Friday, May 22, 2015

Volvo buys into truck platooning

Little more than a week after Daimler introduced its Freightliner autonomous truck using Las Vegas as a backdrop and the Hoover Dam as a movie screen, Volvo Trucks treated invited guests, including this fortunate reporter, to a celebration of the Volvo Ocean Race in Newport, R. I. Volvo took the occasion to update its invited dealers, employees, and media reps on company news.

With the last echoes of the Daimler event still in our ears, I didn’t expect to hear much from Volvo about autonomous trucks. Sure enough the only significant mention came from Susan Alt, senior vice president, public affairs for Volvo, who in answer to a question at the presentation said that as far as general highway use was concerned, “We won’t see autonomous trucks in our lifetime.”

Of course, that’s just one opinion. And it doesn’t mean Volvo is out of the highway technology race by any means. On the contrary, they may simply have bet on another horse. Just one week before Daimler’s Hoover Dam uber-spectacle, Volvo announced it had invested in a U.S. company called Peleton Technology. Based 1.2 miles and 6 minutes from Google headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., Peleton is in the freshly hatched industry of truck platooning.

Peleton has technology, both hardware and software, that enables trucks to platoon along highways, one behind the other close enough to cut air drag on all – even the lead truck – and save fuel. It’s all about smart algorithms and wireless communication.

Taking a big step beyond adaptive cruise and collision mitigation, Peleton connects truck systems wirelessly. If one driver hits the brakes, brakes on the following trucks will engage also. If a car tries to cut between two platooning trucks, the trailing truck will automatically drop back and allow the car in.

There’s a lot of sophisticated stuff going on here, so sophisticated in fact, that using the Peleton system trucks can join or leave a platoon in motion, on the highway. The company envisions a national control center accessible to all Peleton-equipped trucks and platoons at all times over the Internet.

So when I had the opportunity at a Volvo breakfast last week, I asked Volvo Trucks North America President Göran Nyberg about the Volvo-Peleton relationship. Nyberg had been quoted in a Volvo release saying “We look forward to working with Peleton as they work on a platooning solution.” This was apparently more than a hands-off, money-only investment.

Why had Volvo invested in advanced technology for quick, ad-hoc creation of platoons? Wasn’t that capability ahead of what was needed? Would small fleets and owner-operators even want to take part? Wouldn’t the big fleets simply assemble platoons of their own?

Volvo very much appreciated that element of the technology, Nyberg said after breakfast. In fact, he noted, it will be exactly those major fleets that will cooperate with each other in forming appropriate, fuel-saving platoons. But then our brief conversation was over.

It took me a moment, but then the idea coalesced.

Of course it will be big fleets. Who else will be able to invest in the equipment? Who else has so many trucks on the road heading in so many directions?

But those companies won’t necessarily assemble the platoons. Individual drivers will, using that ad-hoc system. They’ll do it in the most practical way – as trucks already on the road, ready on a moment’s notice to join a platoon. No waiting to assemble, no delays. Peleton’s control center will enable it. Peleton-equipped trucks will simply join and leave platoons as they roll.

Since there will be a real driver steering (not reading a newspaper or telemarketing) in each truck, platooning could happen sooner than autonomous trucking. And I have to guess that those platoons will likely feature not just one, but a mix of fleet names – big fleet names.

A potential downside: Peleton says their platooning system will be available to small fleets and owner-operators, but that will not prevent big fleets from agreements with each other to lock out other, probably smaller players from individual platoons. The benefits of platooning, then, could accrue almost exclusively to the big fleets that rarely miss an opportunity to make things difficult for small truckers.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

A charitable mind

In March, TravelCenters of America named its 2015 “Citizen Drivers” – an honor bestowed on five professionals who now have truck stops named after them. And that is why this week, the TA in Commerce City, Colo., became the Rick Ash Travel Center. The TA is named after an owner-operator from Lakewood, Colo., who possesses the integrity, the experience, the leadership ability and all of the values TA was looking for in their honorees.

I know Rick to be a tireless advocate for professional truck drivers who aside from his job as an owner-operator, maintains a constant backlog of projects that is somehow, someway making trucking a better place to live and work. For one thing, he’s a walking idea machine. He has great ideas and when it comes to getting them done, he is Mr. Follow Through.

He’s chairman of the Trucking Solutions Group, a small but focused group of professional truckers. I’m in contact with him frequently as he is an OOIDA member and serves on the Board with me at the St. Christopher Fund. Currently, we are working on a TSG project to bring a mobile mammogram mobile unit to the Great American Trucking Show, Aug. 27-29, 2015, in Dallas.

Every time I see Rick, he’s either doing a health walk, coordinating a blood donation project, helping OOIDA staff pack boxes for Truckers for Troops, or speaking to a convention about how to eat healthy on the road. And that’s not just talk. Several years ago he dropped more than 50 pounds and has kept fit by practicing good eating habits and exercising.

Kudos to TravelCenters of America for choosing Rick Ash for a 2015 Citizen Driver Award. Congratulations to you as well, Rick. Keep on being a cool guy.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Naming a bridge after Mr. Hockey is a class move

The powers that be did a good thing when they chose to name the soon-to-be-built International Trade Crossing after Mr. Hockey, Gordie Howe. From now on, it has been declared, the world shall refer to the new bridge that will connect Detroit, Mich., with Windsor, Ontario, as the “Gordie Howe International Bridge.”
Two thumbs up, or should we say, two elbows up.

