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The future of trucking is always changing

June 17, 2020
Will your kid’s trucks have all kinds of options from cleaner diesel, CNG, electric power, and hydrogen power?

We all are aware of the dramatic and even transformational technological changes that have come to the trucking industry in recent years. But frankly, this is not new.

I had the opportunity to give a virtual presentation on changes in trucking for the Mid-America Trucking Show about the changes in trucking over the past generation.

I started off by talking about your dad’s truck, which was probably a long and tall classic tractor that was probably built in the 1990s when fuel was around $1 a gallon. It had a flat hood, vertical exhaust stacks and external air cleaners. When fuel prices rose closer to $5 a gallon for those external air cleaners, it ended up costing your dad $500 to $600 to purchase and $1,500 to $2,000 in fuel,  assuming he was driving 110,000 miles a year and getting 6 mpg. Those babies caused a lot of extra aerodynamic drag. Additionally, the vertical exhaust stacks, while cool to look at, probably added another $500 to his fuel bill.

In general, your dad’s truck was 15% less efficient due to aerodynamics alone than the truck you are driving today.

More aerodynamic trucks began to be produced by the truck builders and then with the advent of emissions regulations, the stacks moved behind the cab out of the air stream which reduced drag. Today’s trucks are aerodynamic marvels with the truck makers themselves designing a sleeker truck right out of the box. We are also seeing lots of work on customizing engine-transmission combinations and setting engine parameters for improved fuel economy, so you burn less fuel.

Some of the developments that occurred as a result of the Department of Energy’s SuperTruck 1 and now 2 programs have found their way into the trucks of today, so not only are they more fuel efficient, but they are putting out less NOx and particulate emissions (PM). You all probably already know this, but it takes 70 of today’s trucks to emit the same amount of NOx and PM as one of your dad’s trucks did back in the day.

That brings me to the future. What will your kids' trucks look like? We think they will have all kinds of options from cleaner diesel to CNG to electric power to hydrogen power. These things have gone beyond the idea stage to the prototype stage and are now a matter of “when” not “if.”

We also see folks working on platooning and automation. While I can’t speculate on when we will see full automation, I know we will continue to see improvements in advanced driver assistance systems, which are the building blocks for autonomy.

We think there are a lot of solutions out there that will be available to your kids as they move into trucking.

To sum things up. The future is coming fast, and your kids' trucks might not look much like your trucks. Because of the quick pace of change, you need to stay up to date on developments in these new technologies while at the same time having a thorough understanding of your business and how you operate so you can take advantage of the technologies that make sense for you.

Talk to people whose operations are like yours and copy the things you think they are doing right. And let them copy from you. The industry will be better if each of us strives to improve.

Buy trucks and technologies with total cost of ownership in mind. Look past initial purchase price to what the asset is going to cost you over its lifetime. This is where having a thorough understanding of your own operations will come in handy.

And remember the future truck will be different. Again.

About the Author

Michael Roeth | Executive Director

Michael Roeth has worked in the commercial vehicle industry for nearly 30 years, most recently as executive director of the North American Council for Freight Efficiency (NACFE). He serves on the second National Academy of Sciences Committee on Technologies and Approaches for Reducing the Fuel Consumption of Medium and Heavy-Duty Vehicles and has held various positions in engineering, quality, sales, and plant management with Navistar and Behr/Cummins.

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