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September 7, 2016

Volkswagen to Rescue Navistar

Well, excuse me if I crow a little here. . .  On July 7th 2012 I posted “Told You So” in this blog, and I invite you to go back and re-read. In the conclusion to the 2010 engine debacle, I predicted that Navistar’s savior would likely be Volkswagen.

Back then, I reasoned it would be a fire sale (and indeed at today’s tragic stock price, it is) but it is not to be the acquisition I assumed. It is a “strategic alliance,” with VW buying a 16 percent share of NAV to allow both companies to share product, technology and purchasing muscle around the world.

The writing was on the wall since Andreas Renschler quit Daimler Trucks and went to work for VW Trucks and Buses. The company had acquired already the German heavy truck manufacturer MAN and the Swedish producer Scania to add to its own Latin American heavy truck maker Volkswagen Caminhões e Ônibus in Brazil.

And the company has been very public in stating it not only wants to be the biggest car maker and truck maker in the world, In cars it has to get over its dieselgate issue which will cost several tens of billions of dollars – and which may be the reason that the NAV deal is a strategic alliance instead of an acquisition – but there’s no doubting it’ll get back there. In trucks, VW could never hope to overcome rival Daimler in heavy and medium trucks until it had acquired a North American distribution and truck making partner.

Now it has.

And Andreas Renschler was very much the architect of Daimler’s worldwide domination in trucks, with very successful partners in India and China. He knows how it is done. Make no bones about it, Volkswagen Truck and Bus has thrown down the gauntlet with this announcement and with Teutonic efficiency and determination it will strive to achieve that number one position.

Navistar gets a boost in investment from the injection of Volkswagen’s cash to purchase the stock position. That will help initially and then the savings that worldwide purchasing can bring can lower Navistar’s costs by $200 million within five years. Corporately, over the VW trucks and buses worldwide, this may reach $500 million, half way to the target billion dollar savings on the truck side Renschler has promised the VW board.

More importantly, the technology component of the alliance brings some very capable but underfunded technology engineers on the Navistar truck side into the VW truck fold. Scania is a very smart company with a very good understanding of safety and autonomous trucks, MAN has an office somewhere in its buildings with Rudolf Diesel’s name on the door. Yes, he was there when it was Machinenfabric Augsberg von Nurenberg.

Indeed, identified in the news release laying out the first steps of the alliance is the fact that VW will supply engines to Navistar for its International trucks. They could be Scania, or VW from Brazil. Or MAN engines from Germany. The irony there would be that the ill-starred MaxxForce 13 liter was based on an MAN engine but that Navistar engineers could not get to work with Advanced EGR. Let me think . . . did I predict that. Oh yes!

This whole engines supply scenario must have some worried people in both the heavy duty N13 (nee MaxxForce 13) engine plant in Mississippi and over at Cummins in Columbus, IN. There are customers still buying the Navistar N13 engine with its Cummins aftertreatment, though 75 percent of International production is now Cummins as customers who like the Prostar+ truck opt for Cummins reliability, durability and economy.

And that, by the way, is going to get a significant boost for 2017. In a recent press event, Cummins predicted a 10 mpg truck is entirely do-able with its latest X12 and X15 engine platforms for 2017.

For everybody else at Navistar, there must be a jaunty lift in their steps as they head for their cars at the end of the day. More cash to run the business and gain market share and one of the world’s great companies at your back: why wouldn’t you feel good about the future.

Go back to “told you so”. I said Navistar was a lucky company . . .

July 9, 2016

2016 Shell SuperRigs draws record turnout

Jake Lindamood won Best of Show with this heavy haul tractor.
Beautiful theme throuout and perfect execution for a truck
 that works hard. Lindamood took home $15,000 in prizes.
The Shell Rotella SuperRigs beauty contest and 2017 calendar shoot drew a record turnout this year with 89 eye-popping glamor trucks vying for the nearly $40,000 in total prize money.

For this event, truckers come from all over the United States and Canada for a chance to take top prizes and for a brief moment of immortality should they be chosen to appear in the Rotella SuperRigs calendar.

