Opinion: Trucking ahead of four wheelers in the tech race
June was an interesting month. I spent more time than usual researching and eventually writing about advanced technologies, those with us now and those that may be coming soon. Frankly, I seem to do little else these days.
Not for the first time, I came to the conclusion that trucking is way ahead of the four-wheeler industry in terms of forming the future. I mean, in terms of sensibly conceiving how we might incorporate things like electrification and autonomy into everyday operations. The automotive world is full of outrageous claims, like Uber declaring a couple of years ago that it would produce 75,000 autonomous cars by 2019. Not even close. Now it says it will take 50 years for all Uber cars to be autonomous.
The same outlandish notions are being uttered about the rate of plug-in electric car acceptance. Sales in that sector are actually falling in North America, if not in Europe or China. Tesla’s global sales are something like 30% off last year, for instance. In fact, electric cars still represent a tiny niche and I think it will stay that way for quite a while.
Trucking is not without its optimistic predictions along those lines, and I still don’t buy some of them, but our progress is more deliberate and more surefooted. And I think our technologies, many of them derived from cars ironically, are actually being better implemented. Not least because we can more readily fit a given technology into the right application. But we’re a practical bunch anyway, and if it doesn’t make commercial sense, it just ain’t going to get traction. Can’t say that about the wild and woolly car world.
In the middle of the month I spent a couple of days with some of ZF’s brightest engineering minds at the Transportation Research Center in Ohio. As well as a new transmission, the company was showing off its latest advanced driver assistance systems, components of what are really semi-autonomous trucks available now. I spent time at the wheel trying out this latest gizmology and was duly impressed.
Speaking with a couple of those ZF engineers in a little private chat, I asked if trucks were more advanced in these terms than cars. I wasn’t surprised when they responded with an enthusiastic and unanimous “yes”.
Then I spent a day at the absolute opposite end of the techno spectrum.
Late June saw me at the Antique and Classic Truck Show in Clifford, Ont., with 300 or so old trucks – and maybe 2,000 people, the vast majority of them real truckers without a hint of artifice. They reminded me why I love our industry. It’s changing, sad to say, but at its core it’s still comprehensively down to earth. The people who still run it are for the most part pragmatists of the first order, not far removed from the folks who launched it decades ago. Daughters and sons in a lot of cases, many of them doing better than dad (and frequently mom, in the not-far-removed background). We all know operations in which four generations of a family play or have played integral roles.
It’s always a pleasure to spend time at such events, with people who actually know how to work a 5-and-4 transmission (I tried once, failed) and whose faces light up when they see a 60-year-old Diamond Reo, restored or not. These guys and these trucks are the very foundation of our business, but about as far removed from today’s electronic magic as you could get.
Yet their approach to trucking is still with us. The basic job is plain and simple just as it’s always been – move the freight, or haul the logs, or do whatever the work may be as efficiently as possible. We’ll buy the technology if it advances that goal.
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