Trucking Gets Sophisticated Wireless communication, comfy cabs, and better brakes are becoming the norm in long-haul trucking. That's good, because this is one hard way to make a living.
By Stewart Brown

(FORTUNE Magazine) – As the economy roars along, so does the trucking industry, bringing everything to everybody. Trucks are taking on added roles too, as more manufacturers demand just-in-time parts delivery and more consumers buy from mail-order catalogs and the Web. But also roaring like a hurricane is competition among haulers, increasingly ferocious since trucking was deregulated in 1980. It's a brutally tough business. One fleet manager says that just five days of unscheduled downtime can vaporize a truck's profits for a year. Imagine traveling 100,000 miles, which is what the average long-haul truck does over that period, and seeing it all vanish. Welcome to freight hauling.

To help truckers survive, companies that build the big rigs are offering dazzling new technology to cut down on accidents. They're also working on ingenious ways to curb those black clouds of diesel exhaust. For a business plagued by high driver turnover, truck builders are designing unheard-of comfort into the cab. Trucking companies, meanwhile, are going high tech in an effort to keep their fleets working to the maximum. The latest satellite communication and tracking systems let them see where their big rigs are and even monitor their mechanical health from afar.

The fanciest and most elaborate improvements are going into Class 8 tractors, the diesel workhorses of intercity trucking that pull trailers full of everything from strawberries to circuitboards. Sales of Class 8 tractors, priced from $70,000 to $110,000 depending on how they are powered and equipped, reached a best-ever 262,000 units last year, up 25% from a record-setting 1998. Business this year, however, has cooled under the influence of higher fuel prices and interest rates, and a flood of recent-model used trucks.

Even as trucks become more numerous and in their way luxurious, it's harder than ever to attract and keep reliable drivers. Current estimates put driver turnover at 100% a year. Pay isn't always the reason; long-haul truckers working for fleets earn an average of $41,000 a year plus benefits. But they typically spend ten-hour stretches at the wheel, the maximum permitted by the U.S. Department of Transportation, and are away from home an average of eight days at a time and sometimes as many as 30. Statistics on the wages and hours of owner-operators, who drive their own trucks, are harder to come by. Their earnings are often lower, and their working conditions more grueling, than those of big-fleet drivers.

To keep their best drivers, the fleets are tempting them with chrome-and-steel carrots. The message is: Be safe and on time, respect the machinery, drive for the best fuel mileage, and you'll end up behind the wheel of a beautifully appointed new tractor with your name on the door. Truckers, as status-conscious as anybody else if not more so, respond positively to being put in charge of a "spec'd out" chunk of rolling majesty. The posh sleeper compartments in the back of these tractors, where drivers curl up for the night while pulled over at rest areas, are nicer than a lot of motels. Bigger models have double beds, a feature that appeals to the growing number of husband-and-wife driving teams.

Visits to a couple of technologically aggressive truckmakers, Freightliner and Kenworth, provide a glimpse of the advanced features being built into today's long-haul rigs. Freightliner Trucks of Portland, Ore., which was acquired by Daimler-Benz in 1981, commands a 32% share of the U.S. heavy-truck market. Kenworth Truck Co. in Kirkland, Wash., claims 11% and shares R&D with Peterbilt, which accounts for another 10%; both are divisions of Paccar Corp. in Bellevue, Wash. (The rest of the market is divided among International, Mack, Volvo, and Sterling, the former Ford heavy-truck unit now owned by Freightliner.)

Like others in the business, Freightliner and Kenworth build diesel tractors to order from a long list of available components provided by a flock of suppliers. These include such enginemakers as Caterpillar, Cummins, and Detroit Diesel. Long before anybody was crowing about mass customization, builders of big trucks were doing it.

The truckmakers like to trot out their counterparts of the auto industry's gee-whiz concept cars. To wow the fans at trade shows, they assemble rolling technology showcases packed with prototype and production equipment. Like the automakers, the truckmakers also gather intelligence about what the market wants. For the past two years Kenworth has hit the show circuit with feature-crammed high-tech versions of its top-of-the-line T2000 aerodynamic tractor. The company scored a PR coup last year when a TV production company decided to build an action series called 18 Wheels of Justice (shown on the cable channel TNT) around the show truck and a handsome do-gooder who pilots it from one adventure to the next.

This year's T2000, a red-orange affair, went on tour with a host of new high-tech features. They include a fingerprint ID ignition switch that won't soon be sold by dealers and a navigation system that will be available this year. The show rig also has an infrared night-vision system built by Bendix that's pricey at about $5,000 today but that will quickly become more affordable, like all things electronic. Cadillac offers a similar system in cars, and it's easy to see how truckers, who may spend a third of their time driving in darkness, would appreciate tripling the distance from which they can see hazards like disabled vehicles.

