The future is exciting

Rick Mihelic Headshot

The biggest headline coming out of the 2019 ACT Expo was from Daimler’s Roger Nielsen’s keynote address stating that “the future is electric.” Very early Friday morning after the 2024 ACT Expo, sitting alone with a handful of slot machines at the far end of McCarran Las Vegas airport terminal, with Sheryl Crow’s “Leaving Las Vegas” thoughtfully playing over the intercom, I had time to consolidate all that I’d seen, heard and felt.

In my role at NACFE, I have to view the world as an “unbiased, fuel agnostic source of freight efficiency technology information,” regardless of my personal feelings. I have a fascination with the history of technology transitions, especially the phasing out of steam trains with diesel-electric ones, which occurred in roughly 20 years. I often try to imagine being various technology advocates on both sides of that transition. There were die-hard steam supporters coming up with fantastic turbine based technologies in an attempt to prolong steam’s domination of rail. There were passenger train advocates committed to faster, better passenger trains somewhat oblivious to the looming dominance of aircraft for transporting passengers. And there were the visionary diesel-electric advocates that had no problem putting two, three or four early diesel-electric trains into operation to replace a massive single steam engine knowing that the maintenance, fuel and labor costs reductions would easily offset the performance.  

Sitting in McCarran’s terminal, I posted on social media that I felt “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” The title of Hunter S. Thompson’s book might well describe some of the experiences at the phenomenal ACT Expo 2024. For others, the Elvis classic “Viva Las Vegas” might capture the upbeat mood. The media professionals did an admirable job of summarizing the firehose of facts and opinions, the surprises and the theatrics.

From my point of view, ACT Expo 2024 was a tremendous demonstration of engineering prowess by everyone who attended. ACT Expo was simply magnificent. Kudos to Erik Neandross, his capable team and the trucking industry for pulling off such an impactful event. From the perspective of technology, I had the same feeling of magnitude I did the first time I walked up to the rim of the Grand Canyon. The photographs and media coverage simply cannot capture that feeling. The phrase “overwhelming” is stuck in my head.

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Just 10 years ago, nearly all of the technologies shown at ACT Expo were mostly dreams: a handful of prototypes, many unfunded projects on back burners, and some “crazy ideas” not yet formed into real proposals.

In 2014, the Cummins/Peterbilt SuperTruck 1 was shown to the world, revealed by the President of the United States at a DOE event in the suburbs of Washington. The other SuperTruck 1 teams, Daimler, Volvo and Navistar, were close behind with their vehicles. These were all diesel-based marvels, each exceeding 10 MPG hauling 65,000 lbs. gross vehicle weight. ACT EXPO 2014 had a good deal of focus on alternative fuel vehicles, particularly natural gas and propane technology. Those technologies were just ramping up, as one speaker stated, “There are 19 million natural gas vehicles in operation globally today, but only 142,000 are in the U.S.”

At the same time, I was transitioning from working for an OEM to private life. NACFE offered me an opportunity to write about aerodynamics and fuel economy, which are some of my favorite topics. I was to write one report and see where it went from there.

I’ve been fortunate in my career to be in the right place at the right time. I’ve been helped many times by sage mentors, unsung pioneers in technology efforts, people that could trace their roots back to the 1970s on projects like the groundbreaking Kenworth T600 and Peterbilt Model 372, and had first-hand experience with testing and deployment of the first roof fairings in the 1960s.

I found over the years working in both aerospace and trucking that the public has absolutely no clue how advanced companies really are. Research and development are on-going all the time, behind closed doors. Rarely do public researchers, scientists and regulators get to see even 10% of the innovations hidden in the cloak of company secrecy.

I also found that OEM managers and engineers have remarkably short memories. Companies have probably “done it before” if you look deep enough. Corporate memory is lost every time someone retires, quits or is laid off. Retaining company knowledge requires talking to a lot of subject matter experts before they disappear.

That one NACFE aerodynamics report became three separate ones on determining efficiency, tractor and then trailer aerodynamics, updated for NACFE in 2020 by retired Volvo expert Frank Bio. In parallel with releasing those three reports, my friends at SAE awarded me the 2016 L. Ray Buckendale honor, which came with having to write a value-added, peer reviewed report, and having to give a presentation at the annual Commercial Vehicle Congress (COMVEC).

