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Keeping up with the speed of Technical Growth


There I stood, at the microphone at the CVSA Annual Conference in New Orleans many years ago, referencing the fact that The Jetsons lifestyle wasn’t here yet, and we weren’t quite living in a perfect world. As I recall, the discussion was on developing breathalyzers that could detect if a driver had too much alcohol and, if so, the truck’s engine wouldn’t start when the driver attempted to drive it.

I have no idea if that technology ever saw the light of day, but the thinking was considered advanced for the time and simple to do, or so they thought. They were going to get this technology out there “now” and solve this industry problem “now.” It had, however, been my experience in those days that to reach those lofty goals, there was a process to get there and, if the process wasn’t undertaken, success seldom was achieved.

Technical Growth at the Speed of Light

So here we are today with a bazillion new technologies, including personal computers, smart/dumb phones, self-parking automobiles, SUVs with cameras on their back-ends, and the list of technologies that we’re now taking for granted goes on and on. Some technologies are quite useful; others, not so much.

Have you ever asked yourself why technical growth is now happening at the speed of light? How many of you really have a love affair with your smart/dumb phone now that the novelty of having one has worn off? We’re admitting to each other that we really aren’t thrilled with their performance. At first, our distain of them was shared with them in whispers.

Now, we out and out agree with one another; the dang thing really needs overhauling. But I’m thinking it’s too late. They seem to be here to stay.

The Exponential Growth of Apps

Now, a word about apps. Are so many of them really necessary? It takes a while to find the one you’re really looking for, doesn’t it? Consider being a truck driver and trying to find the app that tells you if your engine is idling at the correct RPMs? While some hold information close to the chest, Americans can’t share enough information; particularly through the use of apps. And these apps seem to be multiplying exponentially, along with the evolution of platforms on an almost daily basis.

How We Got to Now

By now, you must be asking, why? Why is all of this happening now? Steven Johnson’s “How We Got to Now” weaves together a narrative that demonstrates that innovation rarely proceeds in a linear fashion. It originates in some of the oddest places, and creates obscure chains of causality that shape our world. Johnson refers to six innovations that made the modern world: glass, cold, sound, cleanliness, time and light. All of these are natural phenomena that have spawned new and unknown technologies. For the last three plus decades, I’ve tracked the development, growth and implementation of an enormous variety of technologies and must agree with Johnson that the growth path of innovation isn’t a linear event.

Usability and the Adoption of Technology

Regardless of the size of your fleet or even if you just run a single truck, it’s time to get directly involved. Participate. Kick the high tech tires and see if they fit your needs. If you don’t, we will end up with something that isn’t quite as great as we thought it would be – a smart phone with five axles. So how do we get our arms around all the sensors, apps and information platforms? The following advice comes from Chuck Williams, associate vice president for innovation at the University of Oregon.

We solve one technical issue and perhaps then we can tackle the creation of new technology that will save fuel costs, maintenance time and inspection time.

“Usability is key to the adoption of technology. Industry is crying out for help in this arena. The transportation industry is crying out for help in this arena. The transportation industry is now, after 20+ years, reaching a stage of attempting to develope robust sensor-driven platforms, reporting and communicating critical tractor-trailer and driver information. The question for you is how to sort out the pretenders from the real solutions. Too much information can blur that which is important for a truck and driver’s safety and can also cause driver distraction. Even though adoption of new technology can be difficult, ultimately, real-time sensors will improve our lives and safety on our highways,” says Williams.

What has currently been really pushing such an abundance of apps and sensor-based platforms? Sensors and computer programs are cheap, according to those in the digital industry. Where’s the expense? Hardware development. Perhaps this is the area where current transportation technology fails? Those on the development side don’t want to get into the expense of hardware development. Too often technologies of benefit to transportation might just need added engineered hardware, an investment and perhaps an added expense.

Get Involved

When you’re evaluating the use of new reporting platforms, evaluate the deliverables of these platforms in terms of their completeness and your need. Do these platforms need additional hardware for completion? If so, speak up. If the software needs modification, say so; unless you want another dumb/smart phone on your hands. If a company is presenting a platform you would find really useful but it doesn’t have the modifications you’d like then say so and actively participate in the modification(s) process. Don’t just say no because you don’t want to work with the technology or don’t want to take the time. This is exactly how you end up with mediocrity. The dumb/smart phone comes to mind. Remember this: Cheap ain’t always the right way to get the product you really need from the digital industry.

Brakes and Pushrod Readings

The technology is here to take pushrod readings, but is it important? When asking fleet maintenance managers why it’s important to know pushrod readings, I get answers from across the board. Some intend their comments to be laughed at; others are dumbfounded that I even asked the question (ergo I couldn’t possibly have any credibility in the transportation industry); and others don’t want to offer answers to the question – their prerogative. As an FYI, it was a trick question, because the question was rather absurd in and of itself. If you drive, maintain or own trucks, the answer is the same: Without knowing your vehicle’s pushrod measurements, you could be driving a truck that’s absolutely unsafe because it doesn’t have adequate stopping power. And disc brakes aren’t the answer to safe stopping but balanced brakes are, regardless of whether or not you’re using drum or disc brakes.

Bob Phipps, maintenance supervisor for Bettendorf Trucking, says checking brake pushrod travel is as basic as it gets for checking brakes and braking status to make sure you’re driving a safe truck. Regulations require drivers to be satisfied their vehicle parts and accessories, including brakes, are in good working order. Major manufacturers of today’s air brake systems will tell you that braking function and performance are critically dependent upon proper installation, initial adjustment and monitoring of brake stroke to ensure the automatically adjusting brakes are compensating for wear. Furthermore, there are additional safety technologies dependent upon the foundation brakes being in proper adjustment. Knowing pushrod readings is the only way to know if a truck’s brakes are at maximum stopping capacity with all of the layers functioning properly.

The reality is that there are big differences between manual slack adjusters and automatic slacks. With manual slack adjusters, the brakes must be periodically checked and adjusted, if necessary, by a qualified individual. Phipps explains that with automatic slacks only a mechanic fixes them. In a drop and hook situation, the driver could be trading out a trailer having manual slacks for one with automatic slacks and vice-versa. Regardless of the type of slack adjusters, they still need checking.

Regardless of the type of brake, explains Phipps, knowing pushrod travel is the key to safe brakes and braking. Any truck driving school telling its students that they don’t need to worry about brakes because of automatic slacks is putting those students in jeopardy because it simply isn’t true.

Tyler Watson, operations manager for West Point Transport (fuel haulers), says this about the importance of knowing pushrod measurements: “Without knowing the pushrod reading, you can’t know the condition of your brakes. Without knowing the condition of your brakes, you may or may not stop that truck efficiently or at all.”

As you ponder this issue, make sure you are getting under those trucks and checking your pushrod readings. It’s critically important to your safety and the safety of others on our highways.

In Closing

I now trust that the reader can see just why proper pushrod adjustment and knowing the pushrods readings are the basis for the overall health of a truck’s brakes. Healthy brakes reduce stopping distances, accidents, loss of life and payloads, to name a few important implications.

It takes a village and we all have to work together to ensure safer highways. We solve one technical issue and perhaps then we can tackle the creation of new technology that will save fuel costs, maintenance time and inspection time; who knows what useable creations might befall the trucking industry. I want to sincerely thank those who contributed to this piece. Your efforts were appreciated.

I’ve tried to explain how technology gets here, how you work with those from the digital industries, and assure you that it’s ok to say no. Now, get involved or you too will end up with the equivalent of a smart/dumb phone, continually asking “What did you say? I can’t understand you.”

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