Future tech considered, technicians congratulated at TMC event

October 11, 2019

Tom Berg

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Will cameras replace side-view mirrors? What are some of the practical implications of self-driving trucks? How should truck owners maintain their exhaust aftertreatment devices? These are among the issues taken up by members of the Technology and Maintenance Council of the American Trucking Associations at its fall meeting in mid-September in Raleigh, N.C. This meeting also featured the annual SuperTech competition, where scores of mostly young technicians test their way to the top.

Grand Champion this year was Kelby Bentley of FedEx Freight, who placed first among 87 technicians competing in the final rounds of TMC SuperTech’s Heavy-Duty Track, which tests the techs on their knowledge of Class 8 trucks. Bentley was joined on the victory podium by:

  • Joseph Paul, also of FedEx Freight, who placed first in the Trailer Track.
  • Aaron Burdick of Clarke Power Services, who placed first in the Light and Medium Track.
  • Travis Cox of Lincoln Technical Institute, who placed first in the TMC FutureTech 2019 student competition.

They had previously tested their way to the national contest in state and regional contests sponsored by suppliers and fleets. Hundreds of volunteers organized the competition and judged the written and performance tests. Technicians with the top scores at each level in the various categories advanced to higher levels, which this year culminated with the finals in Raleigh. Competitors and their spouses got expense-paid trips to Raleigh, and top winners shared awards of cash and costly tools.

Seeing better?

Many drivers might not like the idea, but in the not too distant future, cameras might replace side-view mirrors that have been part of driving almost since motor trucks began replacing horse-drawn wagons more than a century ago, according to comments in one session during the Raleigh TMC meeting. Engineers are developing “camera monitoring systems” that claim to provide a better view of what’s behind and alongside big rigs.

High-resolution cams and color screens show clear, nondistorted pictures that are superior to the images in glass mirrors, said Stephen Fox, vice president of business development at Novi, Mich.-based Stoneridge Inc., a company that is developing such a system.

Stoneridge Inc. was granted a five-year exemption by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to allow motor carriers to operate using use Stoneridge’s MirrorEye Camera Monitor System.

MirrorEye cab interior during the day.
MirrorEye monitors inside the cab. (Courtesy Stoneridge Inc.)

Cameras can directly replace bulky outside mirrors, but in testing the cameras are placed higher on vehicles to avoid the collisions that mirrors sometimes suffer. They will therefore be less likely to be blinded by splash and spray, he said. Screens in test trucks have been mounted centrally in cabs, so drivers need only to glance away from the road to see the images on a split screen, and on A-pillars, which are more in line with drivers’ current habit of looking to the side to check the mirrors, except they don’t need to turn their heads as far. Outside, only small fixtures are needed to house modern tiny cameras. With mirrors gone, vehicle aerodynamics and fuel economy could improve.

Fox said he thinks camera monitoring systems will be phased in, with cameras, screens and electronic gear supplementing existing mirrors so drivers can get used to the new equipment.

Eventually, when federal regulations are changed to allow camera systems instead of mirrors, and the industry develops quality and performance standards, mirrors can be completely done away with. For now, developers are working on tractors. Work on trailer-mounted camera systems will come later, although many delivery rigs, particularly those which venture into crowded parking lots around restaurants, already have cams. Wired and wireless connections will be part of trailer-cam development.

‘Thermal events’

While you’re checking your mirrors (or cameras), watch for signs of fire toward the rear of the rig, especially if you’re puling doubles and triples. So said Lee Long at the TMC event. He is a maintenance manager at Southeastern Freight Lines, who delved into the topic of wheel-end “thermal events.”

Overheated bearings and underinflated tires are often the cause, though leaking air lines have let brake shoes drag, raising temperatures to the kindling points of linings and nearby lubes and rubber. The longer the rig, the more difficult it is to see the whisps of smoke and flame that announce fires before flames spread into the trailer body, damaging and destroying the vehicle and its cargo.

