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The Age Of The Smart Trailer Has Arrived

Smart highways. Semi-autonomous trucks. Platoons of communicating rigs. What’s next for trucking? Try smart trailers.

Let’s face it, from a historical perspective, trailers don’t typically have much expected of them. They are designed to carry the load with little fanfare, but maximum efficiency. In some cases, they are built to specific specifications in order to haul whatever commodity they are designed for in that application.

Although trailers can be made very rugged, being able to resist corrosion and such, they still are relatively dumb where smart equipment is concerned. But those days may be long gone.

Tomorrow’s Trailer

Consider temperature-controlled trailers. Reefers are decked out with several sensors that allow for complex temperature monitoring to prevent perishables from going bad.

Innovation in this space is leading to new technologies and methods. Thermo King is now developing even more advanced sensors and other control systems designed to protect loads to the tenth of a degree. They can also run self-tests prior to their next run.

Even more, advanced reefer units can communicate with headquarters and record and document temperatures along the way. Real-time numbers can be provided instantaneously. When combined with big data analytics, this type of information can yield real-world results.

Telematics have made a big splash in the trucking industry, providing advanced ways to both track and disseminate information regarding truck driver behavior and other load-related information.

With Security in Mind

These advanced new trailer technologies allow for instantaneous communication with home base, and provide truck and dispatch operators a way to know what’s happening with the trailers in real-time.

Many of you have likely heard of Omnitrac trailers. These pioneers of trailer technology allow for a small satellite antenna to be attached to a trailers roof.

This device would transmit information back to home base instantaneously. They can even be doubled as GPS tracking devices were the trailer to be stolen. Considering they can be placed almost anywhere on the trailer, hidden from view if necessary, it isn’t hard to see how trailer security is greatly improved.

Another feature that enhances security are simple door sensors. If an operator makes an unplanned stop and opens the trailer doors, the device sends a signal back to home office. Might someone be trying to steal the load? If the truck driver is unresponsive, home office would then immediately call law enforcement.

Across-the-Board Advances

As the trailer sector has matured, Omnitracs and other manufacturers have moved into a similar space. From pinpointing a trailer’s exact location to throwing a solar panel onto the roof, there’s a ton of different ways OEMs are innovating.

Not only is trailer tracking great for mitigating theft, but it allows fleet managers to better manage equipment productivity. More and more fleets are holding on to their trailers for a greater amount of time, so it’s only logical that they would want their equipment to provide them with an analysis of how long that trailer sat at a dock or outside in the yard.

Advances in suspension technology allow new air suspension systems to lower at highway speeds, thus reducing frontal drag and ticking off another tenth or two in fuel efficiency. Consider that OPEC is trying to raise fuel prices, and there’s every reason why fleets want to become more efficient.

These technologies allow fleets to get more use out of their trailers, enhancing productivity while minimizing costs. When comparing maintenance costs with trailers of the regular variety, fleets see real savings.

The fact is, the landscape is changing, and just as we may see a major shift in infrastructure and truck technology, so trailers are likely to follow.

An Update On Nikola Motor’s Advanced Class 8 Concept

As we reported on in 2016, Nikola Motors has unveiled their advanced hydrogen-electric semi-truck concept. Based out of Salt Lake City, the company promises to offer 800 to 1,200 miles on a charge and generate up to 1,000 horsepower.

Nikola also claims that the vehicle will operate at half the cost of a comparable diesel vehicle. Equipped with regenerative braking and other advanced features, the truck will also generate up to 2,000 feet of torque, which will allow it to accelerate under full load much faster than a traditional diesel truck.

With vehicle deliveries set for 2020, the company promises to eventually pump out 50,000 trucks a year. And now, with a new announcement, Nikola is stating that they will support chassis recycling.

Use and Use Again

On December 1st and 2nd the company held a press conference detailing their plan to utilize a chassis recycling system and were asked a good number of questions by people in the audience who said they were either owner operators or owners of small fleets.

As Nikola owner Trevor Milton said during the session, “We will have a cab replacement program so the truck can be reutilized over and over again,” he said.

Essentially this means the entire chassis will be reutilized over and over because the frame, batteries, electric motors and other components will be durable and long-lived. The chassis would be replaced at around half a million to a million miles. At that point it would be sold on into the secondary market.

Advantages to the Concept

New cabs coming off the line could be equipped with the latest electronic equipment designed to enhance safety and vehicle operations. These would include security and autonomous driving systems. When the chassis is replaced, it will come with new components added.

Nikola themselves would control this process because Nikola foresees most these units as being leased out from the company themselves. Fleets or owner-operators would hold them for 72 months and then swap them out.

As the chassis wears, the components will be removed and given life in other applications. The lithium-ion batteries can be reused for home energy storage and integrate with current solar-panel systems. The energy generated during the day can be stored for use at night.

It’s All About the Batteries

There’s a secret to long life for these batteries, and that’s keeping them at a constant temperature. This will be done on the truck by surrounding the batteries with an electric grid housed in a refrigerated jacket.