Howe has meant so much to the Detroit-Windsor region since he broke into the National Hockey League as an 18-year old in 1946.

His mindboggling 25 seasons with the Detroit Red Wings, which lasted through 1971, are unparalleled, highlighted by four Stanley Cups, six scoring titles, and six league MVP titles.

Howe’s draw came from well beyond the Motor City and Windsor on the Canadian side. Born in a Canadian prairie town, Howe’s playing style and legacy have transcended the game and are without borders.

It’s only fitting that this stalwart of a player, this game changer and perennial all-star – always high on the “best ever” lists that people like to argue about – has his name attached to a gargantuan, state-of-the-art structure that will further unite two countries in the name of progress and mobility.

Howe was an all-around player, one of the first to package up everything we now expect from today’s NHL players – strength, toughness and fearlessness with grace, awareness and scoring touch.

He was extremely charitable with his time and philanthropy off the ice, but when he laced up the skates, there was simply no other player in NHL history who intimidated other players both physically and on the scoreboard. While officially placing in the top-10 in scoring for 21 consecutive seasons, Howe was also the most feared man on the ice. He’s even been called the dirtiest player of all time by some of his peers.

Superstars on other teams were forced to change their own playing styles to deal with him. Top scorers and tough guys alike would spend entire shifts looking over their shoulders if Howe was around. His elbows were legendary. Make one mistake, one wrong turn, and boom. Lights out.

In addition to his abilities and longevity, Howe’s most valuable trait has always been his will, his determination. Whatever his team needed, or whatever the moment called for, Howe was the one you wanted out there.

Only a few players in history have had as much influence over the game. Think about it. Howe is really only in a league of three, playing right wing with Wayne Gretzky at center ice and Bobby Orr on defense. Not lost in the lore is that Gretzky donned his trademark No. 99 in honor of Howe’ No. 9. Even those guys, along with many of the game’s greats, call Gordie Howe “Mr. Hockey” and show him the utmost respect.

Legend has it that in his prime, Howe would receive fan mail simply addressed: “Mr. Hockey, Detroit, USA.” And the Post Office would deliver it to him.

But one of the coolest things about Howe was that after his NHL days were done, he spent virtually no time in retirement before signing with the Houston Aeros of the World Hockey Association. The offer was a great one because it put Gordie on the ice alongside his sons Mark and Marty. They were a family powerhouse, and “Father Time” himself notched 100 points that year at the age of 46.

The WHA merger with the NHL in 1979 gave Howe one more season at the highest level before he would retire as a Hartford Whaler. At age 51, Gordie Howe played all 80 games of the grueling professional season and played in the all-star game. The game that year was held in Detroit, so you can imagine the ovation when No. 9 took the ice. And again when he stole the puck, passed it and recorded an assist.

I remember his final swan song as a player very well. Of all things it happened 17 years after his 1980 retirement. The Detroit Vipers of the IHL decided to sign Gordie Howe to a contract in 1997 and get him on the ice for a single game – actually just a shift – so that at age 70, he could be the only player in history to play professional hockey in six different decades. When his time came, he left the bench, skated around, and went back. He didn’t score or lower the boom on anyone, but it will forever be notched in the history books.

Mr. Hockey is 87 now, and his health has not been the best in recent years. He had a series of strokes a few months ago, but was up and moving not long after. Some say it was because of the stem-cell treatment he had, but no doubt his determination has played a part.

His family posts occasional updates on his website, but no one can predict with any certainty whether Howe will be the one to cut the ribbon on his namesake bridge when the time comes.

Someone said that he does not do well with bed rest, that he’s always getting up and moving around. It’s tough to keep that spirit down.

Oh, and look out for those elbows.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Arkansas trucker reunited with four-legged ‘co-pilot’ after lengthy medical emergency

Here’s one from the “Feel Good” file, compliments of Fox 4 Kansas City, about how a trucker and his faithful four-legged companion reunited after a serious medical emergency.

Driver Chris Price, who hauls for Con-way Freight, usually doesn’t go anywhere without his co-pilot, Coco, who has been riding in Price’s cab ever since she was a pup. The two are on the road to their Home-20 once again thanks to the efforts of a local animal shelter and the generous donations of volunteers.

Price had a medical emergency in Kansas City that required him to be admitted to North Kansas City Hospital for three weeks. In April, he collapsed at a Flying J truck stop on Interstate 435 and Front Street, and was rushed to the hospital. Doctors there diagnosed him with a staph infection that had entered his bloodstream, necessitating a lengthy stay in the hospital.

According to the news report, Price was more concerned for the welfare of Coco, who ended up at the KC Pet Project, a no-kill shelter in Kansas City, Mo. The only problem with that arrangement was the shelter couldn’t keep Coco for more than 10 days, not nearly long enough for Price to get healthy enough to be discharged.

One of the shelter’s partners, a local animal boarding facility, agreed to keep Coco for as long as necessary, at a reduced rate. The group posted on Facebook soliciting donations to help offset the costs, a message that was shared nearly 1,000 times.

On Friday, Price and Coco got to ride in an ambulance together back home to Arkansas, after social workers in North Kansas City found an ambulance that was willing to let a dog ride along with a patient.

You can see the full report from Fox 4 below: