Nov. 25 – Freightliner President and CEO Jim Hebe spoke about the future of trucking and of Freightliner products at the Society of Automotive Engineers annual Truck and Bus meeting last week in Indianapolis – a future that includes fuel cells, more aerodynamic trailers, voice-activated accessories, side air bags, and collision avoidance technologies, among others.

“It’s been less than a century since the commissioner of the U.S. Office of Patents smugly declared that ‘everything that can be invented has been invented,’” Hebe said during the Blue Ribbon Panel. “And less than 50 years since Popular Mechanics boldly predicted that ‘computers in the future may weight no more than 1.5 tons.’”

Hebe predicts that truck fuel economy could gain another 20% over the next 15 years. Freightliner is using technologies such as computational fluid dynamics, new ways to cut rolling resistance and friction in the power plant, and driver feedback that helps with fuel-saving driving habits.

Repeating a message he delivered in October at the Southern Trucking Expo in Atlanta, Hebe chided trailer manufacturers to catch up with the state of the art. “Trailers represent the most obvious opportunity for aerodynamic improvement,” he said. “We can’t do everybody’s research and development for them, but we’ll have to take action here if no one else will.”

Freightliner is also developing alternative power plants and fuel, including considerable research into fuel cells. The company recently submitted a proposal for fiscal year 1999 funding for the Fuel Cell Powered auxiliary power unit for sleeper cabs. “Fuel cells offer an extraordinary reduction in emissions,” Hebe said, “since their waste is nothing more than CO2 and water, plus miniscule amounts of CO.” Freightliner’s parent company, Daimler-Chrysler, has made huge investments in hydrogen fuel cells, Hebe said, and recently has increased the power density by an order of 10. “The first application within our vehicles is very close,” he said.

Another addition to Freightliner vehicles that is very close is side airbags. “We have conducted a series of tests which prove the minimal impact of a rollover when our SPACE system and driver’s air bag are combined with a side air bag,” he said. (The SPACE system, an option in Freightliner’s Century Class trucks, pre-tensions the seatbelts and pulls the driver’s seat down and away from the roof and steering wheel during a rollover.) “So you can expect us to add side air bags soon. Systems which warn of impending rollover conditions are also in the works, as are driver drowsiness warning systems.”