuel economy by as much as 36%.  -  Photo: Range Energy

In 2023 tests, Mesilla Valley Transport Solutions found Range Energy powered trailers boosted tractor-trailer fuel economy by as much as 36%.

Photo: Range Energy

My hunch is that the 2027-generation heavy trucks will use diesel-electric hybrid powertrains to give similar performance boosts when needed. (They've already show up on the second generation of SuperTruck demonstration projects.)

But powered trailer axles make a lot of sense as a plug-in emissions reduction and fuel economy enhancement system for diesel trucks that are already on the road now and will still be on the road after 2027.

3. Autonomous Trucks: Chaos? Or Consolidation?

I first laid eyes on a real-life autonomous truck back in 2015. Almost nine years later, self-driving trucks still remain a “coming soon” technology.

TuSimple was one of three big-name autonomous tech developers to leave the North American market in 2023. But the technology still holds a lot of promise.  -  Photo: TuSimple

TuSimple was one of three big-name autonomous tech developers to leave the North American market in 2023. But the technology still holds a lot of promise.

Photo: TuSimple

To be sure, there have been a lot of advances in autonomous truck technology since 2015. Today, Kodiak, Plus, Torc Robotics and Aurora are all running almost-daily long-distance validation routes or offering retrofit systems to fleets. On the other hand, however, once-promising developers like TuSimple, Waymo and Embark all left the autonomous truck market in 2023.

So, what’s going on? In each of these three instances, it appears that internal turmoil was the main driver behind the companies leaving the market. TuSimple was hit with several waves of scandals and leadership shakeups. Embark ran into capitalization problems.

And, frankly, trucks always seemed like a back-burner project to Waymo. The company’s roots go back to 2009 in the Google Self-Driving Car Project. So, its decision to focus on the ride-hailing passenger car market simply looks a hard-nosed, logical, business decision.

It’s also important to note that neither Waymo nor TuSimple is walking away from autonomous trucks completely. TuSimple will continue to develop the technology with a focus on Asia and the Pacific Rim. Waymo said it might consider reentering the North American autonomous truck market in the future.

So I don’t think these departures are a sign that autonomous truck technology is unviable. Rather I think this is just the sort of natural consolidation that occurs in any industry, market or tech sector as new products and systems are developed. My money is still on autonomous trucks as a massively transformative technology in trucking’s future. And a massively disruptive one, as well.

4. The Advent of Artificial Intelligence

I can’t close out a look back at trucking technology in 2023 without mentioning the rise of AI.

Artificial intelligence has been floating around the edges of the trucking industry for some time now. But in 2023 this incredibly powerful new computing tech began to make serious inroads in trucking, showing up in everything from advanced safety systems on trucks, to financial systems, route management, fuel purchases, maintenance, cold-chain transportation and driver coaching.

Artificial Intelligence can exponentially increase the effectivness of any management system it is applied to and will soon by an indispensible tool for fleet managers in the front office, out in the shop and drivers out on the road.   -  Photo: ThermoKing

Artificial Intelligence can exponentially increase the effectivness of any management system it is applied to and will soon by an indispensible tool for fleet managers in the front office, out in the shop and drivers out on the road. 

Photo: ThermoKing

As Fuuz founder and CEO Craig Scott explained to me, AI will add a whole new dimension of insight, action and capabilities to any management system it is applied to. It can “learn” how your business operates in everything from how you purchase parts, tires and fuel, to how you bill your clients and pay your drivers.

In my opinion, it will also likely be the game-changer autonomous truck developers are looking for. AI can learn how to interact with human drivers in dynamic traffic conditions in ways that previous computing systems cannot.

For those reasons, and countless others, I believe AI will be critical in ways we cannot even envision yet to help the trucking industry power through the many historic changes and transformations coming headlong at it.

About the author
Jack Roberts

Jack Roberts

Executive Editor

Jack Roberts is known for reporting on advanced technology, such as intelligent drivetrains and autonomous vehicles. A commercial driver’s license holder, he also does test drives of new equipment and covers topics such as maintenance, fuel economy, vocational and medium-duty trucks and tires.

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