Ways of the future?

By John Bendel, editor-at-large

Not exactly. But you still might have solar panels on your truck someday. In fact at Groupe Robert (pronounced Ro-BEAR), a Canadian fleet based in Quebec, solar panels are already installed. No, they don't power the drive train. Groupe Robert's solar panels collect power during the day to run the truck's AC at night. The flexible panels are installed on a tractor's hood and sleeper fairing.

According to the Canadian trucking magazine Truck News, Groupe Robert began experimenting with solar panels in 2013. Their first system didn't quite do the job. But now with more efficient, flexible solar panels and four batteries, a Robert truck's AC can run all night - or so Robert claims.

Just in case you were wondering, the first solar panel was created at the legendary (in scientific circles) Bell Labs in 1954. The first flexible solar panel was made in 1992 and flexible panels went on the market in 1998. Since then, the price of the panels has kept declining.

Robert says its homegrown systems are working well. Though with diesel relatively cheap now, other fleets probably won't be trying it out. When diesel inevitably goes up again? Maybe.

Driverless delivery update

Amazon made a splash last year when it announced it wanted to use drones for home delivery. In January they got more press by showing a demo drone. They would use a 55-pound drone, they said, to deliver items of 5 pounds or less within 10 miles or so of a distribution point.

But they might not be the first into the drone business. A company called Workhorse that makes electric drive trains (UPS is experimenting with one of their products now) has come up with a different drone idea. The Workhorse drone will ride on top of a delivery van and will fly the last few yards or miles, presumably to a place the truck can't reach. Sounds smarter than flying around neighborhoods and cityscapes. But you have to wonder why the Workhorse demo video shows the drone taking off from a Workhorse van and depositing a package on a typical suburban driveway. Wouldn't it be cheaper to just drive there?

In any case, don't worry about drones cutting into the truckload business, or even LTL for that matter. To lift, say, a 1,000-pound pallet would require a 1,500-pound drone with a rotor diameter of at least 27 feet. Not real practical.

Google's driverless agenda

Unlike drones, Google's "autonomous delivery platform" is much more down to earth. In the U.S. patent issued to Google in February, it looks like a straight truck with a bank of old-time coin-operated storage lockers for a body with three rows of four lockers - presumably on each side of the truck. Devices to accept payment via credit card or smartphone would open your locker. A keypad and a PIN will open the locker when payment is not involved.

The truck itself, in Google's patent, is driverless. That's in keeping with the company's overall driverless vehicle efforts, which included a request to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) last year for a definition of "driver" or "operator" of a vehicle. NHTSA responded to Google in February with a detailed letter.

NHTSA addressed Google's request in terms of many individual specifications of the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards. Referring to Google's Self-Driving System as SDS, NHTSA said in many, but not a majority of instances, "We agree that the SDS is the driver for purposes of this paragraph."

In other words, they've recognized computers as drivers, at least in principle. There's a long way yet to go, but the driverless ball is clearly rolling at the critical federal agency.

What to do when your truck is driving itself?

Speaking of patents, Ford just got one for turning your autonomous/driverless truck into a rolling movie theater. U.S. Patent No. 9,272,708 is for an "autonomous vehicle entertainment system." The AVES, as it will probably be called before long, includes a screen that unfolds from the ceiling to cover the windshield and a projection system that provides your choice of entertainment. How fast it can fold back up again they don't say.

Imagine hurtling down the Interstate with your windshield displaying Russian crash videos on YouTube.

On second thought, don't.

Platooning progress

Platooning is creeping up on us. You remember platooning, right? It's a string of trucks with special hardware and software whizzing down the road only 40 feet apart, presumably at the speed limit. The idea is to reduce air drag and save fuel for all the trucks in the platoon, though a bit less for the lead truck. In a platoon, all you would do is steer.

Volvo and a Silicon Valley company named Peloton are developing the technology and selling the concept around the country. Transport Topics reports that bills will soon be introduced in Florida and Missouri to suspend the 300-foot following distance limit so platoons can be tested there.

Platooning has already been demonstrated in Alabama, Michigan, Nevada, Ohio and Texas. Now Peloton is hoping Arizona, California and New Mexico will cooperate to allow a Houston-to-Los Angeles platooning demonstration next year. But even with a demo like that, we're years from commercial platooning and then only in limited circumstances on specific highways on a state-by-state basis.

When I think about trying to pass a platoon, I have nightmares. LL