How Technology Will Affect Trailers

Trailers may be in for some significant advancements in technology. What those advancements may be and how willing fleets may be to pay for them were the subject of a panel discussion at the TTMA convention in Indian Wells.

Appearing on the panel were Martin Ambros, Air-Weigh Corporation; Sam Cross, Condor Freight Lines; Bill Garnett, ReeferTrucks.com; Lawson Marshall, Transport Technology Today; and Bill Stewart, ARINC Inc. Tom Gelinas, Fleet Equipment, served as moderator.

Using a question-and-answer format, the panelists offered their thoughts on the following issues:

Question: What kind of return on investment do you require on equipment purchases? Cross: We estimate what our revenues will be, and we determine how many trucks and trailers we will need to handle that amount of freight. As a fleet manager, I expect that we get $60,000 or more in revenue per pup. If our revenues are $36 million, we need 600 pup trailers. If we run bigger trailers, we divide that number in half.

We constantly are looking for higher productivity. The key for trailer manufacturers is to help us analyze what we need and what we can operate. Ideally, we would like to be able to close our books every day, which would require us to be able to gather and download data constantly. We need smart trailers that are able to tell us how we stand. We challenge trailer manufacturers to bring things to the party that we have never had before, to think outside the box a little.

Question: Does anyone see areas of cooperation that might be useful for the industry? Cross: I see a real opportunity for the truck, engine, and trailer manufacturers. Diesel fuel is under attack. About a year ago, diesel smoke was identified as a carcinogen. We in California had to post to the general public that diesel smoke is a carcinogen. If we are a large enough producer of diesel smoke, we are targeted for lawsuits by the state attorney general. Through the hard work of the industry, it was proved that the research identifying diesel smoke as a carcinogen was not properly done. The law has been rescinded, but the important fact is that many people consider diesel not to be an acceptable fuel for transportation. This may be an opportunity for trailer manufacturers. Trailers have a lot of available roof and floor space. Is it possible to couple the power unit to the trailer in a way that exhaust flows to a trailer-mounted filter or catalytic converter? It also may be possible to improve aerodynamics of tractors and trailers so that fuel economy can be improved 3 to 7%. That would be a big savings in fuel costs.

Garnett: The three largest grocery fleets in California recently settled a lawsuit in which they agreed to alternate-fuel power units. I believe that if the power units are run by CNG or some other fuel, the reefer units will not be far behind. Stewart: We started putting sensors in trailers so that people could know where they are. Once they could know the location of their trailers, they wanted to know whether they were full or empty. Then they wanted to know if the trailers were secure, so we put door sensors in them.

We really need to cooperate with others as new technology comes out. For example, we need odometer readings on trailers so that fleets know how far they have traveled. New tire monitoring systems are helping fleets lower tire maintenance costs. Onboard scales provide fleet managers with additional information. That is the progress we see once a data communication device is installed on a trailer. It is possible to provide a lot of information back to someone who wants to manage his fleet.

Question: Can you bring us up to date on the progress of PLC4TRUCKS and how it can transmit data back to the fleet manager? Ambros: PLC4TRUCKS is the technology selected to transmit the ABS warning signal from the trailer to a light in the cab of the tractor. Air-Weigh has a technology called wire link that at this point is completely coexistent with PLC4TRUCKS.

Communication technology has allowed us to bring this information back across the J-560 connector, which opens up a sea of opportunity. The ABS warning light is only the first of many applications for this technology. Systems that detect dragging brakes or over-stroke conditions, pressure monitoring systems, weighing systems, the suspension control products-all are productivity- and safety-oriented links between the truck and trailer. It is just the beginning of the proliferation of integrated products and systems. Marshall: I foresee several technologies merging to provide a wireless network on the trailer itself. Every pallet and box of freight will be equipped with a tag that tells what it is and where it is going. As the trailer is loaded, that information will be transmitted back to the main network. It then will go onto the Internet for interested parties to access. This technology probably will be available within the next five years.

Garnett: We will need to separate the information generated by the power unit from the information generated by the trailer. The big challenge from the perspective of a trailer manufacturer is to be able to tie these functions together through some sort of computer link. The idea is to take the burden off the driver so that the driver can drive, leaving the management of the trailer to someone else. Question: What are the issues with radio frequency communications and interference with other RF systems related to the trailer?

Stewart: It has been a big issue in the aviation industry but that has not been the case so far in the trucking industry.

Question: PLC4TRUCKS has some technical limitations. How long will it be the standard, and what will we see in the future? Ambros: PLC4TRUCKS has been a bit of a struggle, but a lot of progress has been made in the last several months. Right now the entire focus of brake suppliers is March 1, 2001 (the deadline for having an in-cab trailer ABS warning light). Beyond that, there already is discussion of the next generation device that will address some of the weaknesses in the current chip set. However, PLC4TRUCKS will light the ABS warning light and will satisfy the requirements of FMVSS 121. The March 1, 2001, deadline is not in jeopardy.

Once the deadline is met, the intention is to open PLC4TRUCKS to other functions. Most of the technology folks have a wait-and-see attitude, wanting to get through the ABS warning light issue and see where we go from there and if the PLC4TRUCKS technology is robust enough.

Question: To what extent are fleets globalizing, and do you think trailer manufacturers will need to globalize as well? Cross: When I say "global," I have in mind the fact that we tend to think myopically in our own functions. The fleet manager is concerned with an entirely different set of issues than an executive with that same fleet. We need to take all areas of a fleet's operation and provide the information each area needs. If a trailer manufacturer can do that, the product becomes much more valuable. A feature of a trailer that one department may not value may be something that someone else in the company may be willing to pay $5,000 per unit more to buy. Plus, if we marry this technology properly, it will help the overall image of the trucking industry. We definitely need some help with our public image.

Question: With a big increase in e-commerce business, do you see a 53-ft standard trailer giving way to more small- and medium-sized trucks? Cross: The LTL community is divided on this issue. Half of us want to stay with pups to deliver in urban areas. The other half wants to use 53-ft trailers. Even though they aren't as maneuverable in city traffic, these trailers can haul much more. Drivers don't have to go back and forth shagging freight.

Garnett: There are some imposed limitations on the length of trailers used on secondary roads. I can see suburban areas issuing mandates that limit trailer length. We will see a dichotomy of functionality.

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