Freightliner has put together a "safety concept vehicle" with an array of technologies that are migrating into its production trucks this year. One challenge that Freightliner engineers have tackled is preventing deadly rollovers. Of the approximately 700 truck drivers killed on the road in the U.S. each year, about half die in accidents of this type. Surprisingly, one of the biggest causes of rollovers is making a lane change too abruptly. The other major cause is carrying too much speed onto an exit ramp. In either case the truck's center of gravity, which is much higher than a car's, suddenly ends up in control of things, and the rig goes over with awful consequences.

Drivers often learn too late that their truck is about to roll. Freightliner engineering manager Tony Moore has a hair-raising videotape of a flatbed tractor-trailer truck laden with coils of sheet steel executing abrupt U-turns at the company's test track. In the next-to-last run, the inside wheels at the back of the trailer briefly lift off the pavement, then settle back down. On the final run, the rig starts the turn just a bit faster and the left rear wheels lift dramatically, twisting the trailer's heavy I-beam frame like a stick of gum. Not until the trailer's rear axles are almost vertical do the wheels of the tractor begin to lift. Just as the driver realizes he's in trouble, the energy stored in the twisted trailer frame releases itself, snapping the tractor violently onto its right side. You wouldn't want to be in there.

Freightliner's remedy, which it is about to introduce, is a rollover-alert system that will cost about $700. When a driver steers a truck into a turn or lane change too fast, a lateral-force sensor triggers a beeper and a blinking light in the cab. If these don't inspire the driver to back off, the truck does it for him electronically by reducing the engine speed to idle. The system can also activate a so-called engine brake, which uses the compression in the engine's cylinders to slow the truck even if the driver doesn't hit the wheel brakes. By scrubbing off a few more mph, this could mean the difference between staying upright and tumbling down an embankment.

Wheel brakes are also getting attention. Since 1998, federal regulations have required that heavy trucks and trailers be equipped with antilock braking systems (ABSs), which prevent wheels from skidding and enable drivers to steer during hard braking. A truck's ABS is similar to an automobile's ABS, which rapidly releases and reapplies individual brakes as the wheels approach lockup to avoid loss of traction. The difference is that truck brakes are powered by compressed air, so the ABS selectively releases air pressure instead of hydraulic pressure as a car's system does.

Of the approximately three million tractors and ten million trailers in service in the U.S., only a modest fraction have ABS. And new tractors often tow old trailers, which presents problems. In that situation, decreasing the stopping distance can be tricky, says Freightliner's Moore, because an old trailer without ABS may be unable to brake as fast as a new tractor with ABS. Freightliner and other makers equip their tractors with ABS control computers that strive to keep the two braking systems balanced by monitoring the trailer's braking and adjusting its own to be a good team player. This isn't a trivial concern. Unequal brake response can induce a jackknife accident in which tractor and trailer try to go separate ways.

Truckmakers are also pushing ahead with brake systems that are more responsive to the driver's foot. Known as electronically controlled brake systems, or EBSs, they are available on some Freightliners. Standard air brakes on trucks are quite powerful but respond with a fair amount of delay when the pedal is pressed. New drivers have to learn to use them safely. One complication: The brakes on an unladen truck are much more sensitive than those on a rig that's maxed out with cargo.

EBS can eliminate today's shortcomings and make the pedal feel as responsive as a passenger car's. Current air-brake systems with ABS can bring a truck from 60 mph to a full stop in 250 feet to 280 feet. Freightliner engineering vice president Michael von Mayenburg says a truck with EBS brakes can slice another 15% off that distance. (Typical 60-to-zero stopping distance for a family car is about 140 feet.) Ironically, trucks with such great brakes can get rear-ended during panic stops by ordinary trucks that can't stop as quickly. In Europe, some rigs with high-performance brakes carry signs on the back warning other vehicles not to get too close.

Freightliner has long benefited from engineering liaisons with its German parent. Mercedes' ergonomics expertise is reflected in the well-laid-out interiors of Freightliner cabs. With more women and Latinos of shorter stature becoming drivers, engineers need to accommodate a greater range of human dimensions. Josef Loczi, a German ergonomist working at the company's Portland body-engineering lab, uses vivid virtual-reality simulations to develop designs that provide good visibility to drivers of all sizes. One of the lab's innovations--adjustable brake, clutch, and throttle pedals that accommodate drivers who are short of leg or big of belly--recently became available on production tractors.

