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Trucking Technologies Collide with a Low-Tech Industry

Technology is often the main topic here at the QuickTSI Blog and there’s a good reason for it. Trucking companies have access to all sorts of new technological tools and methods. Whether it be through increasing safety, streamlining maintenance, or simply cutting costs or saving on fuel expenditures – technology is very often the answer. Except, there is one problem. In many cases, you wind up with hi-tech solutions colliding with a decidedly low-tech industry.

Sure, trucking has come a long way. Thanks to the electronic logging device (ELD), advanced telematics, and comprehensive fleet management solutions, good fleet managers now have all the tools they need – and more – to run their company efficiently and profitably. Yet, headwinds remain. There are still lots of areas where trucking companies face higher costs and unrealized efficiency gains. How will fleets navigate this new paradigm? Let’s find out.

What About Low-Tech Tractor-Trailers?

Most truck OEMs are not retooling their factories so that they can produce a blend of mass-produced hi-tech trucks while still providing hand-built finishes and touches. As the industry moves away from a purely customized approach to a one-size-fits-all approach, final truck designs will fall somewhere in between.

Modern, high-speed, automated production lines are being set up both domestically in North America and abroad. And yet, hands-on, intensive attention to each build is still going to be a part of the build process. This is especially true as more and more safety technologies and components become integrated within the machine itself.

The first question is this: Which trucking verticals utilize the highest proportion of low-tech trucks? Without question, the answer is vocational trucks. That’s why so many companies that operate vocational trucks operate in a low-tech world. Most companies simply acquire low-tech variants and then spec them out to meet their needs. Today, OEMs have begun including those specs in with the build.

It is important to note, however, that super spec’ing trucks is very much a North American thing. In Europe and Asia, you get whatever limited specs OEMs offer. They simply do not have access to the same level of customization as we do here in the United States. The reason why specs are often limited is to control costs and streamline global production.

New Powertrain Options Change the Playing Field

Many fleet managers now ask themselves a vital question. What happens when multiple different powertrains come onto the scene? Now that we have begun the shift away from internal combustion engines and towards autonomous trucks and electric powertrains, OEMs must also shift. What happens if OEMs begin mass-producing autonomous big rigs with little to no accommodations for human truck drivers? What if the vehicle will be multi-purpose?

For OEMs to adapt quickly enough to this new environment, they need to ensure product and component synergy. Ensuring supply and manufacturing line consistency is critical to preventing line production downtime. Still, the fewer components and specifications an OEM must deal with, the easier it is to build customized rigs. It just depends on the specific needs of the buyer.

That’s why some trucking OEMs are exploring the possibility of modular vehicle designs. Modular vehicle designs are the easiest way to do this. When you share as many design components as possible with other vehicles in production, mass production becomes much easier. And it seems like with all the changes coming to big rig design and manufacturing, OEMs must nail down solid processes and procedures all the way down the production line.

Still, even though so many industry insiders feel OEMs will adapt, with so many new systems, components, and technologies coming into alignment – will they? There’s a plethora of new systems, components, and automation technologies available. It will be interesting to see how organizations adapt to this shifting new landscape.

How Autonomous Trucks will Change OEM Assembly Lines

While the jury is out on whether autonomous big rigs will be in high demand for long-haul trucking applications, OEMs need to properly evaluate assembly line changes. Why? Because from a production and cost control perspective, it does not make a whole lot of sense to build a vehicle that can be either autonomous or human controlled.

Consider for a moment how the cab is designed. The benefits of completely removing all human ergonomic features from autonomous trucks will necessitate the development of new vehicle types. Autonomous trucks will likely share a common chassis and have shared components. We talk about trucking being a low-technology industry, but the manufacturing sector also needs to make big shifts.

The fact is that human-driven and autonomous trucks are just far too different when it comes to design specs to share an assembly line. From components to build requirements, OEMs will have to separate them on the line. Even for those OEMs who try to keep both truck types on the same line, hard questions must be answered. OEMs will need to do careful research. From battery-electric to hydrogen fuel-cell and other alternative fuel vehicles, each assembly line has specific needs.

Third-Party Vendors do OEM Work

Take Daimler as one example, which came out stating they were going to off-load engine production to Cummins, a third-party engine manufacturer. This would suit well to a company operating a diverse manufacturing and supply line. Cummins offers multiple powertrains for trucking companies to spec from. This set them up nicely to partner with Daimler on specific engine types. Cummins has partnered They will also partner in a new plant to be built in Mannheim, Germany to produce medium-duty engines that meet Euro VII emissions for Daimler Trucks & Buses. They expect this partnership to bear fruit beginning in a few years.

And that’s where it becomes apparent it isn’t just truck manufacturers that are making the shift. Hydrogen, hybrid-electric, fuel cell – there is no shortage of options when it comes to powering up to Class 8 commercial motor vehicles.

Startups and unicorn companies have jostled on stage with Nikola and Tesla, the two largest players in the electronic big rig race. The battery-electric vehicle (BEV) segment is experiencing explosive growth. Global EV sales reached 6.75 million units in 2021, 108 % more than in 2020. This volume includes passenger vehicles, light trucks, and light commercial vehicles. New powertrain segments full of advanced technologies are here to stay. And yet, most BEV innovation still happens under Class 7. We’re still waiting to see the Class 8 segment BEV technologies to mature.

Whatever happens in the technology sector, tractor-trailer demand continues to accumulate. Trucking companies and OEMs will need human truck drivers and work crews. Human interaction in, on, or around the vehicle will be required for a long time to come. And yet, how do you prepare those people?

Don’t Wait on BEV Technician Training

What you shouldn’t do is sit on training to prepare your diesel technicians for a shift away from internal combustion engines. Fifteen years ago, diesel engine OEMs had to quickly adjust to a shifting EPA regulatory landscape. And these shifts continue. Many technicians still do not have familiarity with the systems they should. After treatment systems have changed quite a bit in the intervening decades. Your shop cannot afford to wait when it comes to alternative forms of vehicle power.

What you can bet on is that electric vehicles are not going away any time soon. Although electric systems do not require the same kind of chemical processes, they have unique needs. Gasoline engines need to stay clean, and lubricants and oils are used to accomplish this. But it will require technology that accomplishes a similar result.

Granted, some technicians will say they’ve seen technologies come and go, but the arrival of electric trucks is here. Outfitted with the latest technologies, BEV power units increase in number by the day. For last-mile deliveries, BEV machines are familiar territory. And the good news is these vehicles are built to last. OEMs and the new technologies and materials they work with are designed to make the vehicles more dependable and long-lasting.

Ensure your technical training program has already started on developing and implementing electric vehicle training. Along with hiring the manufacturers to come to your classrooms and help you get the information to your technicians, consider getting ahead of the game.

Many state and local municipalities have been buying transit buses, school buses, solid waste trucks, and medium-duty trucks, as well as installing electric charging stations for these vehicles. Trucking companies have an opportunity to ride along and turn from a low-tech industry to a truly hi-tech one.

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