Best lights went to the blue dump outfit of Luke Leister,
who was also nominated to a Limited Mileage award.
Hundreds of blue lights wowed the crowd on Joplin’s streets.
Held mid-June at the Convention Center in Joplin Missouri, it was the second time the event was staged in this city. First time was shortly after the 2011 tornado did so much damage to Joplin and Shell’s SuperRigs injected much needed revenue into the city. 

This time it was more of a thank you, as truckers moved out of the parking lot Friday night and headed for the closed off streets of downtown Joplin for a parade and downtown where the top rigs could show off their lights.

One of the few cabover was this ’95 Freightliner FLB
 customized to look like an ’85 took second in Tractor Trailer
for Andre Bellemare down from Quebec for the show.

The city responded with a fireworks display for the thousands of residents who walked the warm evening streets to admire the trucks.

As in last few years, 2016 judges were Jami Jones for Land Line Magazine; Eric Harley; the host of Red Eye Radio; Cliff Abbott from The Trucker newspaper; and me, Steve Sturgess, representing a slew of magazines around the world.

The Hard Working prize went to Chad Berry. The award
is given by the other contestants, who certainly; know a thing
or two about hard work!
To look their best, many contestants take their rigs out of commission in the winter for a total refurb that often sees them at the early Mid America Trucking Show contest in March in Louisville. Then the trucks are parked or used little for the next couple of months until SuperRigs.

When they reappear for the judging, it is a tough task for the judges to decide whether the gorgeous tractors and tractor-trailers are true working trucks, as required by the judging rules, or just “trailer queens” that just do the show circuit. 
The dragon theme all over Uno Mas earned
Best Theme and mention in Working Truck -
 Limited Mileage to give Suzanne Rodriguez
two trophies to take home.

Now, judges are aided by Doug Morris who is the director of security operations for the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA) and who comes with a career’s experience in enforcement. As an expert in looking at registration, DOT numbers and the rest he can attest to the working status of the trucks.

There’s also a mileage database that records odometer readings at the shows to check on the true mileages these rigs drive through the year. Shell wants the show to be for working trucks. Rotella lubricant’s brand is the number one for hard-working trucks and Shell wants to keep that association strong.

The most unusual truck on the parking lot
was this R-Model Mack. Built for a
customer by Justin Dickerson, the RD is a
 1991 with outstanding details all around.

So the trucks came – always some shut down for the week, getting on site early to start the task of cleaning to make them favorites or top candidates for the calendar. And the two goals are totally different. Only Best of Show is guaranteed a spot on the calendar.

2016 Best of Show winner Jake Lindamood’s heavy haul day-cab tractor and lowboy trailer was chosen for the calendar before he won the award.

After the awards ceremony, he said “We won Best of Show and got picked for the SuperRigs calendar which was super exciting. Winning Best of Show was huge and we are just beyond thrilled about it.” He was also no doubt thrilled to be taking home $15,000 in prize money.

Get complete 2016 Shell Rotella SuperRigs Results here.

Gorgeous trucks win thousands at SuperRigs

Impessably turned out tractor of Jay Blackbourn was perfectly
poised to pick up first runner up prized of $7,000. Note how
 the tires are all set at the same point of rotation!
The Shell Rotella SuperRigs beauty show has been going for 34 years and I am privileged to have been a judge for most of them.

Over time, the event has morphed from a small regional show as it moved around the country to become the must-attend premium show on the calendar.

The trucks have evolved, too, from nice working trucks with some stainless steel – and yes, back then we even had a cabover class – to the eye-popping, traffic-stopping paint, color, chrome and stainless steel of the top trucks today.

And while the few hundred dollars prize money of those early shows has escalated to the tens of thousands today, it does not even closely track the investment and love the owners put in the trucks that come to SuperRigs today.