Another new feature, introduced on big trucks in the past couple of years, makes child's play of gearshifting. Just try figuring out how to smoothly shift a 13-speed, nonsynchronized, traditional truck gearbox, with all the double-clutching and manipulation of pneumatic "splitters" that engage and disengage overdrives, and you will understand the allure of an easier setup. The new "automated" gearboxes, which add $4,000 to $7,000 to the price of a tractor, enable greenhorns to approach the gear-changing finesse of old-timers.

These gearboxes aren't fully automatic, like those in cars. They consist of a system of electrical actuators bolted on top of a manual gearbox where the shifter handle would normally emerge. To pull away from a stop, all the driver has to do is depress the clutch pedal, select "D" for drive, and let out the clutch. After that the gears change themselves automatically as the truck accelerates or slows. The system even adjusts engine rpm to the proper speed to avoid the sound of crunching steel teeth as the gears mesh. To be sure, a lot of guys who take pride in their mastery of balky gearboxes wouldn't be caught dead driving one of these sissy setups. But women and other new drivers who grew up with automatic-transmission cars embrace them. The U.S. Department of Labor says that 175,000 women are driving trucks today--Class 8s as well as smaller ones--up from 100,000 a decade ago. Kenworth says 12% of its tractors roll off the assembly line with automated gearboxes, and 15% of Freightliners are sold with them. They're made by Eaton Fuller in Galesburg, Mich., and Meritor Automotive in Troy, Mich.

Trucks made great strides in fuel efficiency with the adoption of aerodynamic body shapes in the 1980s and electronic fuel injection during the 1990s. Some trucks gained as much as 30% in miles per gallon over their mechanically fuel-injected, square-nosed predecessors. Once fleets saw the fuel savings of aerodynamic bodies, they adopted them wholesale. But owner-operators, those sometimes crusty freelancers who own their own rigs, are a stubborn bunch. Many will accept a penalty of a mile or two per gallon, which is a lot, considering that an 18-wheeler may burn a gallon of fuel every six or seven miles. What matters to them is spending the working day behind a long, stately hood with an upright, chrome-trimmed radiator. These guys know what a real truck looks like.

Whether they prefer aerodynamic or angular shapes, truckers agree on one thing: They prefer "conventional" tractors with the engine out in front. Flat-fronted, cab-over-engine designs, which used to be everywhere, are getting scarce. The driver's seat in a cab-over-engine tractor is right above the front axle, which makes the ride rougher. The main reason for cab-over-engine went away with deregulation, when states largely stopped enforcing overall-length rules. Also, drivers knew the ride and the look they wanted, and conventional long-nosed tractors once again dominate the road.

Engineers at the truckmakers and at the suppliers of big diesel engines think that all the easy gains in fuel economy have been made. Now they're concentrating on meeting the EPA's 2002 air-pollution rules. These will require the addition of exhaust-gas recirculation, or EGR, hardware to cut nitrogen oxide emissions. James Bechtold, chief engineer at the Paccar Technical Center in Mount Vernon, Wash., which designs Kenworths and Peterbilts, says EGR will substantially raise temperatures under the hood. This will necessitate a 30% increase in engine cooling. "We hope we will be able to get the extra cooling by carefully managing the underhood airflow instead of making the radiator bigger, which is bad for aerodynamics," he says.

Under the next phase of the EPA's aggressive timetable, trucks must achieve a huge additional reduction in pollution. In draft form, the EPA's 2007 standards call for a 90% cut in particulate emissions, or soot, and a 95% cut in nitrogen oxides. For the first time, the EPA has coupled its mandate for the engine builders with a regulation affecting fuel composition. Under the new rules, refiners will have to slash the sulfur content of diesel fuel 97% from today's level, to just 15 parts per million.

In calling for this, the EPA is taking a so-called systems approach, which recognizes that the composition of the fuel going into an engine affects what can be done to clean up its exhaust. Engine makers, which lobbied for the sulfur reduction, are applauding the strategy. "We look quite favorably on the EPA's proposed 15ppm sulfur limit," says Christine Vujovich, vice president of environmental policy and product strategy at Cummins Engine Co. in Columbus, Ind. "There are a lot of things we can do to combustion technology, but there's nothing we can do to sulfur. What goes in comes out."

Getting the sulfur out of diesel fuel removes a major impediment to cleaner-burning engines. It lets engine designers add catalytic exhaust-scrubbing devices that couldn't otherwise be used because sulfur poisons their chemistry in much the same way that the leaded gasoline of yore would have poisoned the catalytic converters on today's automobiles.

