Deborah Lockridge

Deborah Lockridge

The Mid-America Trucking Show. For decades, a sign of spring as sure as flowering trees and late-season cold snaps. It’s undergone some changes the last couple of years but still draws tens of thousands of drivers, owner-operators, small fleet owners and trucking fans to the Kentucky Fair and Expo Center in Louisville. Hundreds of makers and purveyors of everything from belt buckles to trucks and trailers are there, too, enticing visitors into booths with branded swag, games of all types, and attractive women dressed in everything from short shorts to long formal gowns. Truckers, often with kids and dogs in tow, check out the latest trucks, trailers, and electronics, buy tires or radios or trailer tie-downs, attend seminars and concerts, and get autographs signed by race car drivers, trucking radio show hosts, and TV reality show stars.

Last year, no truck makers exhibited, preferring to move to an every-other-year schedule on opposing years to the big biennial IAA international commercial vehicle show in Hannover, Germany, in September. Some came back to MATS this year; others are waiting for the new biennial North American Commercial Vehicle Show in Atlanta this September.

That very dynamic points to two things that struck me about the show this year. On one hand is the dichotomy between the increasingly global nature of many of the businesses that supply trucking and on the other, the very evidently patriotic, made-in-America imaging at the Louisville show. It’s an increasingly global world, but made in America is still a big selling point.

Kenworth highlighted a T680 branded as “The Driver’s Truck,” with red white and blue and “Made in the USA” graphics. Mack emphasized that it is the only heavy-duty truck maker that can say that “every truck we build and sell and service is still built here in the U.S.” At the same time, however, on the show floor, we saw non-U.S. purveyors of everything from replacement parts and tires to reefer units and trailers.

And a second dynamic that stood out to me was that here, the driver is king, whereas the NACV show will be aimed squarely at medium to large fleets.

In Louisville, Kenworth and Peterbilt were at the show with booths just as large as in the past. Kenworth explained that while in recent years it has increased its business with larger fleets, this show speaks to their core base of the owner-operator and small fleet owner. Daimler Trucks North America was not there as a corporate brand, but Freightliner’s Team Run Smart was there, with two of its business-savvy owner-operators who could share real-world advice on owning and operating the newest Freightliner trucks. And Western Star and Mack, both popular brands with a certain breed of owner-operator and vocational hauler, were there as well.

We noticed quite a few inexpensive electronic logging devices aimed at drivers and owner-operators, in advance of the mandated deadline this December. One company, One20, has dubbed its ELD the “F-ELD.” They say the “F” stands for fully compliant and free, but their advertising emphasized the basic message that “The mandate may suck, but your ELD doesn’t have to.”

The driver-centric message was there in discussions about autonomous vehicle technology as well. Despite the visions of some startup companies that are coming at the technology without a trucking background, representatives from Bendix and Kenworth emphasized that a true “driverless truck” is not a near-future reality.

Bendix’s future tech wizard Fred Andersky thinks that for the immediate future, faster communication between various electronic systems on trucks and the advent of more powerful and more integrated safety systems will develop into a series of automated steps that drivers and fleets alike will approve of on the path to more autonomous technologies. “The driver is still key in all of these systems,” he stressed. “And that will be a reality for a long time to come.”

Or, as Kenworth Chief Engineer Patrick Dean put it, “Kenworth sees a place for the driver in trucks, full stop.”