Complete 2016 Shell Rotella SuperRigs Results

Best of Show
$10,000 from Shell Rotella and $5,000 from MAC Trailer
Place in the 2017 Rotella SuperRigs Calendar
This rare Peterbilt 379X by Charles Self picked up second
runner up and then picked up $4,000. The X model was at
 the end of the 379 limited run and this one’s genuine throughout.
Jake Lindamood, Irving, Texas
1988 Peterbilt 379

Best of Show 1st Runner Up
$4000 from Shell, $3,000 from MAC Trailer
Jay Blackbourn, Fennimore, Wisconsin
2015 Peterbilt 389

Best of Show 2nd Runner Up
$2000 from Shell, $2,000 from MAC Trailer
Charles Self, Neosho, Missouri 2004 Peterbilt 379X

Chosen by ballot at the event, the Peoples’ Choice award went
to Jay Hawthorne for his Pete 389 and Wabash;van trailer.
Consistent theme and traditional design had wide appeal.
Most Hardworking Trucker
Chad Berry, Medford, Wisconsin
2012 Peterbilt 386; 2017 MAC with Curtain

People's Choice
Jay Hawthorne, Grand Mound, Iowa
2015 Peterbilt 389 Pride Class; 2015 Wabash DVHDHPC

Working Truck - Limited Mileage
Luke Leister, Pierpont, Ohio
2015 Peterbilt 389; 2017 MAC End Dump

Henry Lopez, San Antonio, Texas
2015 Peterbilt 389; 2015 Armorlite

Suzanne Rodriquez. Salinas, California
1999 Peterbilt 379 Ext. Hood

Best Lights
Luke Leister, Pierpont, Ohio
2015 Peterbilt 389; 2017 MAC End Dump

There were some outstanding entries for Best Engine,
but the consistency of design saw the prize going
to Josh Reed. Hard to imagine it's working every day.
The interior treatment of Eric Holthaus’ 85 Pete
 carried the design theme from the outside to the interior.
 White areas are crackle finish and workmanship excellent.
Best Theme
Suzanne Rodriquez, Salinas, California
1999 Peterbilt 379 Ext. Hood

Best Engine
Josh Reed, Pioneer, Ohio
2015 W900L Kenworth; 2015 MAC Flatbed

Best Interior
Eric Holthaus, Seneca, Kansas
1985 Peterbilt 359

Show Truck
Billy Rethwisch, Tomah, Wisconsin
2016 Peterbilt 389; 2015 Mueller

Brian Davis, Owensville, Indiana
2015 Peterbilt 386; 2016 Wilson DH501

This impeccable heavy haul tractor regularly hauls
 180,000 pounds and gets off highway a lot. But it’s good
enough to win first place in Tractor Trailer for PaulPiretti.
Dustin Dickerson, Thorntown, Indiana
1991 Mac RD

1st Place Tractor/Trailer Division
Paul Piretti, Springfield, Missouri
2015 Peterbilt 389 Pride Class; 2015 Etnyre

2nd Place Tractor/Trailer Division
Andre Bellemare, Berthierville, Quebec
1995 Freelander Co8

3rd Place Tractor/Trailer Division
Darren Hutchison, Atkinson, Illinois
2007 T800 Kenworth; 2016 Wilson Livestock Trailer
Jarrod Russel took fourth place tractor trailer with this
 livestock hauling Pete and Wilson trailer, both bought
in 2015 but with hard working miles on them already.

4th Place Tractor/Trailer Division
Jarrod Russell, Jerseyville, Illinois
2015 Peterbilt 389; 2015 Wilson Cattle Trailer

5th Place Tractor/Trailer Division
Chad Berry, Medford, Wisconsin
2012 Peterbilt 386; 2017 MAC with Curtain

Best Chrome
Austin Roach, Jacksonville, Illinois
Kenworth W900A 79

1st Place Tractor Division
Joel Dawes, Waterford, Wisconsin
2014 T660 Kenworth
Unassuming Kenworth W900 A-model from 1979 sported 
immaculate and tasteful chrome and polished stainless steel
and gave Austin Roach the title as well as scoring second place.

2nd Place Tractor Division
Sid Calangelo, Carthage, Missouri
2015 Kenworth W900L

3rd Place Tractor Division
David Foster, Joplin, Missouri
2005 Kenworth W900L Studio

4th Place Tractor Division
Top spot in Classic was taken by Billy Baker with this 2000
Kenworth W900L. Fine attention to detail and creativity earned
  the award, making the trip from Ontario, Canada worthwhile.  
Kiegan Nelson, Onalaska, Wisconsin
2013 Peterbilt 389

5th Place Tractor Division
Sean M. McEndree Sr., Salado, Texas
2006 Peterbilt 379 Flat Top