Patrick Charbonneau, vice president of engine engineering at International Truck & Engine Corp. in Chicago, is a technological optimist. The EPA's tough standards, he thinks, will be achievable with some hard work on the part of engine designers and the companies that supply exhaust "aftertreatment" devices. Two gadgets in the development labs, he says, can help clean up diesels. The first, and the nearest to being ready for prime time, is called a catalyzed particulate filter. It can remove 90% to 95% of the soot from exhaust, putting an end to the black smoke that doesn't help a truck's public image. Periodically raising the filter's operating temperature causes the accumulated soot inside it to burn without smoking, extending the device's useful life.

International has announced that it will begin selling diesel school buses equipped with catalyzed particulate filters next year in Southern California. Refiners there, most notably Arco, have promised to make available, years before they are required to, ultra-low-sulfur fuel that meets the 15ppm standard. "The filter also captures the unburned hydrocarbons, which cause that diesel smell," boasts Charbonneau. "We've been demonstrating this school bus engine by putting a handkerchief on the tailpipe, and there's no soot or smell on the handkerchief."

The other aftertreatment device is called an adsorber, which offers the best hope of meeting the EPA's 2007 standards for curbing nitrogen oxides. Both the adsorber and the particulate trap are made from a ceramic honeycomb material coated with precious-metal catalysts and housed in a stainless-steel can, much like a car's catalytic converter. A combination of the two catalytic devices and EGR, with its higher temperatures and greater cooling requirements, is what it will take for road-going diesels to stay square with the EPA.

Trucking's new technology isn't confined to all the changes taking place in the vehicles. Truckers are becoming part of the wired world, in ways that provide amenities and improve the economics of hauling. Many long-distance drivers have laptop computers in their rigs. At a growing number of truck stops, they can hook up to PNV (formerly called Park 'N View and on the Web at, a service that provides cable TV, phone access, and messaging as well as Internet access. Drivers plug their cabs into the system with cables connected to "home plates," ground-mounted receptacles in the parking lots where big trucks congregate. The drivers can kick back in the sleeper with a movie, check their e-mail, surf trucking Websites in search of loads, or whatever.

Working with a large Mercedes-Benz fuel-cell development group in Germany, engineers at Freightliner are collaborating on another project that could make life more pleasant in those parking lots. The research is focused on using quiet fuel cells, running on hydrogen extracted onboard from diesel fuel, to provide heat and to power a truck's electrical systems when it's parked. That way, the big diesel wouldn't need to idle for hours at a higher cost in fuel, wear and tear, and noise.

The biggest advance in the deployment of trucks across great distances is Omnitracs. Developed in the late 1980s by Qualcomm of San Diego--now better known for its cell-phone products and volatile stock price--Omnitracs was the first satellite-based mobile communications and tracking system for the transportation industry. Still the leader in this field, it uses circular white antennas, sometimes referred to as "popcorn poppers," mounted on a cab's roof to keep track of 325,000 vehicles worldwide.

Omnitracs relays messages from fleet headquarters and drivers' responses. It also determines a truck's location at frequent intervals by triangulating signals sent to the truck by a pair of geostationary commercial satellites above North America. One benefit of knowing where your trucks are is recognizing anomalies. Each month Omnitracs helps locate and recover an average of 17 trucks stolen by thieves who didn't realize the vehicles were automatically reporting their positions, says Dave Brandos, Qualcomm's marketing vice president for wireless business solutions.

Omnitracs has been known to make drivers feel that Big Brother is watching. Nevertheless, it has been warmly embraced by fleet operators like Schneider National of Green Bay, Wis., which has installed the units in its entire fleet of 15,000 bright orange tractors. Schneider National's drivers used to waste a lot of time looking around for pay phones to check in with their dispatchers. That ended in 1988, when Schneider became the first fleet to adopt Omnitracs. Says Paul Mueller, Schneider's vice president of communications technology services: "I don't think we could operate our fleet effectively without mobile wireless communication. We have grown up around having real-time contact with our drivers."

In its latest version, Omnitracs has an in-cab keyboard and display screen that the driver uses when pulled over for a rest stop. When a fleet dispatcher sends a message to a truck, it travels through phone lines to Qualcomm's network-management center in San Diego, a humming operation that handles four million messages and position reports daily. From there the message is beamed to a communications satellite, which relays it to the truck on the road.

As a truck proceeds through the life cycle of a shipment, the driver stays in touch with his or her dispatcher at every step of the way, from accepting a new load assignment to delivering the cargo to the recipient. In between, driver and dispatcher stay abreast of intermediate arrivals and departures, road conditions, and schedule changes.