If this happens to you – and after calling for help and trying to douse the fire with your extinguisher – take lots of pictures. If parts have fallen off the vehicle, wait until they cool, then pick them up and stow them. Photos and physical evidence will help investigators determine what’s to blame, and lets officials start corrective actions to avoid the same type of incident from happening again.

Even better: Do careful pre- and post-trip inspections, looking for signs of overheated hubs and tires. If tires are low, find an air pump and reinflate them or alert the shop crew. You’re probably not paid to do such work on trailers, especially if they’re not yours. But you won’t make any money standing at the side of a highway watching the vehicle burn, either.

Image of the aftermath of a thermal event, as discussed at a recent TMC event.
Careful pre- and post-trip inspections, looking for signs of overheated hubs and tires, can help drivers avoid catastrophic “thermal events.”

DPF cleaning

Even if they like clean air to breathe, owners of modern power units are not fans of diesel particulate filters, dosing chambers, oxidation catalysts and other paraphernalia hanging on exhaust systems. On the engines, exhaust-gas recirculation systems can also be balky. They make diesels burn cleaner, catch engine-generated soot and ash, and neutralize compounds that cause smog. Because they’re wired into engine controls, these items must be kept operational if trucks are to run and keep working. If you can work on these things yourself, fine. If not, what should you do to avoid trouble and deal with it if it happens?

In general, such equipment is far better than it was when first used on 2010-model diesels, say fleet owners who’ve dealt with thousands of trucks in the eight-plus years since. Many of them attended a session that dispensed how-to advice, and diesel particulate filters got the most attention. Vic Meloche, manager of technical sales for Detroit Diesel, Detroit, noted that DPFs undergo constant cleaning thanks to exhaust heat that burns off soot. But “regenerations” with extra fuel-fed heat can be needed also, and they must be done when the truck’s parked. Regenerations do not remove ash that comes from engine oil, so periodic cleaning of the DPF takes care of it. You, the driver, will be warned when either is needed. Know what to do when you see a light on the dash (that is, read the driver’s or owner’s manual).

DPF cleaning usually requires removing the DPF from the truck, taking the filter substrate out of its canister, and either washing it out (Detroit’s method) or blowing out ash and baking the filter in high heat (the procedure required by most other diesel makers). DPF cleaning is available from OEM truck dealers, some independent shops, and specialty outfits. Meloche said.

A time-saving alternative to cleaning is exchanging your DPF for a cleaned one from the engine builder or the aftermarket (moderately costly), or buying a new DPF (expensive). Jon De Busk, a regional service manager for Maverick Transportation, Little Rock, Ark., said that if it’s a cleaned unit, grab the canister and tip its open end downward and tap it on the shop floor (be careful – you don’t want to crack that expensive substrate). If ash falls out, they haven’t done a good job. If it passes the tap test, get documentation that the work has been done. You’ll need it to make a claim if the filter plugs up and needs more service or replacement sooner than it should. The docs will say what that period is. In all cases, deal with businesses that are trustworthy, even if they charge more.

Discussing CARB’s new rules at TMC event

Trailers are the primary targets of new rules from California’s Air Resources Board. It was a focus of conversation at the TMC event. Effective Jan. 1, 2020, CARB wants tractors pulling many types of trailers to emit less carbon dioxide, so has calculated requirements that can be met with easier-rolling tires, better aerodynamics, and/or lower tare weights, said Gary Fenton, chief design engineer at Stoughton Trailers, Stoughton, Wis. The rules affect new trailers sold into California starting in January, with responsibility for meeting them borne by trailer manufacturers. Truckers buying new trailers will pay any added costs and must keep the anti-greenhouse gas equipment in working order, but otherwise shouldn’t have to concern themselves with details.

But wait: President Trump has trumpeted his disdain for California and other states setting their own emissions rules, so his Environmental Protection Agency has effectively canceled the 1970-era exemption that allows state agencies from demanding stricter limits.

