Let’s Play Poker

Are all of you betting people? Will next year be better or worse for the North American trucking industry? People have started asking me as if I really have that crystal ball I used for my future truck presentation at ATA MC&E last year. My personal guess—a little worse than this year. Okay, now that that is over, let’s get on to the meat of this post.

Instead of betting on the market, I want to talk about betting on the future of technology. And, I’ll warn you, I have an ACE up my sleeve. That ACE stands for Autonomous—Connected—Electric.

Of the three bets, the middle one is the most certain. In fact, Connected vehicles are here, there, and everywhere already. I spoke with a small HVAC commercial service company recently. They purchased new vehicles in the last couple of years, 24 in total, and mostly Ford’s. All were equipped with Ford’s telematics system by Telogis, so the owner could track where the vehicles are, such as if they are at the customer site as they are supposed to be. If a company with 40 employees can now see the benefit of having telematics to connect their vehicles to the office, this is a shoo-in.

The only question is if the vehicle OEM’s will continue to focus on warranty, reliability, and maintenance or if they will go further. Will they stay in the truck business or will they get into the trucking business? Will they monitor just the vehicle or will they move to monitoring the driver and the freight? Will it be truck telematics or fleet management from them? Near term, my bet is on the truck.

That naturally brings us to the second bet—Autonomous. My personal car is a Mercedes E350 from 2010. It has adaptive cruise control that includes braking. I can set it and let the car deal with going back and forth between braking and accelerating in stop and go traffic. Only if the vehicle comes to a complete stop do I have to just touch the accelerator pedal to get it going again. Yes, in case you are thinking about it, I am paying attention to traffic all the time. Even though I am trained as an engineer and helped develop these systems, I still have a healthy appreciation for what can go wrong.

I even still watch my car when I park it to be sure the interior lights and headlamps go out automatically—I guess I have a healthy distrust for the computers I’ve helped create. In that stop and go situation, there is a tremendous opportunity for fuel savings and efficiency improvements. Stop/Go technology that stops the engine would save fuel. If the decision and speed of acceleration were better, the distance between cars would improve.

When I dealt with German engineers in transportation visiting here, they complained that people would take too much time getting started from a traffic light. In Germany, the cars move as one when the light changes. Here, one starts, then a little while later the next. Then, much too late the person looking at his smart phone (that might be me) realizes the traffic is moving and gets started. Instead of 12-15 cars getting through that green light, only 5-7 make it. This is where additional autonomous operation or better driver assistance could help. My bet, we are going to see some interesting new features for safety, fuel efficiency, and freight efficiency come from the efforts to create autonomous vehicles. My bet is more autonomous-like features near term and a long time before we see fully autonomy vehicles on the open road.

And, that brings me to Electric. The stop/go feature above requires some electric items to exist. EPA just issued a draft report on the passenger car CAFE and indicated the future will be better combustion engines and not so much electric vehicles. The vehicle OEMs seem to think otherwise, because they are planning quite a few electric light-duty vehicles in the next 5 years. This, I am betting, will carry over to Class 3-6 vehicles quickly.

At the heavy end, our intermodal freight uses trains that are diesel-electric hybrids. Much of the mass transit trains use electric power. Now, we have several thousand people waiting anxiously for Nicola Motors to unveil their natural-gas-electric hybrid using a turbine. The electric utility industry continues to move toward using more electric vehicles, especially electric powered buckets and cranes. So, I feel safe betting there will be more electric driven items on our commercial vehicles.

In summary, in the poker game of commercial vehicles, I’m betting my ACE of Autonomous-Connected-Electric will beat your hand. I just hope it is done wisely so that it does not turn into an ACE™ Bandage.

 

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