1st Place Classic Division
Billy Baker, St. Catherine’s, Ontario
2000 Kenworth W900L

2nd Place Classic Division
Austin Roach, Jacksonville, Illinois
Green always shows well, but such was the competition
 that Joel Dawes ’88 Peterbilt 379 scored fifth. Still,
Classic was by far the busiest category.
Kenworth W900A 79

3rd Place Classic Division
Eric Holthaus, Seneca, Kansas
1985 Peterbilt 359

4th Place Classic Division
Jim Loggains, Carthage, Missouri
1994 Kenworth W900L

5th Place Classic Division
Joel Dawes, Waterford, Wisconsin
1988 Peterbilt 379

July 6, 2016

It’s Totally Magic

Here’s a device no maintenance shop, garage, marina or home should be without. It’s a new ultra-capacitor-based jump-start combo from Chicago-based KBi that doesn’t need plugging in to 110V outlet to charge. It will actually charge from the flaked-out battery in the vehicle or boat you’re trying to start. How’s that for a boot-strap device?

Because it has an ultra-capacitor for charge storage, the KrankingKart Mini doesn’t have to go through the chemical process associated with conventional batteries. It will charge in about 90 seconds and will provide 1500 amps of cranking power.

Sounds impossible? You must understand the difference between the chemical charge process of a lead-acid battery (or Lithium-ion for that matter) and the physical energy storage on a capacitor. All a capacitor requires is a voltage to charge the plates. So the run-down battery in the vehicle that won’t start likely still has a 12-volt nominal voltage at the terminals when it’s not cranking and can build the capacitor charge. The ultra-capacitor in the KrankingKart can then deliver that physically stored energy to kick over the engine and, providing there’s enough battery voltage to energize the engine electronics, you’ll get a start.

Ultra-capacitors are getting a wider play in vehicle starting systems these days. Many of the stop-start fuel-saving modes in passenger cars use an ultra-cap to provide the sudden energy boost to restart the engine when it shuts down at a traffic light, for example.

The supplier, KBi, is a really interesting company. Its claim to fame was originally as the manufacturer of ether cold-start systems for heavy trucks and locomotives. Back then it was appropriately named Kold-Ban International. But as engine electronics and other modern technologies have made it possible to start diesels at ever lower temperatures, the need for the ether boost has waned. So KBi has re-invented itself as a different kind of starter systems company, offering ultra-capacitor conversion systems for military and heavy-truck applications.

KBi already offers a truck maintenance shop starter cart that uses the same technology as the KrankingKart Mini but on a larger scale. This smaller unit is really targeted at the marine market, but it’s just as good for car and light truck jump starts.

Ultra-caps are ideal for engine start systems. They give a huge energy discharge over a short time. Conventional lead-acid batteries deliver a constant low-amperage discharge over time. So on a heavy truck, the number of group 34 batteries can be reduced for weight savings while still providing for “hotel” loads. In passenger cars, hybrid batteries of lead-acid and ultra-caps are staring to become common.

So, in this KrankingKart Mini you have the ultimate get you going package that weighs only 22 pounds, requires absolutely no maintenance, will cycle at least a million times and comes with its own 900-amp cables and battery clamps.


May 31, 2016

Best Car I Ever Owned

Lotus 7 in an olive grove in Cadaquez, Spain. By this time it had headlamps: the right
was a foglight and served as low beam, on high beam the left spotlight would come on in
addition to aid in night-time visibility. Note tiny marker lights that were original lighting.
Inside fiberglass nose you can see oil cooler, air horns and electric fan. Car was always
a trial to cool in traffic. Front fenders didn’t do a lot for spray suppression. The license
plate had an attitude, too. And that’s me, a little younger.

I think I bought it for GB pounds 600 (just $860).

It was a clubman’s racer Lotus 7. Like all the 7s it was very simple.

A spaceframe and monocoque combination with riveted aluminum over a steel spaceframe structure that weighed about 300 pounds was the chassis. 

Power was by a Cosworth pushrod Ford four-cylinder at 1558 cc displacement  – the same displacement as the twin-cam Lotus Cortina I owned immediately before this – and another exceptional car I wish I could afford again!

