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Top trends in trucking

Dec. 29, 2020
Keep an eye on these key areas over the next few years to see how they may impact not only maintenance but the commercial vehicle industry overall.

The trucking industry is a vast and various arena, serving many aspects of the economy.

While businesses and responsibilities differ for every fleet, there are trends across the commercial vehicle industry that have already touched every fleet in some way – and will continue to do that well into the future.

Any successful fleet is looking a few things in particular: improving fuel efficiency, keeping drivers and the motoring public safe, and, lowering the total cost of ownership for fleet assets as well as operating as efficiently as possible to maintain low operating costs in general.

The following trends look to address some or all of the key areas that fleets continually monitor and improve.

Parts procurement and ecommerce

While many fleets today still work with an independent parts distributor or dealer network that delivers parts on demand, those relationships will be supplanted with online parts ordering options and a continued migration to ecommerce platforms.

Some fleets have already started to implement automatic replenishment processes for parts restocking. Another current trend includes changes to inventory methods, with a larger focus placed on breadth versus depth on parts shelves. This can be attributed to the just-in-time parts delivery practices that have gained momentum. Add to that, expedited shipping will continue to improve from multi-day down to next-day shipping, with same-day shipping on the horizon. These faster delivery times are aided by the growing network of parts distribution centers throughout North America.

Looking toward the future, as telematics, vehicle connectivity, and data collection and analysis of vehicle performance expand, we will have a better idea of vehicle issues to move to a predictive maintenance model and subsequently ordering parts before failures occur.

Plus, within the next several years, be on the lookout for on-demand 3D parts printing capabilities used by all OEMs, especially for the low-demand, parts. While fleets may not have a 3D printer in-house, distribution centers surely will.

Emissions and fuel efficiency improvements

To address ever-stringent federal greenhouse gas emissions and fuel economy requirements, manufacturers have been tasked with developing further advancements in vehicle systems efficiency and emissions reduction. The latest trends include diesel engine optimization by way of engine right-sizing, engine downspeeding, and the spec’ing of lower viscosity engine oils.

The concept of engine right-sizing looks to optimize the displacement volume to improve fuel efficiency while still ensuring enough power needed to perform while making the vehicle as efficient as possible. But, challenges in the short-term may continue since you can, today, spec a 13L engine on a Class 8 tractor – but the resale value for that spec isn’t as high as a traditional 15L.

Also as it relates to engine operation, engine manufacturers have continued to drive down the minimal engine operating rpm, without compromising torque. Known as downspeeding, OEs have gone from 1,500 rpm down to 1,200 rpm at idle and could go below 900 rpm in the future.

The American Petroleum Institute (API) released its most recent round of oil grad specifications, FA-4 and CK-4, four years ago already. These lower viscosity engine oils are designed to meet the needs of the next generation of commercial diesel engines which burn hotter. Lower viscosity oils inherently improve efficiency because less work is required to move the oil through the system, which translates to less internal resistance. While 15W-40 has been a tried and true standard oil weight for many fleets over the last several decades, the spec'ing of 0W-30 for the next generation of heavy duty diesel engines is an eventual possibility.

Outside of the powertrain, fleets are looking to spec fuel efficiency products such as low rolling resistance (LRR) tires and aerodynamic devices. Additionally, OEs continue to lightweight the vehicle body, systems, and components to lower the overall weight of the equipment.

With the next round of federal emissions standards, and the possibility of even more stringent state requirements, OEs are looking to advanced technologies for the engine and the aftertreatment systems, plus alternative fueling options.

When it comes to engine and aftertreatment systems, functionality like cylinder deactivation technology, improvements to the engine braking system and the turbocharger, dual SCR systems, and heated diesel exhaust fluid (DEF) dosers are all in testing currently.

Options such as renewable diesel, renewable natural gas, and hydrogen fuel cell technology are also on the table. The most imminent to date, though, seems to be battery electric.

Vehicle electrification

Just in the last 18 months, truck OEs have completed real-world testing of full battery electric trucks. Volvo will even begin full production of its VNR Electric Class 8 model in early 2021. Full electric trucks will see faster adoption in the medium duty market, though (particularly pickup and delivery and other urban applications). In the meantime, the industry must address long-standing challenges plaguing widespread electric vehicle adoption: finding the right application, implementing a comprehensive charging network, and, like any new technology, justifying the higher price tag of these vehicles.

Looking toward the future, expect to see 48V systems and higher on heavy duty trucks. The powertrain will evolve, and power management options will expand with the implementation of power distribution units (PDUs), electrified transmissions, and electric axles. These systems will first supplement a diesel engine, but will eventually pave the way to full vehicle electrification.