Since 2014, technology has not disappointed. Daimler showed off an autonomous truck driving across the Hoover Dam in 2015. DOE launched SuperTruck 2 in 2016, funding five teams to build on the successes of SuperTruck 1. Cummins and Tesla showed off battery electric semi-trucks in 2017, followed by news releases from nearly everyone about their own zero-emission projects.

NACFE did the first Run on Less event in 2017, demonstrating that real-world drivers and current truck technology could exceed 10 MPG in actual commercial operations. NACFE followed that up in 2019 with Run on Less Regional, showing similar great drivers in current technology production trucks could exceed 8 MPG in regional haul routes.

We all impatiently waited for production battery electric trucks promised in 2019. The OEMs didn’t really get those going until 2023, but now every OEM has one. And “the first will be last” parable comes to mind about Tesla finally going into production now reportedly in 2025. And viable, new OEMs are coming out of the woodwork for the North American market.

The perennial effort on hydrogen fuel cells has inched a bit closer to reality after a lifetime of false starts. There are now production level trucks being fielded by Nikola and Hyundai, with more on the way. And the innovators at Cummins have introduced a twist: a hydrogen internal combustion engine.

Natural gas was the wonder child in 2014 when I retired, then seemed to get pushed to the back page of trucking industry magazines. Now, as renewable natural gas, it is back competing for headline space. Cummins has introduced a 15-liter engine to finally address many of the prior shortcomings.

I’ve watched the stumbling hybrid market, wondering if there will ever be success there. It has worked for trains since the 1940s, but somehow just can’t seem to find a receptive trucking market.

I’ve watched platooning go from “exciting” to “passe,” replaced by automated trucking. Can’t really see much difference, but semantics seem to matter.

Digital information has grown dramatically in 10 years. ELDs, GPS telematics systems on tractors and now finally going on trailers and containers, digital load boards, weigh-in-motion systems, etc., have put a massive amount of data at our fingertips. We still need to figure out how to use it.

I’ve watched regulations consistently push toward zero-emission vehicles while concurrently funding nearly all of the competing technologies to make that transition possible. Money is going into nuclear power, wind, solar, batteries, hydrogen, natural gas, carbon capture, renewable fuels, etc.

In the last 10 years, societies have gradually and grudgingly concurred that operating fossil fueled vehicles is damaging the world. There still is a huge disagreement about how to solve that, but ACT Expo’s presenters seemed to universally agree that reducing emissions is critical to our collective future.

I’ve said before that the last decade deserves a name. Just as the Bronze Age and the Industrial Revolution are firmly seated names for technology leaps, the last decade screams to have a title. The Age of Freight Enlightenment is mostly already taken, but it seems very appropriate. Some industry icon will write a New York Times best seller business book in 10- or 20-years’ time that nails an appropriate title, but I’ll let you stew on my suggestion for now.

It’s been a tremendous technology decade since 2014. In 2024, what a time to be in freight. The next 10 years will see dramatic changes in the freight industry, whether you’re a shipper, a fleet, a manufacturer, regulator, investor, the public or NGO.

Today, I have the same excitement and fear about trucking technology that I get when boarding a roller coaster. The next decade will be an interesting ride. ACT Expo 2024 had real trucks of many technological flavors everywhere from everyone. The trucking industry needs to pat itself on the back at how quickly they have all brought technological dreams to reality. Now comes the inevitable hard part: they all have to get better, get cheaper, be more capable, less problematic, and have more custom variations. That’s nothing new to OEMs who’ve been doing that for decades.

Rick Mihelic is NACFE’s Director of Emerging Technologies. He has authored for NACFE four Guidance Reports on electric and alternative fuel medium- and heavy-duty trucks and several Confidence Reports on Determining Efficiency, Tractor and Trailer Aerodynamics, Two Truck Platooning, and authored special studies on Regional Haul, Defining Production and Intentional Pairing of tractor trailers.