Except, because the 7 was a genuine clubman’s race car, it was a dry-sump genuine Cosworth motor with two side-draft twin-choke 42DCOE Webers, ported head, header exhaust and a Cosworth RSC camshaft.

The cam was an 80-40-40-80 grind from a Cosworth SCA OHC engine that was the de rigeur motor for Formula 2 open wheel racers back then. And we are talking 1969. The camshaft overlap would see flame out of the exposed carburetor inlets, sticking out of the left side of the hood. 

The driveability of the car was awful as it was way too cammy for the road use I intended. And the fuel economy was ridiculous, so I switched out the camshaft for the Formula 3 Cosworth RSA engine after a couple of weeks.

The RSA grind was way better for bigger displacements than the 1000 cc of Formula 3 back then, but it was still a monster. It was still so cammy it would break the Dunlop race drive tires loose in second gear as the revs came on to 5000. And in the close ratio Ford-Lotus gearbox from the Lotus Cortina racers of the day, that would be speeds in the 50s.

In the wet, it was a beast. The peaky camshaft would spin the drive tires as it came on the cam in top gear – about 90 mph! Bear in mind the car only weighed 1300 pounds. But it was the best handling car you can imagine. Set up with all kinds of negative camber on the 5.5-inch R6 shod front wheels, it was neutral into a corner at neutral throttle.

So at a roundabout – there were and still are lots of them in the UK – entry on a trailing throttle would bring oversteer and a step out for the rear even though there were big Dunlop racing R6s on 7.5 inch rims. The oversteer would translate into opposite lock though a touch of steering through the apex of the roundabout and then power-out on opposite lock coming off the roundabout. The 7 was a hugely satisfying – and enormously forgiving – car to drive very fast.

The suspension was responsible for this: coil spring and wishbone up front and an A frame to the base of the diff with coil-over shocks at the rear giving a downward sloping roll center toward the rear. Just like the ’65 Lotus Cortina I had so recently abandoned. That was an equally incredibly balanced car that could be flung at corners, not just driven round. The best thing is that it would always pick up the inside front wheel in a corner to give a few more feet of road space through the apex of a corner!

But back to the 7, because it was a race car, it had no lights and a straight exhaust on the passenger side exiting ahead of the rear wheel. I fixed all that. Back then in the UK, there was no legal requirement for headlamps (driving lights) so I fixed up marker lights front on the cycle fenders and rear on the aluminum flares that replaced the original fiberglass fenders so the lowered rear suspension had sufficient clearance.

That was part of the rewire I did when stripping and rebuilding the car, chroming the suspension, painting it a puce color instead of the Lotus green with yellow stripe. It had no ignition switch, either. You just flipped the switch for the ignition, the next toggle for the electric fuel pump, and then pressed the starter solenoid up under the dash.

The exhaust fix was easy. I just made up a can that looked like a muffler and welded it around the straight-pipe exhaust. It looked legal, but on a still night in rural Essex, a friend said he heard me coming from five miles away.

Driving at night was a challenge with no headlights. At the time I was working for Ford Motor Co, based at the Transit plant in Southampton, but I’d spend weekends back in my home base in Wimbledon, South London. So Sundays would find me heading back to the south coast on unlit pre-motorway A-roads. The trick was to poodle along till something faster would overtake, then tuck in behind till something faster came along and then tuck in behind that.

One night the last to overtake was a spiritedly driven Honda S800 – remember them – and I tucked in and followed like a limpet. Each time he’d overtake, I’d hang back till the road was clear than blast up behind again.

Eventually I ran out of gas. As a race car, the 7 only had a 4-gallon gas tank and no fuel gauge, but I always had a gallon can tucked into a special location in the rear spaceframe. So I cruised to a stop and pulled out the gas can. Meanwhile, the Honda stopped, then backed down to where I was and the driver jumped out.

“I wondered what the hell that was,” he said, or words similar. “All I could see in the mirror were these two little lights dancing and bobbing around. Then I’d pass a car and the lights would disappear until there was a shattering roar and those lights would be in the mirror again.”

I drove that 7 everywhere. On evening, backing into a parking slot in Montmartre, Paris, there was a bang from the rear and that was that. The car had a steel, small diameter race clutch that was all or nothing, and in backing up, I had broken a half shaft in the Standard 10 rear axle (Yes: Standard! It was a Triumph small car of the time and the axle Colin Chapman chose for the 7).

