It seems like so long ago now that the federal government mandated antilock braking systems for trucking companies, and yet so much has changed since then. While fleet are generally not very excited about the prospect of a new regulation, air disc brake system decreases overall maintenance costs and inspection intervals. The time it takes to change out and adjust ABS systems is also shorter than the time it takes to install and adjust drum brakes.
Still, some truckers and trucking companies had a difficult time making an adjustment to the new technology, which is a refrain we here a lot of these days. But with electronic, computer-controlled ABS systems, ABS sensors could react to a panic stop faster than a human could. The systems were just far more effective at mitigating skids and assisting the truck driver in maintaining control of the vehicle.
This major advancement marked a new era for big rig safety, but it was only the beginning. By the early-2000s, steer sensors were being installed on ABS systems. These were the first examples of sensors and stability control systems working in tandem with the braking system. Suddenly, fully integrated control of the vehicle was possible. Fast-forward to just a few years ago, and now we are seeing active cruise control systems tied directly into the braking systems.
All About the Brakes
The one system that ties all this together is the brake system. Over the past several decades, heavy truck brake systems have evolved in tandem with just about every other system on the vehicle. Who would have thought the brakes would provide the foundation on which so many other safety systems became interconnected and evolved?
As autonomous vehicle technologies continue to become mainstream, we will see the brake systems provide the stepping stones by which further safety systems evolve. Now the question is: What will the future of brakes look like? While we may eventually see autonomous or fully-autonomous vehicles become a reality, change will likely come more incrementally.
Brake control systems of today require a stable and robust foundation with state-of-the-art sensor technologies. In fact, it is becoming more likely that technologies such as single-piston air disc brake systems eventually emerge as a critical technology in evolving the brakes of tomorrow. Like so many other systems on big trucks, braking systems are evolving in new and unseen ways.
Yet, you may be surprised to learn that air disc brakes are currently installed in only a quarter of the Class 8 trucks on the road today. As new safety regulations have been implemented, however, you can expect to see that number rise to nearly half within a few years. Air disc brakes are becoming more popular by the day, with ever more applications becoming suited to the technology. Over time, motor carriers can easily see how disc brakes provide a significant performance and maintenance advantage over drum brake systems.
Air disc brake systems bring major advantages over their traditional drum brake counterparts. While we already mentioned the advantage in maintenance, they also perform much better, with a higher torque output than drum brakes, which translates into more stopping power. And although the cost of servicing ABS systems is about 20% higher than drums, over the life of the equipment, the cost generally equals out. Air disc brakes also benefit from an increased service level.
What About the Trailers?
While a lot of the focus has been on ensuring truck braking systems are adequate for the job, fleets are also taking a closer look at trailers. Of course, fleets put far more miles on their tractors than they do on their trailers. Also, since tractors are replaced more often, motor carriers are always more inclined to spec the state-of-the-art equipment onto their trailers. Yet, that paradigm is changing.
Trailers fitted with ABS systems, while only at around a fifth of all trailers on the road today, are growing by around two- to five-percent per year. Of course, some trailer applications will always be betters suited to drum brakes, such as vocational hauling, the on-highway side of trailer activity will continue to move towards air disc braking systems, if for no other reason than that fleets will continue to find value in the performance side of the equation.
Drum braking systems will simply never be able to match ABS in the available integrated computing power. Air disc braking systems simply work far better with onboard computers and advanced safety systems. As these systems become more commonplace, so too will trailers outfitted with ABS technology. More and more fleets are inquiring about ABS systems for their trailers, and for good reason.
Consider that air disc brakes do not fade out the way a hot drum does; ABS systems are always consistent. When a brake drum is hot, it requires more stopping distance – in some cases up to 70 percent more. These considerations are as much about safety as they are about performance. As the trucking industry embraces safety as a core principle, ABS will play an ever-increasing role.
Air disc braking systems play an important role as new truck drivers fill into their roles. Most new truckers are used to driving passenger cars as their main mode of transportation, which is important because ABS feels more car-like when in operation. New truck drivers feel more at ease behind the wheel when they are working with a technology that feels familiar to them.
While air disc braking systems simply make sense, that does not mean there are no barriers to their adoption. As with almost any new technology, cost is a factor that fleet managers must consider. In the United States, drum brakes have always been far less expensive than air disc braking systems. Yet, the cost curve has been coming down over time. As innovation continues in the braking space, cost will eventually reach parity.
It Just Makes Sense
This migration is already well underway thanks to certain vocational uses. Buses and refuse trucks have already begun to switch to new hybrid powertrains to accommodate their business models. As truck and bus manufacturers field more and more orders for these types of vehicles, the technology will only continue to bleed over into the tractor trailer space.
As fleets evaluate the cost/benefit analysis of migrating to ABS, the shift will simply make more sense. Advanced active braking systems are under development from OEMs all over the country. From regenerative braking systems for electric vehicles to intelligent parking brake systems, the more innovation occurs, the less trucking companies can afford to avoid adoption.
New intelligent braking systems prevent runaway crashes by automatically setting the brakes when a truck driver exits the vehicle, whether he or she has remembered to or not. Intelligent parking brake systems also now offer such innovations as trailer park release systems, which automatically release the trailer brakes if the vehicle begins to move. While these may seem minor, they offer major safety benefits in the even the truck driver simply forgets the brakes are engaged.
Regenerative braking systems also continue to evolve, especially for vehicles operating in urban areas where there is a lot of stop-and-go traffic. As electric mobility devices continue to find their way into the cab or under the hood, regeneration braking will also see greater adoption. The industry will also see continued adoption of wheel-end motor/generator regenerative braking systems, which currently make up the minority.
As tomorrow becomes today, motor carriers will be exposed to evermore advanced braking systems. Whether the ABS units are integrated into telematics or diagnostic systems or become outfitted with more advanced sensors, the evolution will continue unabated. Sensor modules will be able to precisely transmit how much life is left in the ABS pad, which will provide fleet technicians with the ability to address brake problems on more of a preventative, rather than reactive basis.
Added sensor technology will also allow technicians – and even truck drivers from within the cab – to monitor temperature problems in braking systems. From overall wheel end operability to rotor and bearing health, as integrated tech becomes commonplaces on heavy-duty commercial motor vehicles, fleets will be able to monitor their braking systems in ways never thought possible.
The continued integration of telematics capabilities on big rigs will create a more advanced playing field for an entirely new set of technologies, whether they are used for coaching, preventative maintenance, or to increase the fleets overall safety profile. As these systems become commonplace, they will continue to rely on the foundation of an advanced braking system to bring it altogether. Expect an entirely new generation of tractors with advanced capabilities to grow out of this paradigm. Will your fleet be ready to take advantage of it?