This is the time of year when the boss comes to you wanting some sort of “look back” at the fading year. You know… Deep thoughts about the things that I saw and the significance they hold and how they may portend change in the future.
So, let's make her happy, shall we?
From the business side of things, 2019 was about hustling. But the truth is, that while all you fleet folks were running at the red line all year long, we trucking journalists had a pretty uneventful year.
Oh, don’t get me wrong. We were plenty busy. After all, we have to deal with the same exact corporate and business pressures that you do. But in terms of grand themes and earth-shattering news, 2019 was kind of quiet.
We did see a lot of technology in isolated bits this year – I can say that. We got in-depth looks at new steering-assistance programs from Daimler, Volvo, and ZF while out doing our 2019 test drives. These are impressive – and important – autonomous driver-assistance tools. They’re so useful at both low and high vehicle speeds, that, in my view, they’ll likely be standard equipment on new trucks in a few years.
But, those systems – and others like them – are merely a single patch of technology. And one day soon, they’ll be merged with other patches of cutting-edge technology into the large quilt that will encompass autonomous trucks.
But overall, 2019 felt like the tech side of the industry was consolidating the introductions that have been made up to this point, while holding its collective breath waiting for bigger announcements yet to come.
One technology that did gain serious ground in 2019 was hydrogen fuel cell propulsion systems. As recently as 2018, industry observers were scratching their heads wondering if fuel cell-powered trucks were viable at all. But the conversation changed dramatically in April when Nikola finally took the wraps off of its Two and Tre model semi-trucks.
Our Equipment Editor Jim Park was on hand for that vehicle launch. And he reported at the time that the new trucks, when they are finally released to the public for sale, will be able to travel between 500 and 1,200 miles and can be refilled in 20 minutes. In other words, range, performance, and refueling times are to be on par with conventional, diesel-powered trucks.
Almost overnight, it seemed to me, people were talking about hydrogen fuel cells in a completely different way. The technology went from something that forever seemed to be just over the horizon to a viable, real-world alternative to long-haul diesel trucks that could appear on the market within five years.
Hurdles – infrastructure, most notably – still remain, obviously, But it was striking to me how quickly the concept of hydrogen fuel cells became an acknowledged alternative fuel once Nikola showed its cards. But, as the old saying goes, you’re known by the company you keep. And I’m sure Nikola having friends like Anhueser-Busch, UPS, and FedEx hanging around probably doesn’t hurt them on the credibility front.
For me, though, 2019 was all about electric trucks.
I started off early at the Technology and Maintenance Council Annual Meeting in Atlanta driving a Peterbilt Model 320 straight truck fitted with Dana’s new electric drivetrain system through the city. I came away a believer in the technology as a viable means for urban- and short-haul fleets to move freight cleanly, economically, efficiently, and safely. The revelation for me was a simple one: An electric truck is, at the end of the day, just a truck with a different, yet utterly reliable powertrain underneath the hood. And, I said, if you came to trucking cold, with no preconceptions about fuel, range, maintenance, or driver preferences, there’s no reason in the world you wouldn’t seriously consider spec’ing an electric truck for certain appropriate applications.
As the year went on (it both flew by and ground on forever for me at the same time, if that makes any sense), I was fortunate enough to see the new Freightliner eCascadia unveiled in August. And, a couple of weeks later, I was on hand at the Volvo Customer Center in Dublin, Virginia, to see the Sweden-based OEM take the wraps off its new EVNR electric truck.
The fact that both of these competitive and global OEMs were secretly working on electric versions of their most successful Class 8 designs and launched them within weeks of each other, is a major sign that these trucks aren’t just publicity stunts. They’re viable work trucks and the OEMs that are developing them feel they’ll be able to make a solid business case for fleets to buy them once production begins.
I can’t tell you what 2020 will bring. But there are already a lot of signs that it’s going to be an interesting year on multiple fronts. There are several big news stories on the electric truck front that may break early next year. And each passing month brings us closer to the dawn of the Autonomous Age in trucking. Throw in the fact that it’s an election year, add a dash of economy anxiety. and there should be plenty on my plate to keep me busy for the next 12 months.