Does building a better mousetrap really mean the world will beat a path to your door? That depends on whether your definition of “better” is the same as that of those who buy mousetraps.
This summer, truck makers and suppliers have been showing off their research into near- and far-future endeavors such as electric trucks, platooning, and automated vehicle technologies. I’m going to focus here on two trips I was on, with Daimler Trucks North America and Volvo Trucks North America, but there are plenty of other companies engaged in such efforts, too.
It’s all very exciting to cover. Yet at this point, there are more questions than answers about much of this technology. That’s something that might not be so evident in tech and mainstream media coverage where the reporters (and sometimes the startup companies they’re covering) don’t really have a grasp on the daily realities of trucking.
Take platooning, for instance, where vehicle-to-vehicle communication allows trucks to follow each other extremely closely for fuel savings and safety benefits. During Daimler and Volvo demonstrations in June, officials with both companies stressed that they are working with customers to determine the real-world use cases and challenges.
And that means a lot of questions still need to be answered. How much fuel can be saved? What are the safety benefits? What’s the effect on the drivers in a platoon? What happens if a truck needs to leave a platoon to pull into a weigh station or for a restroom break? What happens if you need to move over for a vehicle stopped on the side of the road? What are the logistics of actually having two or three trucks travel together? Will the technology work in adverse weather conditions or snow? What about the legal aspects regarding following distances?
Then there are electric trucks. Daimler and Volvo are both putting heavy-duty pre-production models into customer hands for evaluation, Volvo in Europe and Freightliner working with Penske and NFI on the West Coast. The question isn’t whether these companies can make an electric truck that works; it’s how they can do it in a way that makes sense for customers.
And that, truck makers say, is something that some of the startups don’t seem to understand. Unlike consumers, trucking fleets don’t buy a Tesla just for the flashiness or “coolness” of it. Or even just for the environmental benefits. There has to be a business case for these investments, a benefit in terms of safety, efficiency, or other factors that eventually will go to the bottom line.
And all these points go double when it comes to automated vehicle technologies, which these truck makers are researching as well. Daimler announced it’s creating an Automated Truck Research and Development Center. Volvo is testing autonomous trucks in operations such as refuse, and in contained areas such as mines and crop fields.
They emphasize it’s early, and that they see automated technologies not as a replacement for drivers in most operations, but as something that works in partnership with drivers to make them safer, more efficient, and more productive.
This is a pretty big contrast to startup autonomous truck efforts that have touted totally “driverless” trucks. Two years ago, Anthony Levandowski, at the time co-founder of the autonomous trucking startup Otto, predicted the advent of trucks that don’t need seats, windshields or HVAC, and that could operate nearly 24/7 without worrying about driver hours of service or fatigue.
The good thing is that the media coverage of these flashy startups has helped portray an image of trucking as cutting-edge and high-tech, something that can help as the industry works to attract new talent everywhere from the shop floor to the board room.
However, truck makers like Daimler and Volvo understand that it’s one thing to build a truck that can platoon, or run on electricity, or even drive itself – but if the technology doesn’t work for their customers’ business, it doesn’t matter how much “buzz” it generates.