Wait again: California and other states that follow its lead immediately sued the EPA in federal court, and the feds have been enjoined from putting their edit into effect.

Wait some more: The case will probably drag on for months or years, so CARB’s Phase 2 greenhouse gas regulations are likely to take effect as scheduled, or maybe not. If trailer purchases or leases are in your immediate plans, your trailer manufacturer and its dealers should know the score.

Autonomy and drivers

There are still more questions than answers on the subject of self-driving trucks, but in a session on automated vehicles Ananda Pandy, a technical specialist with German manufacturer ZF Friedrichshafen, waded through details that engineers are working on at the TMC event. Autonomous trucks and cars have the attention of the mainstream news media, and the feeling is that they will be here sooner than many people think. Some folks think that millions of truck drivers will be put out of work, but the remarks during this session suggest that it won’t happen soon, if at all.

Pandy said he plans to ask fleet people what they think about self-driving trucks and how they could be used. Other questions include situations that would occur in everyday operations: How would the truck get to and from an interstate highway and where are most operations are envisioned. Would a driver be needed at either end of a run, or should a system be capable of operating the truck in city traffic and backing it into a dock? If a “safety driver” is along for the ride, how would he/she log time – driving; off duty; on duty, not driving; or if the driver’s napping, sleeper berth? (A reporter suggested creating a new category, “sleeping on the job.”) On what basis would a safety driver be paid? If a driverless truck is stopped for a roadside inspection, who would the officer talk to?

Who would do pre-trip inspections? What happens during a malfunction – would the truck just stop, or would it pull over safely, and who’d come out to fix it? Long-haul self-driving tractors could conceivably operate continuously, but would need refueling. Who’d do that? They’d accumulate very high mileage, so must new maintenance and trade cycles be planned? More whimsically, could a self-driving system pass a CDL test? Could an automated truck win an ATA truck driving championship? The serious questions need to be answered as development continues, and Pandy acknowledged that there’s a lot to be done. You might not need another job for a while.

Eaton engineer demonstrating some hands-off driving as a trailer is backed into a loading dock.
This Eaton engineer is developing software that will enable a tractor to autonomously back a trailer into a loading dock. Some operators might want this capability, while others might choose to limit self-driving to interstate highways and let human drivers handle maneuvering at either end of a run.

Finger pointing  at TMC event

A manager at a major less-than-truckload carrier complained about repeated engine failures in a batch of city delivery tractors, and that he wasn’t able to get the issue resolved with the manufacturers. He brought up the matter in two sessions during the Raleigh meeting.

Diesels were being “dusted” by dirt getting past the air filter and into cylinders, resulting in cracked piston rings and other damage. Leaks in plastic tubing between the air filter and intake manifold seem to be the cause. Debris deposits on air intake covers were another problem. Who was going to fix and pay for this? Three suppliers – the engine builder, maker of the air-intake apparatus, and the truck builder – each pointed the finger at the others. (The manager named names, but as a courtesy we won’t.)

The manager brought up the issue at a public forum and the moderator asked suppliers to meet with him and fix it. They said they would, and they probably will. One would think that a large motor carrier would have enough clout to get the situation resolved on its own, but apparently not.

Situations like this are precisely why fleet managers formed the predecessor of Technology and Maintenance Council, the Truck Maintenance Committee of ATA’s old Regular Common Carrier Conference, more than six decades ago. Truck and component makers were telling them that “you’re the only one having this problem,” whatever it was, when in fact many were. Strength came from numbers, and due to cooperation between fleet managers and supplier representatives under the TMC umbrella, trucks have greatly improved in the years since.

Problems still occur and the Technology and Maintenance Council is still there to intervene, and in the meantime gathers and disseminates immense amounts of technical and management knowledge.

Owner-operators are welcome to join the Technology and Maintenance Council and share in the benefits. Some have, and they’ve contributed their experience and know-how. More information on membership is at TMC.Trucking.org.

BorgWarner