Pining for the simpler truck

by Mark Lee

I was having a conversation with a friend recently about spec’ing the perfect truck. We both bought our trucks from stock, so our involvement was nothing more than picking the best of the bunch. But next time around, if we had a clean sheet, what would we choose? Our ideas turned out to be very different.

We would both stick with the marquee we run now and we would both have disc brakes, but that is about all we agreed on. My friend said he would go for the big condo cab, whereas I would prefer the mid-roof as I like the versatility it gives. Since I’m very happy with my current carrier, it may be the next owner of the truck that benefits from the added versatility.

I also like the slightly smaller cab as it’s less space to heat and cool in APU-free zones.

My friend would go with an automated manual transmission. I want a 13-speed manual. Even though I miss the AMT in my other truck, I like the lack of complexity in the old-fashioned way of doing it.

I want a double overdrive, but my friend would go with a direct top set-up. I want a 6×4 with full lockers, my friend would go 6×2. A lot of this is a result of the different work we do. If I was doing his job, I would tick the same boxes as he would (with the exception of the AMT, I would still take the 13-speed).

As I said, I miss the manual in my other truck. I’m no luddite, I just happen to think that there’s a whole lot of sensors and electronic magic involved in replacing my left leg, right arm and my eyes and ears.

It was at this point in the discussion that I really started to think about things a little deeper.

I’ve been driving trucks since 1986. When I first started out, I had trucks from the ’70s. There have been constant developments in trucks since then and comparing a ’70s truck to a 2016 truck is like comparing a single engine bi-plane to the space shuttle in terms of complexity. But maybe not when it comes to productivity.

Fuel economy has got better, no doubt about that, but not by much. You don’t have to try so hard to get good mpg in a new truck, but that’s relative anyway, because not many people tried to get good mpg in the ’70s through the ’90s. Better manufacturing methods and better materials have made engines last longer before they need major work, but there are far more things to go wrong on a new truck and newer trucks see the inside of a workshop far more often than older trucks did. And I’m not just talking about problems with the emissions control systems – that’s a whole other story.

I’m talking about completely unnecessary things like electrically adjustable mirrors, climate control systems, electric windows and those types of things. Sure, they’re nice to have – they’re luxury items and we all like to be spoiled – but do they have a place in a truck? I don’t think so. There is more wiring in the door of a 2016 truck than there was on an entire truck from the ’70s, with the exception of the wiring to the dash gauges.

My trucks even have an electronic control module for the windows and mirrors! That is far too much complexity to replace a window winder and how often do I adjust my mirrors? Every time I clean them, but that’s only because they’re electronically adjustable and the slightest touch moves them. They also shake more than a non-adjustable mirror fixed solidly to the mirror arms.

Climate control systems have a bunch of sensors and control modules. One minute they’re blowing hot air, the next cold as they try to maintain a constant in-cab temperature. I don’t know about you, but I managed just fine with a simple hot/cold lever. If I was hot, I slid it towards the blue end, if I was cold, I slid it towards the red end. It was a really simple process that didn’t require much thought or energy, yet now I have sensors, modules and half a mile of wiring doing that for me.

Electric windows are the same: modules, sensors, motors and wiring, all replacing the simple act of cranking a window winder. Then there are far more complicated things like traction control systems. Really? Are our driving skills that bad that we can’t feel a wheel start to spin and back off the throttle a little bit?

So my ideal new truck will be very different than the stuff on the lot. If a process can be achieved with a lever instead of modules, motors and wiring, then it will be. I’m only going to Alberta and back each week, not orbiting the moon, so I need a simple work horse, not a space shuttle.


A fourth generation trucker and trucking journalist, Mark Lee uses his 25 years of transcontinental trucking in Europe, Asia, North Africa and now North America to provide an alternative view of life on the road.

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  • I am so with you on this. I miss my air wipers that never failed and washer fluid that dribbled from the top of my windshield in my direct line of sight wasting considerably less fluid. The modern concept – likely not conceived by a trucker – has the fluid spray copious amounts of fluid that doesn’t reach line of sight and the aerodynamics of modern trucks lets most of it get blown to the side of the truck – washing down and freezing on the face of the mirrors.
    Have to talk about this hybridized version of -Squeaky clean trucks and if 7 mpg isn’t really just still around 7 mpg. After all, in the world of movement by combustion, it will always take a measured amount of fuel to do a measured amount of work. It’s the relative basic physics to an aircraft where only the operator, wind resistance, and weight will still be the largest mitigating factors in fuel consumption. Meaning the best we can engineer for now, static friction aside, is to emulate their shape because it’s inevitable that the natural world is still in control.
    It also begs the question in this hybridized “Renaissance,” are the environmental benefitsreal with the recycling of trucks every 5 years when these higher technologies become cost prohibitive. Have we stabilized to a final dependable product? When I listen to the array of gadgetry click away for a 12 count when I turn the ignition on and off, I have my doubts. Do these trucks end up in 2nd and 3rd world countries where they may be stripped of their pollution control technology as some mechanics have mused to me.
    Is the net effect to the environment better now than the previous model where we would drive our cars and Big trucks for many years after the purchase or does the favourable lease model of refresh intervals not also have an environmental footprint and can it even be measured? IMHO – We’re still going to make a lot of garbage until we arrive at the stability of simplicity.
    I remember the agreeable firmness of a1988 Kenworth T-600 with a 1st generation 444XT Cummins that gave us never a peep or a “beep” in 4 years of running team non- stop. The basics of tires, brake adjustments, and oil and lube service was all I can recall.