When a Schneider driver arrives at a shipper's loading dock, for example, he or she keys in a short message that says "arrived shipper." Once the truck is loaded and ready to depart, the driver sends a brief "departing shipper" message. Known as "macros," these frequently used canned messages are like the codes police dispatchers use when talking to cops in their cruisers. Unless something is out of the ordinary, the messages received via Omnitracs enter Schneider's fleet-management computer system without requiring any human attention.

People at the dispatch center need to get involved only if there's an exception to the routine, such as a driver who's lost and wants route instructions, or a truck that has broken down and needs a mechanic. Every hour, the Omitracs system calculates the truck's location in relation to the satellites above and transmits a position report to Schneider's computer system. Thus, as the day unfolds, each truck's progress from pickup to drop-off points is tracked, and plans for the days ahead can be made with greater precision.

Making accurate estimates of transit and arrival times is critical when the customer is a manufacturing plant receiving parts from suppliers on a just-in-time basis. "A lot of the inbound loading docks at just-in-time plants are very tightly scheduled, and the delivery-time windows are less than 30 minutes," says Schneider's Mueller. "If we miss the window, we miss our service-level commitment, and our truck goes to the end of the line. It can sit for six hours waiting to unload."

In addition to knowing where its tractors are, Schneider National is testing a separate communications system to keep track of some of its 43,000 trailers. Several hundred are equipped with tracking and sensing units built by Vantage Tracking Solutions of Dulles, Va. The rechargeable battery-powered devices make position calculations and communicate via the Orbcomm constellation of low-earth-orbit satellites. The relatively short distance to the satellites means the transmitters don't have to be very powerful, which helps extend battery life.

Each trailer is equipped with ultrasonic sensors that detect whether it contains cargo, and other sensors that can tell if it's hooked to a tractor or just standing alone. The Vantage gadget checks in with headquarters at programmed intervals and reports the trailer's status. "For the most part, today we still rely on manual yard checks that get faxed to us or called in, and things can fall through the cracks," says Mueller. "We want to know in near-real time when a trailer becomes available, and we think this system will help us manage our trailers in the way Qualcomm has helped us with our tractors." Once testing is complete, Schneider plans to equip its trailers with Vantage systems at the rate of 1,000 or more per month.

Truck fleets have found other uses for communications technology. Qualcomm's engineers have been busily adding amazing new features. An example is a system called Sensortracs, which exploits the wealth of electronic data available onboard North-American-built trucks. Called a "performance reporting module," Sensortracs collects and transmits signals from sensors all over the tractor. Dispatchers can remotely monitor such variables as a truck's speed, fuel consumption, and vital signs from the engine and transmission. They can alert a driver to a problem he or she may not yet be aware of.

Western Distributing Transportation Corp. in Denver, which operates 162 long-haul trucks, has a reward-and-punishment system for its drivers based on electronic monitoring. Using information from a wireless system made by HighwayMaster Communications of Richardson, Texas, Western stays in touch with drivers hauling produce and other cargo all over the country. Its trucks are equipped with big 550-horsepower engines that help them make good time "pulling the hill" over the Rockies and into California.

The idea is to encourage drivers to operate in ways that save money for Western Distributing. Respect for the rig is rewarded with more speed and horsepower, remotely downloaded into the engine-control chip via the HighwayMaster system. Says vice president Dino Guadagni: "In exchange for doing some fuel- and machinery-conserving things, the driver gets the ability to sprint up the hills when he wants to."

Western Distributing's rewards are based on information stored in the memories of computer chips that control today's electronically fuel-injected diesel engines. The data--such as maximum rpms attained, idling time, top speed, and throttle position--are a kind of dossier on the driver's respect for the rig. Truck engines get the best fuel efficiency when shifted within a fairly narrow "sweet spot" in the rpm range. Among other things, Western Distributing wants to encourage each driver to recognize that sweet spot and stay there. The chip's memory reveals whether he or she has.

The fleet also wants to discourage excessive engine idling. "Some guys are real bad about never turning off the engine when they're at rest stops, which wastes fuel," Guadagni says. "We've got a program where we allow our drivers up to 30% idle time. If a guy comes in and he's been idling 40% of the time, we say, 'Every time you don't manage this right, you lose the privilege of being able to keep up with the other trucks.' And we back off the speed that the chip will give him."

How's that for technology that copes with the unforgiving competitive climate in which truckers operate? It's one thing to build vehicles that are safer and easier to drive, and to use satellites to know a truck's whereabouts. But economic survival depends heavily on the driver at the wheel. This innovation lets fleet owners look right over his shoulder.