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September 17, 2021 3:00 PM, EDT

TMC Holds Debate on the Future of Tractor-Trailer Connections

Dirk Wohltmann Dirk Wohltmann addresses the TMC audience. (John Sommers II for Transport Topics)

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CLEVELAND — Trailer connectivity was a key focus of product announcements at American Trucking Associations’ Technology & Maintenance Council Fall Meeting & Transportation Technology Exhibition, but debate continues on how to best implement and integrate the various technologies in the mix.

During a Sept. 15 technical session, two teams of experts with three members each took sides on the matter. Dirk Wohltmann, director of engineering at ZF Group, argued for a unified, updated solution that encompasses various technologies into a physical connection. Duke Drinkard, president of 21th Century Driver, led a team that argued for diverse solutions based on wireless technologies.

“We need an enhancement,” Wohltmann said. “We also need to have good communication between the truck and the trailer. With that one I think there is no question, no debate, there needs to be an upgrade.”

Wohltmann noted that continuing to add connectors between the tractor and trailer as technologies are introduced creates more connections a driver must remember when hooking up a trailer. And Wohltmann doesn’t think wireless is the answer; he expressed concerns about reliability and data security risks.

He also stressed that any solution must ensure backward compatibility between old and new tractors and trailers.

“I described what we all don’t want to do and where we don’t want to go,” Wohltmann said. “We nailed down that we have to have a change. We nailed down that we don’t want to have another connector. We nailed down ... that it has to be safe. For that all I think we agree. So where do we want to go?”

“When we talk about enhanced connectivity, we’ve got to talk about whether it’s going to be physical,” Drinkard said in response to Wohltmann’s comments. “But you already probably know where this is going. We’re going to say no to physical.”

While Drinkard agreed with ensuring backward compatibility, he advocated for more wireless connectivity and argued against the idea of a single integrated system. He stressed that trucking is not a cookie-cutter industry, and therefore believes that one unified solution for connecting tractor and trailers cannot be the right approach.

“The transportation industry is not just a one kind of equipment company,” Drinkard said. “One kind is not what we do.”

Still, Drinkard stressed that the growing demands being placed on the trucking industry mean change needs to happen. For example, he noted that customers want to be able to track their shipments more precisely. Plus, telematics data is becoming more precise and can determine, for example, when preventive maintenance needs to occur.

“Can we get that with hardwire? Yes we can. Can we get it to all these locations at one time? No. Not in my opinion,” Drinkard said.

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He also looked to current technologies as a guide for what will be popular in the future. Drinkard noted that nearly everything in everyday life is connected wirelessly. With 5G coming into play and 3G systems headed into sunset, wireless is a future technology that is here to stay.

“What technology is being used now that we may be able to use in the future?” he said. “Well, you’ve got WiFi, you’ve got Bluetooth and you’ve got near-field communications, mobile communications.”

Wohltmann noted that as trucking heads into these new waters, it shouldn’t try to completely change overnight. At the end of the day, he stressed that the connection between the tractor and trailer must be fast and secure, maintenance teams should be able to adapt easily to the changes and it must also be user friendly for the driver. Solutions, he said, must also have an eye toward the future in order to adapt to the march of changing technologies.

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