Depending on the ambient temperature outside, the system will actively keep the batteries cool. They work their best at minus 40 degrees, and the system should be able to maintain them at that temperature.

Milton says that by doing this, you extend their life from 100,000 miles to 500,000 miles or more. During the conference, he stated that he was “a big believer in building something that lasts a long time.”

Other Concerns

One person queried how secure the batteries were. Milton replied that stealing them was highly unlikely, equating it to trying to steal the engine out of a traditional diesel. The batteries themselves weigh, as he put it, “thousands and thousands of pounds.”

Others asked about how the hydrogen tanks would stand up in a collision. Milton responded that they are extremely strong, quoting them as “bullet proof” and said they could resist strikes by rounds as large as .30-06 caliber.

Even fuel taxes were brought up, with Milton stating they had even thought of that, developing a model where taxes, and perhaps other operating expenses, can all be included in the price.

Still, questions remain, from the fueling infrastructure to maintaining public interest. Still, chassis swapping and other potential benefits to this new technology remain intriguing.

Is Amazon Trying To Build Its Own Shipping Network?

Amazon has been moving into managing how its products get from the warehouse to the customer’s door. Their latest involves building their own logistics and delivery network.

Word is they are developing an app that closely resembles something like Uber, but would in this case match truck drivers with cargo. Per sources, Amazon has been on a hiring spree and is looking to next summer as a potential roll out date.

The app itself would integrate several aspects of getting freight to its final destination, from pricing to routes and trucker-specific information. Need truck stop options? Amazon’s app will provide them.

As of late, Amazon has used their decentralized trucking infrastructure to make a broader push into handling their own shipping. Could this mean they may eventually compete with – or take business from – companies like FedEx and UPS?

Where else might Amazon be moving into a new direction?

Drone Delivery

Amazon recently revealed that in certain cases drones will be able to deliver products to customers within 30 minutes. Rather than using a truck, Amazon would move the packages between fulfillment center and customer by drone.

Drone delivery would essentially allow the company to provide on-demand delivery of items within a certain geographic area. Rather than waiting days for an item, Amazon could deliver it within a half-hour.

Of course, this method is not without logistical, practical and regulatory challenges. Whether it be governing drone movement or handling lost packages, there are special considerations to be made for this method.

Branded Trucks

Amazon’s intentions should be clear at this point. It plans to expand control over its shipping resources though moves like deploying thousands of branded tractor trailer trucks.

This is great news for those worried that drones might lead to job losses. The trucks would be used to carry out deliveries much the same way a contracted motor carrier would. These wouldn’t be driverless autonomous trucks. Yet still, Amazon is suddenly a fleet unto itself.

Interestingly, brick-and-mortar retailers are taking notice. Target has announced plans to partner with an on-demand grocery delivery service while Walmart toys with ways to accelerate delivery times to consumers.

Air Cargo Network

Not to be deterred at the idea of taking over its own land travel, Amazon has moved into leasing its own planes. The move could only mean the company intends to create its own air cargo network.

Through their fulfillment arm, Amazon Fulfillment Services, Amazon has reportedly signed the 20 leases for somewhere between five and seven years. Dave Clark, Amazon’s senior vice president of worldwide operations and customer service recently said that the move would “ensure air cargo capacity to support one and two-day delivery for customers.”

Amazon’s Imperative

Consider that Amazon spent over $8.7 billion on shipping costs in 2015, and it’s no surprise the company is making these moves. If they can create their own multi-level shipping network, they can eliminate much of these costs.

While some may wonder if Amazon can complete this Herculean task, others point to their efforts in cloud computing, where they’ve turned their vast network of servers into a vital asset. Could Amazon shipping services become a business in its own right?

Others worry Amazon’s efforts may lead to trucking industry job losses, their CFO Brian Olsavsky was recently quoted saying the company is “adding more logistics to supplement existing shipping options, and it’s not meant to replace them.”

Still, there are questions. What would Amazon’s move into managing its own shipping do to companies operating at trucking’s periphery? Certainly, this is a question left for the future to answer.

Trucking Technology Has Gone Global

When it comes to large truck manufacturers, the adage holds true: Think globally, act locally. The fact is components from engines to drive trains come from just about anywhere in the world today. No matter where you look, trucking is a globally interconnected industry. But does that mean we shouldn’t be thinking locally?

As automotive manufacturers and related industries become increasingly intertwined, consolidation has swept through the industry. Now, across the globe, massive corporate entities design, sell and distribute products.

Meanwhile, research and development costs continue to rise. Combined with increasing regulations, and global OEMS need to increasingly coordinate their global products platform solutions.

Yet would you believe that heavy-duty commercial trucks sold in North America are quite different from their European counterparts? Few can agree on what the idea of a “global truck” should be.

What is a Global Truck?

To most, a global truck is one that can meet standards and needs of markets across the world. These advanced machines would leverage technologies developed on a global scale, but would still be able to benefit specific markets without compromising design.