I arranged shipment back to the UK and while I was waiting for the 7 to appear at my doorstep in London I happened on a Standard 10 upended in a ditch while on a weekend in Sussex.  It was the work of minutes to pull both half-shafts from this wreck – fortunate, because only a month after replacing the first broken half shaft, the other let go and I had a replacement ready to install!

Eventually I tired of the lack of heater, wind whistling in through ill-fitting side curtains (there were no doors) and rain coming in from every pore. So I built a beach buggy. Never mind there were no sandy beaches in UK to drive upon. But I did take it to the Sahara Desert, and there’s a BIG beach there! And that’s another story.

April 3, 2016

Ex Navistar President Gets His

Only truck I ever put in the ditch. But so did Navistar executives,
so I don’t feel so bad!
When I penned the retrospective on the Navistar engine debacle (search Told You So here) I thought I’d said goodbye to the outgoing president Dan Ustian.

Not so.

Seems the Securities and Exchange Commission is not going to let the mendaciousness of his leadership go unpunished.

In a complaint lodged in the US District Court for the northern district of Illinois, Ustian is being called to account for the fraudulent misleading of the investment community about the progress of the 13-liter MaxxForce engine program goals and successes in meeting EPA2010. And, of course, the propping up of the Navistar share value by so doing.

If you go back and re-read what I said in the previous posting, you’ll see I got fired for telling that same investment community in late 2010 that his was a house of cards and that Navistar would never be whole till Ustian was gone. ‘Scuse me if I don’t crow a little here . . .

Anyway, Navistar is also named as a party to the fraud and within moments of the suits being filed has offered to pay a penalty of $7.5 million to settle. The regulatory agency statement said the company and its former leader “failed to fully disclose the company’s difficulties obtaining Environmental Protection Agency certification of a truck engine able to meet stricter EPA Clean Air Act standards.”

Just some of the incredible complexity surrounding
the MaxxForce in a test drive in 2009.
The story broke during the first few hours of the 2016 Mid America Trucking Show, and the 57-page complaint was in my e-mail within moments. Navistar said that “Settling this matter will avoid the expense and distraction of a potential dispute with the SEC” according to a quickly responding Transport Topics. No word if this will be accepted as yet.

The SEC complaint, with a demand for a jury trial for Ustian, is very specific in detailing how Ustian contrived to mislead the investment community and the press through publicly available Analyst Calls right up until the moment in July 2012 when the whole house of cards came tumbling down. 

That was when the company declared it would pursue Selective Catalytic Reduction (SCR) as the technology it would employ to meet EPA2010 and not the Advanced exhaust gas recirculation (A-EGR) championed by Ustian and his bunch of yes-men.

In fact, reading the complaint is very revealing. There were many in the company’s engineering side talking and e-mailing internally that the Navistar was heading up a blind technology alley but Ustian placed a gag order on them. One in particular is a jewel.

In paragraph 60 of the complaint, you can read the following: “In fact, at the time the 2011 Application was submitted to the EPA, the engine described in the application could run only in the testing laboratory. In a February 9, 2011 email regarding the engine covered by the 2011 Application, a Navistar Senior Technical Specialist working on certification matters told other engineers in the certification group:
‘I asked a bigger question. Would this engine ever be drivable in a truck and I got laughs in response.... Translation you have a[n] underpowered 13 liter engine that is coughing, sputtering and wheezing like some terminal cancer patient on a respirator’.”

And how about this: “When Navistar’s Vice President of Powertrain Product Development forwarded this email to Navistar’s Vice President of Integrated Product Development and suggested he talk with Ustian about these issues with the D-cert engine, the Vice President of Integrated Product Development responded that Ustian “totally knows it” and advised him to “[t]ell these guys to not worry about this sh[--] and not keep sending emails to each other.”

Now here’s the big kicker, and it’s there in the indictment as fact. One of the proposed solutions to the problem that the engine would run – just about – in the test lab but could not possibly power a truck was to propose to EPA that there be two lookup tables for the engine controller: one to be used in test, the other when the truck was going down the road. They made this proposal with a straight face but EPA laughed them down. In the now famous Dieselgate, Volkswagen did the exact same thing, and presumably at just about the same time, though without asking EPA’s permission.

