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Quick Q&A: Trucks, Trends and Technology

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The TCA’s David Heller weighs in on the big issues and how they may affect heavy duty shop owners in 2017.

National Transportation Week has arrived! In keeping pace with its freight-focused tone, we invited David Heller at the Truckload Carriers Association (TCA) to speak with us about the emerging changes impacting the industry and the repair businesses that keep its fleets running.

David Heller Truckload Carriers Association

Photo courtesy TCA

David Heller, vice president of government affairs at the Truckload Carriers Association.

The TCA represents operators of more than 200,000 trucks and helps shape the laws and regulations affecting the truckload sector. “Our biggest challenge is that we are outpacing the federal government when it comes to [adopting] technology and equipment that makes our carriers and drivers safer,” says Heller, vice president of government affairs.

From mandated safety gear to alternative fuels and autonomous vehicles, Heller discusses how these developments might influence the industry as a whole and change the way repair facilities do business.

How do the TCA’s initiatives and mission benefit truck repair operations?

This is a partnership, because we’re all in this together. We want maintenance shops to keep trucks running. Freight inevitably won’t be delivered [otherwise]. We need good service businesses and [technicians] who know the issues and look into these vehicles and get them fixed and operable.

What are the newest regulations that heavy duty shop owners need to be aware of in 2017?

I guess the question is how familiar are those [facilities] with electronic logging devices (ELDs)? This is the big [mandate] that’s coming, and it will be here by the end of the year. Inevitably, ELDs are going to start breaking down. They’re the first among a long line of technology as we start looking at things the industry puts forth, such as the “Beyond Compliance” rule [which is a component of the 2015 Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act]. It’s not necessarily a rule but more like a reward program [for carriers]. Now, we don’t know what [the incentives] are, but it does encourage [those in the trucking sector] to adopt [equipment], such as collision avoidance and lane departure systems, that will help prevent accidents or make them less severe. So, I think the maintenance technicians have to familiarize themselves with all this new [hardware].

An AssetWorks electronic logging device used for hours of service tracking.

What’s an essential message operators should convey to their customers about these regulations? 

The most important [information] you can pass along to these motor carriers as a shop owner would be that you’re up-to-date with technology. With things such as speed limiters, ELDs and all those [components] that relate to autonomous vehicles, if truck repair businesses can communicate their [current] knowledge of [these developments], I think it will go leaps and bounds in helping them attract and retain customers.

What are the main safety hazards associated with Class 8 vehicles?

We have a classic infrastructure problem. The American Society of Civil Engineers just graded our roads, bridges and [highways] as D+, so I think as it relates to [technicians], [improving them] is going to be one of the bigger safety initiatives because of the effects they have on these machines. When you drive along a bumpy road, it has an impact to the point where maintenance on these trucks becomes more important.

What types of equipment can heavy duty shop owners install to minimize danger?

I just saw a release today by the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety (IIHS) talking about side guards on trucks. This seems basic in nature, but studies are being done right now that [show it can] lower the impact of fatalities when it comes to side-struck [big rigs]. Is this [something] we can start putting on trailers? Definitely. At some point, it’s going to start creeping up, and guess what? Service shops are going to have to be able to [install them]. The industry has been prolific in creating technology and devices that will help prevent accidents and [deaths], and [repair businesses] have to be ever-changing to understand what those new developments are and making sure their technicians are fully integrated and educated on the issues.

The Insurance Institute of Highway Safety tests a side underride guard’s effectiveness in preventing a car from sliding under a trailer.

Should and will side guards become mandatory on Class 8 vehicles?

I don’t know if they would be [required] or not. I can say we as an industry do an excellent job of getting ahead of the mandates. If they will save lives, we will put them on trucks. If they are not good technology, our carriers are the first to know about it because they are the ones using them. So, we’re not hesitant to try anything new. With side guards, the data is being generated, and what I’ve seen looks good. I know that the IIHS is probably going to look at the [information] a little further, but whether it becomes a [law], I don’t know. Whether the industry tries and adopts it, I can say that will happen.

How will autonomous semis impact safety?

In theory, they should reduce [accident] numbers. They [supposedly] eliminate a lot of [hazards], like fatigued driving and [its dangers].

Will self-driving heavy duty vehicles push truckers out of jobs?

The need for drivers is there. We just experienced terrorist attacks in [France] and Germany, and those [strikes] were done by large trucks. Hacking [events] are [happening] every week, so the more autonomous these [machines] become, the higher the chances [for an incident] and the greater need for cybersecurity on these [rigs]. If you have a fully self-navigating vehicle without a driver in it, and it gets hacked by a terrorist or something along those lines, that is one of the big worries. You start looking for these autonomous trucks to have a “kill switch” of some sort, so the driver can go into a manually operational mode. And, when it does that, there needs to be someone behind the steering wheel to operate it. Will it replace truckers? No. Will the role of the driver change? Almost certainly, yes.

Toyota Project Portal Truck

Photo courtesy Toyota

Toyota’s zero-emission concept truck is powered by hydrogen.

What’s your take on the alternative fuel and electric trucks being researched and manufactured by Nikola, Toyota and Daimler?

As a [substitute], does the infrastructure exist to refuel or recharge them? Putting [the support] in place for these vehicles is not an inexpensive endeavor. Is it something they could possibly start looking at as we begin making improvements across this country? Until that becomes a reality, I think alternative fuel trucks will make inroads at least, but will they make the ones they hoped for? I don’t think so until that [development] becomes readily available.

The independent shop owner is put into one of those interesting spots, because you have to be a master of everything.

How do you see the shift from manual to automatic transmissions in big rigs impacting the industry?

Traditionally speaking, we were a manual transmission type of industry, but the funny thing that has happened on the way to improving our field is that the automatic [Class 8 truck]  has become more prevalent. The [armed forces] drive the automatic vehicles, and there’s a big “hire and recruit military” issue out there. We wanted to put [veterans] in vehicles that they could easily transition to, and I think there has been a [focus on] ease of use in developing an automatic transmission [hauler] and incorporating it in our fleets for those operators who are new to our [world]. We’re looking for drivers, and, [if there is] anything we can do to make the [switch] easier, we will go down that road to do so.

How can the independent shop owner impact the safety of heavy duty trucks on a day-to-day basis?

The independent shop owner is put into one of those interesting spots, especially when we’re talking about [regulations involving] speed limiters and ELDs, because you have to be a master of everything. The hope is that these old, remodeled semis will be antiquated and put out of the system, but there’s still a demand for them. Why? Because, if that regulation were to ever come out, the earlier models like the 1992 or older vehicles don’t need to have a speed limiter put on them. The independent shop has to stay abreast with the older equipment and how to maintain it and keep it up to snuff. But they also have to follow what’s coming out because people obviously buy new trucks or newer used vehicles.

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