A Postcard from the Leading Edge of Trucking
Nearly 20 years ago, in another magazine life, I had a couple of almost abusive letters about something I’d written. Folks called my story a waste of time. My skin’s grown thicker with experience, but I could take it. I actually invite and enjoy opposing views because they act like a sort of rudder, forcing me to clarify my direction, my thinking. And yes, sometimes forcing me to change my mind.
But I was shocked to get this response, so you’d think the story in question was about something controversial, right? Deregulation, perhaps? Rates? Owner-operator politics?
Nope. It was about a day I spent riding and driving with a Finnish logger in the woods near Tampere, a couple of hours north of Helsinki. His name was Hannu Mikkola, I think, and he spoke no English, which matched my mastery of his own tongue exactly (aside from a couple of things I’d been taught to say to women in bars, which didn’t work well at all, but that’s another story).
Nonetheless, we had a great day — in minus-45-degree weather — pulling sticks out of the boonies and over to the mill, hitting a truckstop in the middle of snowy nowhere for lunch. Wisely, he didn’t let me drive his top-heavy loaded truck — a Sisu cabover with, surprisingly, Cummins 400 power and a Fuller 13 — but I took the wheel later and had a blast on those skinny, high-crowned, packed-snow backroads.
My story was a simple two-pager about my day as a Finnish logger, and I thought Canadian truckers would enjoy seeing how things were done 3,000-plus miles away. It was innocuous, but it engendered such anger in at least a few readers. Why was I wasting their time on foreign crap?
What a dumb response. I don’t think I’d get the same reaction now, which is just as well, because I predict that you’re going to be reading more and more about things in Europe, Scandinavia, and Asia, possibly even South America. In this magazine and probably others, you’ll find a reflection of the increasingly global nature of trucks and maybe trucking itself. It’s inescapable, and it’s neither a good thing or a bad thing. It just is.
This has been clear for a few years now, led by European ownership of key truck makers in North America and links of varying sorts between tier-one component suppliers like ArvinMeritor on this side of the pond and ZF or WABCO on the other. Look at Volvo’s VN and now the company’s VNL, derived from the company’s FH cabover and its recent overseas replacement. The FH is the bread-and-butter truck for Volvo — everywhere but here. North Americans demand conventionals for some reason. But the trucks are substantially the same under the covers.
With the cost of product development in the stratosphere, manufacturers need economies of scale, and that means making products that can be used all over the world. Nowhere is this more obvious than with bigger-bore diesel engines. Thankfully, emissions regs and the timeline for progressively stricter standard are only a little different in Europe than they are here, and the work these engines do is no easier in the Alps than in the Rockies. The result will be, and we’re nearly there already, “world” engines that are essentially the same in Calgary and Cracow.
And that might just mean, for example, that truck management and fleet maintenance practices — do I mean “habits”? — start to merge. I’m guessing that folks on the two sides of the Atlantic could increasingly profit from knowing what the other is doing. For example, think about the tachograph. We wrestle with logbooks, having dispensed with tach cards long ago, but they’re still profitably in use across the big pond. How come they work there? The issues aren’t all that different.
Technologies that interest me most in this context are transmissions, brakes, and electronic controls in general. In Europe, the automated, two-pedal transmission is routine, as are disc brakes. Nowadays, electronic braking — EBS — is almost routine over there, while regulatory issues and misconceptions have kept EBS and other advances off the agenda here.
It’s a shame. Link the engine, gearbox, and brakes together electronically and you can defy the laws of gravity and prevent rollovers, for instance. Add active suspension to the mix and you’ve got real gains in safety and performance.
I find it all pretty compelling. If I have to go to Europe to find the leading edge, that’s what I’m going to do, as often as I can, and you’ll read about it here. Just don’t send me angry e-mails when I wax poetic about how things are done in Helsinki.
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