Baling wire and duct tape used to fix just about anything on a truck. I’m not sure that was ever actually true, but it does paint a picture of how things once were. This was a rough and ready game, full of characters who would take enormous risks — in hindsight — to get the job done. If the engine was still pulling, that truck was ready to go.
I’m reminded of a startling moment many years ago when I met a first-time owner-operator — and his brand new Peterbilt — in the yard of a major western carrier. A veteran, and in his late 50s at the time, he’d been driving all his life. The man was a pro and he exuded the confidence that a lot of miles will bring.
As a youngish journalist still pretty new to trucks and trucking, I was impressed by this guy. He was given to telling tales of life on the road and I was happy to listen. We did the interview in the cab of his truck, still parked in the yard an hour or so before he was due to pull out on his nightly run to Regina, me riding shotgun with a notebook on my knee.
“Ever heard of prairie cruise control?” he asked me at one point well into our chat.
“Nope,” I said, not sure what was coming next.
Then he reached down beside his air-ride seat and pulled out a piece of two-by-four wood maybe two feet long with a couple of notches cut out of it. I quickly understood where he was headed even before he bent down and wedged the wood between throttle pedal and seat frame. Cruise control indeed.
“Neat, eh?” he said, looking up at me. “Works like a charm.”
It probably did work, and he probably made many miles on his nightly run across the empty prairie without incident. In spite of the huge risk that this baling-wire-and-duct-tape sort of solution represented, a risk he just didn’t seem to see. It doesn’t take much imagination to envision a situation where, with his throttle jammed open at 100 clicks, he couldn’t move the wood out of the way quickly enough to avoid some sort of catastrophe.
Needless to say, I didn’t write about this in the story that was subsequently published. But I sure haven’t forgotten it either. And not surprisingly, it crossed my mind late last fall at the DaimlerChrysler test track in Papenburg, Germany. Once again I was in the passenger seat of a truck, but there was certainly no crudely cut wood to be seen.
I was hurtling along at 80 km/h in a cabover equipped with the automatic Emergency Braking System, optional on the Mercedes-Benz Actros tractor in Europe as of this month. It spotted a little A-class car sitting stationary in our lane, warned the driver, and with no human reaction forthcoming, stopped the truck without him just in time.
Later I sat beside another driver, watching him back a container-chassis trailer around a 90-degree bend and under the box — without a hand on the steering wheel. He was working a joystick that simply guided the trailer, the actual precision steering being done electronically with the aid of proximity sensors and on-board video cameras. He watched his progress on a big LCD screen on the dashboard.
Amazing in both cases, of course, but after many trips to European test tracks over the years, I’ve come to expect such wizardry. Call me jaded.
Reflecting on the differences between prairie cruise control and its modern equivalent, a couple of thoughts leap to the fore. One is that I’m attracted to ingenuity, like all of us, and envious of people who can devise such solutions to everyday challenges. Even the two-by-four, crude as it was, held a certain elegance in its misguided simplicity.
There’s nothing even vaguely simple about the Mercedes-Benz automatic panic stop technology, but that got me thinking about how poorly we manage what is truly straightforward — the foundation brakes on top of which such systems will work. Let’s face it, as an industry we don’t even know how to keep S-cam brakes in adjustment. There’s ample evidence to show that we, as a group, don’t deal with brakes well at all. And collectively, we can’t be ready for the highest of high tech solutions if we still haven’t mastered a simple technology that we’ve been working with for decades.
So I have to ask, in day-to-day terms, how far beyond baling wire and duct tape have we actually come?
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