Also as it relates to electrification, look for electronic braking systems, or EBS, and electromagnetic braking systems as feasible alternatives to the anti-lock braking system and traditional air brake system, respectively.

If not a replacement, Bendix has been working to develop EBS as a redundant system for use in autonomous vehicle technology.

Plus, the Technology & Maintenance Council and the PIT Group have partnered to test the viability of an electromagnetic system – which would use electricity and magnets as part of a commercial vehicle braking system.

Autonomous vehicle technology

We won’t see a full Class 8 SAE Level 5 autonomous truck on the road anytime soon, but advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) will continue to drive the industry toward increasingly autonomous systems on the vehicle.

That begins first with monitoring all aspects of the vehicle in real-time. There are sensors to monitor tire pressure and temperature, wheel-end temperature, whether a door is open or closed, anti-lock brake (ABS) faults, load sensors, vehicle emissions, and more. Expect more enhanced monitoring capabilities from sensors, cameras, radar, and lidar to increase safety for drivers and improve vehicle system efficiency. Think products like cameras to replace the traditional side mirrors, plus provide visuals for behind the tractor-trailer.

ADAS has evolved from passive safety systems to active safety systems. With passive safety systems a driver receives an audio or visual alert. An active safety system will intervene if the operator does not. Examples of active safety systems on commercial trucks include collision mitigation systems and adaptive cruise control.

In addition to more enhanced technology, vehicles will also have system redundancies. That’s because when something breaks on an autonomous vehicle, since there’s no operator to recognize an issue, a second system must provide backup to ensure the vehicle can be controlled in the event of the primary system’s failure.

Of course, with all of these changes, addressing the prospect of not having a driver in the cab requires federal regulation and oversight. Expect to see continued development of rules for operating autonomous trucks before widespread adoption occurs – even if the technology has been developed.

Connectivity and data

The connectivity of vehicle systems and the collection and assessment of data in real-time will continue to drive vehicle safety and efficiency.

Today, telematics has allowed fleets to monitor the location and status of assets. If an issue occurs, fleets can diagnose an issue and understand the level of severity in order to make quick and accurate decisions.

What can we expect in the future? OEs will continue to make it easier to review and understand data, providing actionable information. Our industry will see further integration of data into all aspects of business and enhanced vehicle communications, not just between the vehicle and the fleet, but also communication between other vehicles and immediate surroundings. This type of continuous, real-time communication will require more data transferred more quickly – so 5G LTE networks will be critical.

As these advancements happen, it is also critical that fleets understand data ownership and user agreements. That doesn’t just address the question of who owns the data (hint – it’s the fleet), but if the fleet actually has access to their own data. Plus, be mindful of cybersecurity and securing access to data since adding remote access to vehicles creates another potential entry point for hackers and others with nefarious intent to tamper with the vehicles.

It can be difficult to recognize change while our industry is in the middle of it. It’s not until we reflect on these changes over the course of several months or years and look back on them that we can really begin to acknowledge that progress. 

About the Author

Erica Schueller | Editorial Director | Commercial Vehicle Group

Erica Schueller is the Editorial Director of the Endeavor Commercial Vehicle Group. The commercial vehicle group includes the following brands: American Trucker, Bulk Transporter, Fleet Maintenance, FleetOwner, Refrigerated Transporter, and Trailer/Body Builders brands.

An award-winning journalist, Schueller has reported and written about the vehicle maintenance and repair industry her entire career. She has received accolades for her reporting and editing in the commercial and automotive vehicle fields by the Truck Writers of North America (TWNA), the International Automotive Media Competition (IAMC), the Folio: Eddie & Ozzie Awards and the American Society of Business Publication Editors (ASBPE) Azbee Awards.

Schueller has received recognition among her publishing industry peers as a recipient of the 2014 Folio Top Women in Media Rising Stars award, acknowledging her accomplishments of digital content management and assistance with improving the print and digital products in the Vehicle Repair Group. She was also named one Women in Trucking’s 2018 Top Women in Transportation to Watch.

She is an active member of a number of industry groups, including the American Trucking Associations' (ATA) Technology & Maintenance Council (TMC),  the Auto Care Association's Young Auto Care Networking Group, GenNext, and Women in Trucking.

In December 2018, Schueller graduated at the top of her class from the Waukesha County Technical College's 10-week professional truck driving program, earning her Class A commercial driver's license (CDL).  

She has worked in the vehicle repair and maintenance industry since 2008.

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