The sad thing is that this after-the-fact bolting of the stable door will never reconstitute the fortunes of the many family trucking businesses that had to close their doors because of the unreliability of the MaxxForce and the hubris of one man: Dan Ustian. One has to hope the courts will come down on him like a ton of bricks and put him in the poorhouse along with all those customers he misled and with the financial community he duped.

March 24, 2016

The brave new world of platooning

In the demo, three trucks traveled maintaining about 50 feet
 between them to illustrate the safety and convenience
 intrinsic with Daimler Highway Pilot Connect.
Suddenly, it’s all about platooning trucks in the name of fuel efficiency, infrastructure optimization and driver satisfaction.

Volvo has just staged a seminar on the topic. There’s a multi-manufacturer challenge throughout Europe in several weeks. And Daimler Trucks staged a massive media event in Germany showcasing its take on trucking communications with a special emphasis on platooning.

So what is platooning?

It’s not a new concept but one that is enabled by the latest digital technologies. It’s all about jamming vehicles together in a line where they all talk to each other while closing up together to gain fuel efficiency and to increase the capacity of the highway system. It’s most appropriate to trucks since they use a lot of fuel and a lot of highway.

So there are demonstration projects going on in Europe and the United States to show how the technology will look and feel.

To my mind the most effective so far is the recent platooning demo by Daimler. It combines the fuel-saving concept with its already introduced autonomous driving truck technologies, introduced in Europe in 2014 and in the United States in 2015.

That “driverless” truck demonstration by the hi-tech Daimler companies Mercedes-Benz and Freightliner introduced the world to trucks that could guide themselves on the highway, maintaining a set speed and steering themselves to keep in lane while the driver kicked back and enjoyed the scenery.

At the time, a lot of us said, that’s all well and good, but in the end, what does it get us but a more relaxed driver and potentially safer highways.

The answer is: It gets us platooning.

The basic self-driving technology in Daimler’s vocabulary is Highway Pilot. The latest rollout is Highway Pilot Connect, and it’s a truly workable concept that combines the efficiencies of platooning of trucks, and the economy and ecological gains of better economy with the driver lifestyle improvement of a self-driving truck.

The demonstration on the German A52 Autobahn featured three trucks each talking to the others through vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communications. Drivers have available platooning buttons on the dash and dash-mounted tablets that relay all the information about the platoon, including a camera view from the lead truck that allows the following drivers to see what is going on ahead of the platoon from a camera in the lead truck.

And while the demo featured three trucks to illustrate the safety and convenience features that are intrinsic with the Daimler Highway Pilot Connect, the platoon may, in the fullness of time, extend to as many as 10 trucks in a line with only about 50 feet between them.

In practice

In practice, a Connect-enabled truck looks out to find other Connect vehicles – and it’s an open, standardized technology, so those other vehicles don’t have to be Daimler products or even the same fleet-owned trucks. When a similarly equipped truck responds, it’s invited to join the platoon.

There’s driver involvement in setting up the platoon, but once established the technology takes over to draw other trucks into the platoon and pretty soon “We’ve got ourselves a convoy.”

The beauty of the Daimler system is that once engaged, all trucks are autonomous, self-driving units, basically connected by electronic drawbars. All driving tasks are taken by the individual trucks while the whole platoon acts in concert. Drivers can kick back in the seat while watching over the controls, in exactly the same way that airline pilots keep watch over their self-guided planes.

There’s a whole lot of technology associated with platooning that allows for other non-connected vehicles cutting into the platoon to, for instance, get to an off-ramp or whatever.

On the Autobahn?

And in the German demonstration, when passing an Autobahn on-ramp, the platoon would stretch out to the mandated minimum vehicle-to-vehicle 160-foot spacing to allow for merging traffic. Then as soon as the intersection was cleared and merging traffic moved out of the platoon, it closed up to realize the average 7 percent fuel savings of the trucks in the line.

So, where we were scratching our heads over the practicality of self-driving trucks previously, it all falls into place when combined with truck-to-truck connectivity.

It’s a brave new world and it’s coming to a freeway near you soon. Much sooner than you might think.