What will the future truck look like?

Can truck design become a significant tool in attracting a new generation of drivers? We got a better glimpse into that future this year than we have in some time. Question is, are we headed in the right direction?

To me that future looks a lot different than the past. If the traditional box-shaped, low-tech, big power and fuel efficiency be damned design is what you crave, then I don’t think you will like what the future holds. If streamlined, high-tech, ergonomic, slipstream design turns your crank then I think you will. The truck of the future will look and feel a lot less like a tank and a lot more like a high-performance airplane.

Walmart stretched our imagination at the start of the year with the Walmart Advanced Vehicle Experience or WAVE vehicle, a collaboration between the retailer, Peterbilt, Great Dane Trailers, and Capstone Turbine. The fact that Peterbilt, perhaps the brand most commonly associated with the traditional box-shaped design many drivers have come to love over the years, was involved perhaps is telling about where things are going.

Much of the new design elements, such as the hybrid powertrain and convex-nosed trailer constructed from carbon fibre, are aimed towards greatly improving fuel efficiency.

But the inside of the cab completely reinvents the current driver workspace with a centred driver’s seat, and an electronic dashboard with customizable gauges and performance data. The driver becomes the focal point of a much more technically sophisticated vehicle. But it also requires a future driver who is comfortable with and willing to be the focal point of much more intelligent machinery.

And then this summer Daimler Trucks demonstrated a truck which truly resembles the piloting of a commercial airliner. Daimler’s first autonomous truck drives itself much of the time. Many of the technologies that make up the truck are already commercially available safety systems.

The self-driving trucks can be operated on existing road infrastructure, provided lane markings are clearly visible. The truck is smart enough to respond to disabled vehicles parked on the shoulder of the road, to navigate stop-and-go traffic without driver intervention and to cruise at highway speeds of up to 85 km/h.

Certain maneuvers require the driver to take over, including overtaking other vehicles but it’s expected at least 50% of the time an autonomous truck would operate without any driver involvement at all.

So if drivers of the future can be excused from a good half of the driving, what would they do with their time? They can use their seat time to perform other work duties that have traditionally been handled by office staff, according to Daimler, such as invoicing, planning deliveries and arranging future loads. Like the WAVE concept vehicle, it requires a driver who is attracted to a job that is much different than today’s driving job.

In other words, technology already available today has the potential to radically change the driving profession. Is this the forward step the industry has been struggling to take to make the driving profession more attractive? I would love to hear from you on that, particularly from younger drivers. You can e-mail me your thoughts at lou@transportationmedia.ca. Also be sure to check out pg. 26 for a driver’s perspective on self-driving trucks.

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With more than 25 years of experience reporting on transportation issues, Lou is one of the more recognizable personalities in the industry. An award-winning writer well known for his insightful writing and meticulous market analysis, he is a leading authority on industry trends and statistics.

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