Deborah Lockridge, Editor in Chief

Deborah Lockridge, Editor in Chief

There’s nothing quite like the Mid-America Trucking Show, held each March in Louisville, Ky.

A thousand exhibitors spread over what feels like acres of space, indoors and out, from the smallest purveyor of wonder vitamins to sprawling displays of truck makers’ offerings. Game shows, singers, TV reality stars signing autographs, prize drawings, demonstrations and tech talks. Attendees from business-suited fleet executives to owner-operators with their dog on a leash to families with kids in wagons and strollers.

Outside, truck beauty show contestants braving unpredictable weather, cleaning and polishing and detailing and staging. A free concert, and seminars on topics from driver health to cargo securement. The MATS Fleet Forum, put on by HDT and Fleet Owner.

And for us truck reporters, three days of press conferences announcing the newest equipment, products and services.

All in all, it’s several days of information overload.

There’s also typically a lot of looking forward, with economists and truck makers predicting what truck sales will look like this year, hints of what products we might see announced next year, concept trucks and prototypes on display.

This year a number of things struck me in the category of future-gazing:

  • Autonomous trucks. In a panel discussion at the Fleet Forum, attendees saw videos of platooning technology being tested by Volvo as well as Daimler’s Future Truck 2025. It presented a down-to-earth view of the question, “Will we really see self-driving trucks?” While much of the technology to make it happen already exists in either commercially available or prototype form, the societal, legal and infrastructure issues that need to be overcome to actually make it happen are daunting – and then there’s the question of payback. The first thing we are likely to see is platooning, where smart cruise control, adaptive braking, lane departure warning and other technologies allow one or more vehicles to closely follow a lead vehicle, saving fuel for all the vehicles in the platoon.
  • Freightliner SuperTruck. A more futuristic-looking vehicle than what we’ve seen so far under the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s SuperTruck public/private freight efficiency research project, Freightliner’s SuperTruck achieved 12.2 mpg and a 115% efficiency improvement over the EPA project baseline. Watch for more about this achievement in a future issue.
  • 3D printing. Sabic, a chemical company, is using thermoplastics technology and 3D printing (adaptive manufacturing) to design and test a more-efficient roof fairing. Instead of having to build tooling just to create a testable unit, 3D printers are used to create the fairings, which will be road tested starting this summer. Eventually you may see them in the aftermarket or on an OE truck.
  • Alternative fuels. The lower price of diesel may have dampened some of the enthusiasm for natural gas, but as Olof Persson, CEO of Volvo Group told the Heavy Duty Manufacturing Association Breakfast Briefing, oil won’t be $45 a barrel forever. Although Cummins has its 15-liter natural gas engine on hold and Volvo has pushed back the development of its dimethyl ether (DME) engine, more than one person noted that California’s stricter emissions and low carbon fuel regulations could push the development of natural gas, electrification and DME.

However, all this innovation needs a supportive atmosphere to flourish. So far, the new greenhouse gas/fuel efficiency regulations seem to be doing that. They’re forcing truck and engine makers to push the envelope – but aren’t telling them how to go about doing it. Several truck and engine maker executives at MATS spoke about the need for the next round of GHG/fuel efficiency regulations to address the vehicle as a whole. Done right, these regulations should spark innovation, not hamper it.