Expect unreal changes in truck chassis

Nov. 1, 2002
IMAGINE modifying a truck that's not there. That is only one of the new capabilities truck equipment distributors will have soon, the result of ever increasing

IMAGINE modifying a truck that's not there.

That is only one of the new capabilities truck equipment distributors will have soon, the result of ever increasing advances in truck electronics. Whether or not the truck is there in the shop, the truck equipment industry soon will be able to work on vehicles in ways never before possible.

Let's say the customer would like to know how frequently his power take-off is being used. A distributor with a computer in Alabama will be able to “install” a PTO hour meter on a truck in Alaska simply by calling up a graphical representation of the instrument cluster on his screen. Dragging and dropping icons on a computer screen generates a new computer file that tells the electronic gauges on the truck instrument cluster which function to perform. These instructions can be transmitted to a laptop computer in Alaska or wherever the truck is. Once the file is received, it is downloaded to the truck's electronic control module by plugging the computer into a port on the chassis.

Should we dismiss this as some Star Wars fantasy that has invaded the truck equipment industry? Is it James Bond gadgetry without the women?

Hardly. This isn't wizardry from a galaxy far away — it is American technology that will be coming to a computer near you as soon as next year. It can be coming to your computer if you have the need for it and take the time to learn how to make it work.

International Truck & Engine created a stir at this year's NTEA Truck Product Conference by presenting details of its multiplex electrical system and the new Diamond Logic Builder tool that will be made available to the truck body and equipment industry a few months from now. The tool will provide truck equipment technicians entry into the electrical system to add features and to verify that the changes work — before the chassis is even touched.

This is not your father's International.

We doubt that many distributors routinely will be installing PTO hour meters from afar. But by getting inside the truck's electrical system, they may be able to do a lot of other tasks associated with PTOs, such as controlling the conditions in which the PTO is engaged, the speed at which it operates, and how it is disengaged — all by means of a personal computer.

For the shops that choose to work with PTOs without working with PCs, International will offer pre-programmed packages, including those for towing, refuse, and utility applications. These packages will control functions such as remote switching, remote engine speed control, and alarms for utility equipment outriggers — complete with interlock to the parking brake.

Other major truck manufacturers have been using multiplexing as well, but with proprietary, closed systems that do not really interface with the electrically controlled products that distributors install. Now this ability to modify chassis electronically is being shared with the truck equipment industry.

Based on International's presentation at the Truck Product Conference this year, the company is more than willing — it is eager for the truck body and equipment industry to become familiar with its new truck electrical system. This “plug and play” feature is a major improvement from the “cut and paste” approach — cutting wires and wrapping them with electrical tape.

Some chassis manufacturers appear to be taking a wait-and-see approach, convinced that our industry would rather distribute equipment and let OEMs distribute the digits.

Electronic engines, transmissions, and other components have been around for more than a decade. As one speaker put it during November's Society of Automotive Engineers International Truck & Bus Meeting, the result has been a “plugfest” in which different companies plug their components together and hope that they work with one another.

For years, the organization has been working to develop electrical standards that will unscramble this electronic Tower of Babel. These efforts have produced nonproprietary data standards that today's multiplex electrical systems speak. This in turn has enabled the different truck-mounted systems to come together in a coherent communications network.

However, the electronic revolution in commercial trucks is just beginning. Based on presentations at the most recent SAE International Truck & Bus Meeting, we can expect to see electronic braking systems to appear on trucks in 2004. More radical (and more imminent): a demonstration program beginning in 2003 to test the viability of a truck convoy driven without drivers.

Working on trucks that aren't there. A convoy of commercial vehicles with drivers who aren't there. The next decade promises some of the most radical changes the commercial truck business will not see. The changes may appear unreal on the surface, but they promise to have profound effects on commercial trucks and the companies that work on them.

About the Author

Bruce Sauer | Editor

Bruce Sauer has been writing about the truck trailer, truck body and truck equipment industries since joining Trailer/Body Builders as an associate editor in 1974. During his career at Trailer/Body Builders, he has served as the magazine's managing editor and executive editor before being named editor of the magazine in 1999. He holds a Bachelor of Journalism degree from the University of Texas at Austin.