Mankind dreamed of flight for thousands of years. So when it finally happened, on a windswept stretch of North Carolina beach in December 1903, you’d think it would’ve been worldwide news.
But it wasn’t.
Orville and Wilbur Wright dutifully informed the press of their accomplishment. But for the most part, nobody believed them. A few stories appeared in the papers – but most of them had the kind of tone we see in the “Local Man Probed by Aliens Stories” today.
The Wright Brothers clearly wanted acknowledgment for being the first men to fly. But they were engineers first and foremost. So while they understood the magnitude of their accomplishment, they also knew their “Flyer,” as they called their little airplane, wasn’t quite ready for full-blown public exposure. They still had a lot of work to do. So they packed up their gear and went home to Ohio, where they set up shop on Huffman’s Prairie and began perfecting their design.
It was a lot easier to hide new technology from prying eyes in those days. For the most part, the Wrights flew under the radar (pun intended), with few people outside Dayton, Ohio, taking note of what was going on.
One person who did take note was Amos Root, a local entrepreneur who was also the founder and editor of a magazine called Gleanings in Bee Culture. Root was a technology enthusiast who already owned a new-fangled Oldsmobile horseless carriage. And he wrote extensively about the Wright Brothers and their progress, even offering a scoop to Scientific American magazine, which didn’t even bother to reply.
Obviously, we are all a lot better informed about technology today than Americans were a century ago. But for me, 2018 felt a lot like Amos Root watching that funny flying machine make circles over a cow pasture and trying to tell the world that a new age was coming.
It should be obvious by now that great changes are coming to our society – and that these changes, regardless of how they play out – will be particularly disruptive for the trucking industry.
This past year certainly reinforced that view. We’re all sort of standing in the prairie, watching the little flying machine circle overhead, trying to figure out what it all means.
And we’re not alone. This past year saw several “legacy” companies that play in trucking make moves to capitalize on the change that is coming our way. We saw Shell begin to explore fuel economy initiatives for Class 8 tractor-trailers, for example. And Michelin made moves into tractor-trailer vehicle aerodynamics, while Cummins continues to explore hybrid- and all-electric drivetrains. Meanwhile Continental Tire has circled back to its roots as a transformational technology company and announced serious forays into the world of telematics and connected logistics.
Volvo was another long-established trucking company making confident strides into the Brave New World coming our way this past year. It was no secret the Swedish trucking giant was investing heavily in electric vehicles, but the unveiling of its FE Electric and FL Electric models in Gothenburg, Sweden, in June, showcased a truck whose underlying technology seems not far away from being ready to appear on dealer lots here in North America.
And Volvo built on that success story with the surprise debut of its automated Vera drayage vehicle at the IAA Commercial Vehicle Show in Hannover, Germany, in the fall. Volvo has been signaling for some time that it believes an automated/systems approach will be the normal operating mode for trucks in the future. And the Vera seems to be a significant first step toward achieving that vision.
I found more clues as to the near-term future of trucking in late summer as I visited the new Paccar Technology Center in California’s Silicon Valley, and test drove a highly capable electric Model 567 straight truck, but also saw Peterbilt’s impressive work on making augmented and virtual reality serious tools that will soon help technicians diagnose problems and get trucks back on the road faster.
The same dynamic is true for Dana, Meritor, Eaton, SAF Holland and Conmet – all of which I spent time talking with during the IAA Show and looking at their own visions of electrified and automated vehicle systems. And in all of the above-cited cases, the products I saw were not prototypes or concepts. They were fully functional beta systems, intended to demonstrate technology and products that will be in production and on the roads in the very near future – next year in most cases.
And these handful of companies that I personally covered this past year are not alone. This seems to be the norm for most of the companies competing in trucking today, whether they are 100-year old legacy companies, or brash new start-ups looking to shake up a staid industry and make a disruptive mark of their own.
The Wright Brothers bided their time and used their R&D period wisely. And when they were finally ready to publicly unveil their vastly improved Flyer to a skeptical press and public simultaneously in both New York City and Paris, they were instantly hailed as visionaries and heroes.
My feeling on looking back at 2018 is that this was the last year the new technology we keeping seeing first-hand and writing about will have spent in Huffman’s Prairie, getting ready for its world debut. All the signs point to 2019 as the year this technology will start coming to market. That means that for the first time, fleets will be able to get their hands on it and begin to see what strengths and weaknesses these new technologies and systems have in real-world trucking operations. And that’s when things will really start to get interesting.