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Getting hitched: more than a coupling

Feb. 2, 2017
January 2017 editorial

There’s a special relationship between truck manufacturers and the commercial truck body and trailer industries. Mutually beneficial. Not always loving. Sometimes turbulent, but always necessary.

It’s much like marriage. Both sides need one another. Trailers need something to pull it, and a tractor going down the highway with nothing behind it is a waste. And a chassis cab is nothing more than a very inefficient passenger car unless it has a body to keep the load from falling between the frame rails.

In the past, relationship between truck manufacturers and our industry, attention has focused on two areas:

•  The interface between chassis cabs and truck bodies and equipment. This has always been important—getting the weight distribution right, completing the truck without impacting the OEM certification for safety regulations, tapping the truck electrical system properly, and countless other considerations. The connection between trucks and equipment is key to customer satisfaction and safe operation.

•  The connection between highway tractors and trailers. This is a relationship that tends to be stable. But on occasion, issues arise that must be addressed. It was a focal point 20 years ago when the industry needed a way to communicate trailer ABS failure to the tractor cab, and it has reemerged today as the new GHG regulations put renewed importance on tractors and trailers working together to reduce fuel consumption.

A third type of connection is gaining manufacturer attention—the interface between light-duty trailers and the pickups that pull them. It’s a relationship that is a little different from the others.

First, unlike tractors and chassis cabs, pickup trucks are self-sufficient. They can get along just fine without the trailer. Historically, accommodating a trailer has been of secondary importance to pickup manufacturers. And when OEMs do address it, they tend to boast about their trucks’ towing capacity instead of their towing ease.

Second, unlike a highway tractor that is operated by a professional driver, the pickup driver may have little or no experience towing a trailer. The bumps, braking, backing up, and blowing wind associated with pulling a trailer can convert the familiar family pickup into a white-knuckle experience for the inexperienced driver.

Even so, market research shows that 70% of light-duty trucks tow trailers. Vocational trailers such as landscape trailers and light duty equipment haulers tend to be used every day. But according to General Motors, 70% of the pickups sold tow trailers less than once a month. They haul boats. They get the ATV up to the deer lease in time for the beginning of deer season. Or they pull camping trailers occasionally. Of the 1.5 million pickups sold each year that will be used to pull trailers, more than a million will do so less than once a month. And they frequently are driven by people who don’t pull trailers very often.

So what can be done to make pulling a trailer safer and more enjoyable, especially for the amateur?

On two different occasions this past year, GM personnel gave major presentations at meetings of the National Association of Trailer Manufacturers. The most recent was given last fall. Details of that presentation can be found on Page 48 in our print issue and here on our website.

Manufacturers of light duty trucks and light duty trailers have solid reasons to talk to each other. Safety is one. Fatalities and serious injury rates have remained relatively unchanged since 2011, at what GM considers to be unacceptably high levels.

“The safest experience will result from harmony between the automotive industry and the trailering industry,” GM’s Tim Herrick said at NATM’s convention last year. “I can envision a day when a smart trailer and smart truck can drive autonomously and trailer together. But it can’t happen if the two aren’t talking to each other.”

Imagine being able to hook up a pickup and trailer that have never been connected before. When the ignition is turned on, the truck identifies the trailer, determines the distribution of the load, and optimizes itself for best performance—regardless of manufacturer. A trailer that’s plug and play.

Imagine that same interconnectivity on the highway to help the driver brake safely and avoid jackknifing, to monitor blind spots, and to provide better visibility through the use of video cameras.

“Until death do us part” is a great vow for a marriage, but it’s not the sort of commitment you want to make with your truck and trailer. There seems to be a budding relationship between truck and trailer manufacturers that has the potential to improve safety and customer satisfaction. Here’s hoping that it really blossoms. ♦