Sometimes a simple idea is a bad idea, and no amount of regulation or hard work can turn it into a good one. Five years ago federal regulators had a simple idea: Since trailers were getting ABS, drivers should get a warning light right on the dash to let them know if it wasn't working. After all, every car, truck and tractor with ABS had an in-cab warning light; why shouldn't there be one for the trailer as well?
Everyone in trucking told them why their simple idea wasn't so simple. The only electrical bridge between tractors and trailers is a cable with seven wires, all dedicated to delivering electrical power to the tractor. There was no room for a communications channel back from the trailer.
The government's answer was to add a second wiring system, with its own connector and cable, to carry the ABS message from the trailer to the light on the dash. The simple idea began the slide down the slippery slope of “just fix it.”
When fleets howled about the cost and complexity of trying to add a second connector just to light a light, the feds made a concession of sorts to common sense. As a stopgap, the warning light could be put on the trailer where a driver could see it in a rear-view mirror, and the industry had five years to figure out an acceptable way to light the light in the cab.
Given no other choice, OEMs and their brake suppliers set out to find a way to satisfy customers and the government. A number of proposals were floated and, as the clock ticked, a consensus was reached to adopt an industry-wide system that would send the ABS message over the trailer's power line. Called PLC4TRUCKS, the system used a specially designed chip in the trailer ABS controller and tractor brake system to code and decode the message.
Other problems came up, but work-arounds were devised and all seemed ready to meet the March 1, 2001, deadline for the in-cab light.
But bad ideas have a way of defying solution. The special chip was designed with the help of an engineer who just last October was awarded a patent on his design. He wants to be paid for the right to use his work, and the courts have backed him up. But no one can agree on how much is fair and who should pay it.
The chip maker stopped shipping the chip to ABS manufacturers, but the government says it won't extend the deadline because this is now a business issue, not a technical hurdle. For fleets, who'll bear the cost of whatever royalty payment is negotiated, the problem is that they could end up with two connectors if the parties can't reach an agreement. In the long run, that would be far more expensive for them.
The irony here is that the in-cab light is unnecessary and actually inferior to the trailer-mounted warning light. That light not only alerts a truck driver to an ABS problem, but also gives highway patrols a way to quickly recognize a system failure.
No matter what the final outcome, we have a minor safety issue devolving into an expensive, divisive battle that negatively impacts all involved — because regulators wouldn't give up on what they conceived of as a simple idea.