Over the past decade, the pace of technological change in trucking has been breathtaking, as we’ve reported. Today’s commercial vehicles are rolling off the assembly lines boasting standard and optional features that would have been unthinkable on pre-21st century vehicles.
The proliferation of technology has penetrated almost every aspect of truck design. In the cab we see Bluetooth systems that allow drivers to safely talk on the phone and GPS systems that provide guaranteed directions to the next stop. Under the hood we have computer-controlled integrated power-trains and high-pressure common-rail fuel injection systems.
Trucks are turning into the robots of the road, with an ever-increasing ability to almost think for themselves. This push into technology is reaching such unprecedented levels that several manufacturers are testing “driverless” trucks. While in many cases this has been a boon to the industry, in others fleet managers are pushing back.
When Is Technology Too Much?
The most glaring problem with this rampant innovation is the skyrocketing truck prices. All the new technology found on today’s commercial vehicles comes with a very literal price.
Many manufacturers blame government regulations for the climbing cost of truck technologies, and rightfully so. Engines and emissions systems are pressure to reach goals set out by government mandates. The cost of developing these systems can run into the hundreds of millions of dollars in research and development costs.
At the same time, leaps in advanced technologies found on the truck of today are stressing the trucking industry’s service and support network, a network already suffering from a severe technician shortage.
There simply aren’t enough technicians at either fleets or dealerships to manage repairs, upgrades, recalls, and in-depth computing issues. These problems might eventually lead to a technology backlash.
Are We Seeing Reverse Innovation?
It’s no secret that truck reliability is at an extremely low level. Any time new technologies are introduced to machines as complicated as a commercial truck, there’s bound to be problems.
In many cases these problems range from total breakdowns to unknown sensors constantly failing. When something in the electrical system goes bad, sometimes the computer won’t even let the truck run.
As a result, the advent of lower-cost trucks, especially in the medium-duty markets, remains a real possibility. It’s possible we may see some ‘reverse innovation’ take place. This could be a market disruptor.
Several major players in the North American commercial vehicle market are already building and selling dependable, lower-cost trucks for emerging markets around the world. A couple such examples are Volvo and Daimler. They already know how to build these vehicles and understand that there’s a large market for them, one that could begin including the United States.
Offshore manufacturers are also seeing potential in the nascent low-end American truck market. That may be good news for medium-duty flees looking for alternatives to expensive high-tech rigs.
Unfortunately, because of the specific role long-haul fleets play in the North American supply chain, it’s far more likely that the push for more low-tech options will not penetrate long-haulers. Instead it’s likely they will be limited to municipal and vocational applications.
It’s easy to forget that all this new technology has real benefits for today’s fleets. Despite any reliability issues, modern trucks are more environmentally-friendly and fuel-efficient than any trucks that have come before them. They are also safer and provide a greater level of comfort and productivity for truck drivers.
Whether American fleets end up turning to simpler, more low-cost trucks remains to be seen. It’s predicted that the price for Class 8 new trucks will increase further this year by another $10,000 to $15,000. The cost picture also remains clouded by an ever-changing regulatory environment and persistent employment squeeze. What form the truck of the future takes remains to be seen.