Seat belts, natural gas pains and a glimpse at the future

Updated Aug 27, 2014

overweight-lap-belt-click-getty-250A couple of news stories caught my eye this week – and it’s only Tuesday.

The first item, from The Huffington Post, details current research into seatbelts – specifically shoulder belts, which could – in the very near future – be reconfigured as biorhythm monitors.

The belts could be part of a future smart truck system tracking how alert and awake a driver is. It’s even possible the system could call 911 locally in the event of a heart attack.

Think about that for a moment: A future truck could determine that a driver has had a heart attack or another medical emergency, would respond by calling local authorities for medical help with GPS coordinates, and – quite possibly – even take over control of the vehicle to avoid an accident and steer itself safety to the side of the road.

Additionally, it’s very possible the truck will then be able to contact the fleet, download the driver’s health records and transmit them to the medical team en route to the emergency.

It’s an interesting snapshot of how many different technologies are starting to converge in trucking and how dramatic the level of change coming will be. Do privacy issues come into play here? Would drivers resist a biorhythm seat belt? Or would they prefer such a seat belt to an in-cab camera on them all day long?

The second story came from my boss, Linda Longton, (who you can – and should – follow on Twitter: @llongton) who sent me this story from the Wall Street Journal this morning on how natural gas adoption in Class 8 truck applications has stalled recently.

While there’s not a lot here that’s a bolt out of the blue to those of us in trucking, it is worth noting that natural gas as a hot tech has cooled off a lot quicker than I anticipated. The WJS writer lists the usual reasons why: acquisition costs, slow ROI, power density, range, etc.

I’ve said repeatedly that natural gas is by no means a perfect truck fuel and will never be a fuel that fits the needs of every fleet in the country. That said, the various problems listed by the WJS author, while true, eventually became easier to deal with when the price of diesel fuel rises.

In other words, we’ve all seen this before: Diesel fuel prices suddenly shoot upward, and there’s a flurry of activity in the natural gas sector. Then diesel prices stabilize, trend downward and eventually stabilize at a new (and always-higher) “normal” price and interest in natural gas subsides.

What’s been different in this last cycle of natural gas interest has been the very tangible investments in both technology and infrastructure that it spawned (and it is still ongoing). New fueling stations and networks have been built and more are planned. Technology on natural gas engines and fuel systems continues at a rapid pace, even if OEMs have made the (very) logical decision to postpone production of certain engines until demand returns.

So, my take is that the industry is enjoying a “Good news-good news” moment with natural gas. Current fuel prices are giving fleets some breathing room and they’re not scrambling to invest in and operate natural gas trucks in a crisis situation. They have the luxury of experimenting with the technology and getting a feel for how it performs in the real world.

On the other hand, natural gas technology and infrastructure have matured dramatically and are essentially sitting on ready should the energy markets suddenly destabilize. And with the current situation in the Middle East, who knows? That could happen any day. But when that day comes (notice I did not say “if” that day comes) fleets will have viable alternate fuel options available. And although OEMs will have to move quickly to get product into the production pipeline, that is a much better position for this industry to be in than in years past.