New trucks and old wisdom will keep drivers safer

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The technology of trucking has changed vastly in the last few decades. I would even suggest that there have been more technological changes since the mid 1990s than there were between the dawn of the horseless carriage and the 1980s.

While drivetrains and cab comforts evolved with each passing year, many improvements still took quite a lot of time to reach the industry at an affordable price. It’s fascinating to see the things available in vehicles of the 1940s and 1950s that were far ahead of their time.

It begs the question, “Why did they not take hold until decades later?” My theory is that engineers saw the promise of what could be, but the durability and ease of use weren’t available.

evolving technology
(Illustration: istock)

There is also the idea that some improvements were not accepted because they were not deemed to be manly enough. I don’t know how else to put it.

Think of the argument about transmissions. Many proclaimed that an automatic would never work in a pickup in harsh environments. They needed a stick shift to do their job! Now it’s uncommon to find a standard in a pickup.

Automated transmissions and the skills gap

The same experience applies to Class 8 vehicles. Now you need to pay extra to spec’ a manual transmission.

Some of the first automated transmissions were pretty lousy, of course, but today they are more reliable than manual transmissions. Clutches were once torn out on a regular basis by lousy drivers. Gears were mashed, and differentials also took the brunt of “find ‘em and grind ‘em” steering wheel holders.

A good driver is still the best way to cut down on driveline repairs, but such drivers are harder to find nowadays. The technological improvements have had the unintended consequence of creating the skills gap.

Which brings up the next point. Crawling up a hill and sailing down the other side with an engine brake that did little more than make noise, combined with small drum brakes, made for elevated blood pressure and sweaty palms back in the day. Skid marks in your shorts from a tense trip off a mountain made you a lot more careful on the next one.

Better systems, complacent drivers

Large drums, better air systems, disc brakes, and engine retarders that actually work, have made drivers more complacent — until it’s too late. Unfortunately, the driver is blamed for not knowing what could happen in such situations. They’re a victim of successful technology.

The same technology that isolates the driver from the road also isolates the driver from knowing what is happening between his tires and the road. He or she may think everything is great until they try to stop or turn. Then they’re calling for a tow truck. Or worse.

Old bias ply tires on split rims rode like they were made of the same material as hockey pucks. You knew for a fact that you better be careful. Today’s tires with siping, low rolling resistance, and self-clearing treads have been fantastic — but it’s also good to remember we carry more weight than the past.

As technology evolves, driver habits need to evolve as well. Think of an old Detroit engine that you ran up to 2,200 rpm and compare it to the newer models where you never exceed 1,500 rpm. Habits need to change.

Exposing driver trainees to controlled “oh-shit” moments also offer an invaluable way to prevent uncontrolled crashes.

I wouldn’t want to return to old technology, but we all need to remember the physics of trucking. New technology, when combined with old wisdom, will keep drivers safer.

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David Henry is a longhaul driver, Bell Let's Talk representative and creator/cohost of the Crazy Canuck Truckin podcast. His passion is mental health and presenting a better image for trucking to the public.

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  • Great article David, we can’t go backwards as you point out but we can train for the new reality. Spend the time upfront or spend it later cleaning up the mess.

  • It’s my opinion automatic transmissions have enabled individuals who haven’t the skill set to drive a truck to do so.
    I’ve lost count of how many of these people I’ve seen on their sides in the ditch or tandem tandem units spun out on hills where loaded super b’s climb over with out chains or have almost been hit head on while one of them are on my side flying around a curve running 30 km too fast. My best guess all automatic !
    Lack of training and the mandated need to drive regardless of how one feels, weather/road conditions is our industry’s main safety concern

    Without a complete overhaul of the driver training industry and a driver having some discretion as to how they manage their time the carnage on our highways will continue

  • New Trucks Old Wisdom – perfectly said. If government can get on board and develop a “real” training program for new drivers, we can move to safer roads. “Real” training would be over the course of months/years similar to an apprenticeship program…