From a truck manufacturer’s perspective, a global truck is all about working with common architectures and shared technologies. These are systems and processes shared the world over. Shared lessons can be learned about safety and technique.

Still, some wonder whether it’s possible to build a global truck, able to meet the needs of all markets without compromising on design or suitability. Could we still be quite a long way from a global truck?

Markets are Different

While we are quite familiar with our home market, the dynamics are very different the world over. When we talk “globally,” we are referring to many OEMs making different vehicle types designed for markets with specific emissions standards.

For many, this means that the different needs of each region could hobble the process. Varying regulations and standards make bad bedfellows for identical solutions.

Many point to the problem of how complex juggling these conflicting global demands really will be. Could meeting the needs of these various markets really be possible in the present environment? After all, these parts will need to be designed to meet the needs of each market without compromising on local need.

Where it Makes a Difference

In areas where this global trend could prove a positive development could be where large-scale manufacturing processes reign supreme, such as engine and heavy-duty component makers. These guys don’t need to reinvent the wheel, they merely need to refine their manufacturing techniques.

Engine manufacturing technology and techniques can be shared across the board, and it can make the most difference where local requirements put pressure on the concept of a global truck.

Globalized manufacturing techniques allow for truck technology to adapt to the needs of the market. Let’s face it, developing this stuff costs a lot of money. Being able to put it on the shelf and utilize it within several different business units could make a big difference to a fleet’s bottom line.

When industry players can more easily bring specific products to market through leveraging global techniques or equipment, a network of experience and resources to draw upon could prove to be a huge asset.

So, when one thinks of a global truck, perhaps it’s better to view it less to build the perfect truck for everyone and more like a way for OEMs, suppliers and other industry participants to leverage their knowledge and engineering capabilities for the betterment of all processes. This isn’t about opening borders or increasing global trade, it’s about a specific industry working with itself for the betterment of itself.

The Evolution Of The Wheel For Trucking Companies

As everyone talks about tires and powertrains, there’s one aspect of a vehicle that often gets overlooked; it languishes as an afterthought, long taken for granted and seldom given attention: the wheel.

And yet without the wheel’s ubiquitous presence not only would the supply chain not exist, but modern transportation itself would never have happened, or it would at least look entirely different. And yet, considering it was invented nearly 6,000 years ago, might it be high time to finally, dare we say, reinvent the wheel?

While many a motor carrier simply slaps the wheel on and forgets about it, smart fleet technicians know that when it comes to your wheels, a little maintenance can go a long way. Indeed, properly maintained wheels have a long life to live. Let’s take a closer look at what you’ve got to work with.

Wheel Choice

Wheels available on the market today include steel and aluminum varieties. Depending on the application, each variety carries with its own pros and cons.

While steel wheels are generally less expensive than their aluminum counterparts, they are heavier and tend to require a bit more maintenance. When fleets are looking at their sustainability options, adding weight can be a problem.

Consider that aluminum wheels can now come in at around 45 pounds per wheel, and it’s no surprise that when motor carriers go green, they are increasingly ditching steel. When you add up 15 pounds of unit weight across an entire vehicle, then multiply that across the entire fleet, the savings is huge.

Add in the option to forge and heat-treat the wheels, and modern fleets are afforded a significant advantage when it comes to wheel selection, type, variation and application. The payoffs come in the form of lower fuel costs, better control over the maintenance process and a greater polish in the aesthetic.

Weight is important because when wheels weigh less, a truck can haul more for less. This leads to a decrease in overall operating costs through both freight efficiency and better fuel economy.

Steel isn’t All Bad

Still, don’t think of steel as some big bad wheel wolf. Although they do require more maintenance, a good fleet technician will be able to spot problems and keep them maintained with little hassle. When it comes to wheels, a little proactivity can go a long way.

The most important part of running steel wheels is to ensure they are clean, with any excess dirt or road debris removed. Flotsam rattling around a wheel can damage bolted joints. Additionally, if there is any dirt or debris on a mounting surface, the torque wrench may not provide an accurate reading.

Also, pay close attention to the lug nuts after installing new wheels. You’ll want to retorque them somewhere between 10 and 50 miles after initially putting the new wheels on. OF course, ensure you are checking the torque continually at regular intervals.

So, consider keeping these maintenance items in mind, and it isn’t unheard of – indeed is likely – that steel wheels can last anywhere from 15 to 20 years, no problem.

In the end, where aluminum wheels really hold the edge in lower maintenance costs is in their corrosion resistance and easy-to-clean surfaces. Some OEMs even offer proprietary, patented surfaces that are incredibly corrosion-resistant and can be cleaned with nothing more than mild soap and water.

The Future Wheel

Where the wheels of the future will make themselves known is in the sensor arena. Today’s wheels are entering the information age.

Sensor systems will survive within the intense environment that is the wheel cavity and collect vital operating data and information. Everything from static to dynamic load information will be read and transmitted by the wheel.

Ten years from now, futuristic wheels will play a vital safety role. As the future of trucking evolves, expect oft-overlooked truck components like wheels to get looked at with a fresh set of eyes.

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