Imagine caravans of trailers pulled by a tractor made out of plastics and ceramics, piloted by a single driver on special truck-only highways.

In reviewing the heavy-duty business, we find no evidence that this business has ever undergone the magnitude of change that it faces today. What's more, never have so many external factors been so critical to the industry's success.

As we look ahead to what the next decade will bring, let's consider the following five areas of dominant influence:


Most prognosticators won't go out on a limb for the case of radical gains in mpg. So the question isn't "how many miles per gallon?" The question is, "miles per gallon of what?"

Government forecasts agree that 2015-2020 will represent the peak for world oil production, with a long gradual decline following. There are only three ways to curb oil consumption by heavy trucks: fuel efficiency, fuel substitution and a reduction in vehicle miles driven (VMD). Since the overwhelming consensus is that VMD will increase, the first two solutions merit a closer look.

Engine efficiency will be more like a step function than the long improvement curve we have experienced thus far. Emphasis will be on renewable (notably bio based or hydrogen) fuels. There will certainly be a move toward multiple hybrid designs and a variety of liquid fuels. At the moment, a diesel/electric configuration looks like a strong favorite.

Watch for the following:

* Increase of diesel thermal efficiency by at least 70 percent;

* Hybrids changing our focus from horsepower and mpg to $/kW;

* Parasitic power loss being attacked on every conceivable front, from actively managed aerodynamics to reductions in vehicle weight.


Concerns about air quality shape discussion on everything from engine technology to municipal road building plans.

Stated goals for emission reductions are astounding. Today, 2 percent of vehicles emit 30 percent of all NOx and nearly 65 percent of particulates. EPA regulations look to cut these numbers by over 90 percent by 2025.

Off-road diesels will be fully involved in the emission crusade soon, adding more impetus to technologies from high-pressure direct injection and LNG additions to advanced non-media filtration of exhaust.


A quick perusal of Internet entries covering 2020 presents the road building plans of everything from the federal government to those of tiny towns like Geneva, Ill. In general, here's what future truck operators will find:

• The Bad News: Intensive funding of anything that smacks of mass transit. Every light rail, monorail or other municipal idea that assumes that people would rather take the bus than drive will siphon dollars away from road repair and development. Intermodal gets the same kind of reverence from municipal planners.

• The Good News: The rising health costs from traffic congestion forces the mass transit crowd to look at more traditional methods of congestion mitigation as well.
From the city of Chicago to the Los Angeles planning authorities, other long-range possibilities are taking shape. The most popular is the concept of "truckways" for the exclusive use of heavy-duty vehicles.


Advances will cluster around the following:

* Materials. Stronger, lighter and recyclable are key. Liquid crystal polymers, carbon/arimid type composites and ceramics look like good bets. Vehicles will be 100 percent recyclable, consisting of 70 percent polymer and 30 percent metals and ceramics.

* Electronics. Steer-by-wire will be replaced with steer-by-wireless. Actively managed aerodynamics will also go wireless. Organic light emitting diode (OLED) technology will change everything, from operator interface to external graphics. Ferro magnetic fluids will revolutionize any application currently using friction materials (braking, clutch, etc.). All accessories will be electric or electric over hydraulic, with vehicles sporting 500-1,000 volt systems.

* Fuel/Lubricant/Coolant. Functional fluids will have a substantial biomass component, most derived from soybean, yellow grease (animal product), canola oil and even mustard seeds. Ethanol is not expected to be a major part of the heavy truck diet by 2020, due to the enormous capital required to scale up production of non-feedstock basic materials.


The challenge to train and enable people in this new environment will be critical.
More functions will be transferred from the driver and technician to the truck itself. Active Driver Assistance Systems will coordinate advanced detection, braking, stability and collision avoidance for the driver controlling an electronically coupled caravan through a major city's truckway.

Creating almost a neural network, the driver will be connected with his vehicle, nearby vehicles, the external environment, shipper/receivers and even his own freight.

Man and machine truly become one!

Bill Wade is managing partner of Wade & Partners, a consulting firm based specializing in the worldwide vehicle aftermarket and distribution.