Truck manufacturer Paccar Inc. likes to use its annual shareholders meeting to tout some of the technology innovations it’s introducing, researching or just thinking about.
At last week’s event, held in its year-old Paccar Parts distribution center on the Renton campus that also houses the Kenworth manufacturing plant, the company had exhibits and demonstrations of remote monitoring and problem-detecting on trucks and automation in getting parts in and out of the center — prime examples of technology already in place.
Presentations and questions also considered perennial just-over-the-horizon favorites — alternative-fuel and hybrid trucks, and driverless trucks.
But Paccar had something new for shareholders to ogle: A plan to deliver truck parts to dealers, repair shops or even to the side of the road where a truck in need of repair is waiting, using unmanned aerial vehicles (i.e, drones).
No, really. A standard multi-rotor drone (small enough to sit comfortably on a display table) is equipped with a small locking plastic tub. The part goes into the tub, and the drone flies off to its destination, which could be a remote roadside location to which a mechanic has been dispatched to fix an ailing vehicle and needs one part that wasn’t in stock back at the base or isn’t on his own truck.
If this seems impractical — truck parts like engines, transmissions and axles are too big and heavy to be carried by drones — Paccar says the majority of the parts it stocks are 20 pounds or lighter, which is the capacity of that drone.
If this seems like technology overkill, a much stronger real-world business case could be made for this use of UAVs than some of the demonstration projects in which consumer products — such as pizzas — are delivered by drones.
And if this seems like one of those “maybe in a few decades, but not now” ideas, be aware that Paccar has gone so far as to test the idea with an actual drone and an actual part, as documented in a video the company showed. The limitation isn’t the technology itself, but Federal Aviation Administration rules limiting drone operation to within the ground pilot’s line of sight.
But that’s changing. A rethinking of the timeline for deployment of drones and driverless trucks is in order. The future is apparently closer than appears through our windshield or rearview mirror.
It’s a rare day that doesn’t bring multiple news items about both of those technologies and in alternative fuels for transportation. Elon Musk, founder of electric car manufacturer Tesla Motors, sent out a tweet this month that it plans to unveil a semi truck in September. Also earlier this month, Toyota unveiled plans for trucks powered by hydrogen fuel cells, to be tested at the ports of L.A./Long Beach. Car-hire service Uber has a division called Otto that is working on self-driving trucks.
Paccar hasn’t been idling all this time. Earlier this year, it announced it has been working with Nvidia, a developer of artificial-intelligence systems, on driverless trucks. The announcement was accompanied by a video of just such a truck operating on a test track at Paccar’s research facility in Mount Vernon.
Tests of driverless trucks are moving onto the road. Otto and Budweiser announced last year they’d made a beer run — a delivery of beer from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs. There was a driver in the truck, but he wasn’t in the driver’s seat during the 120-mile trip.
The conventional wisdom has been that the technology would outpace regulation. That gap is narrowing. Regulators may have gulped when asked to approve that Colorado trial, but as the technology proves itself, they’ll get more comfortable approving more tests and eventual deployment. The FAA has done some, excuse the term, pilot projects in flying drones beyond an operator’s sight.
Paccar’s mantra about R&D-stage technology has long been that it’s constantly working on it, and when the market is ready the company will be, too. For multiple truck technologies, that moment of ready is coming sooner rather than later. For a host of reasons, the pace is picking up, and thus the pace of announcements from companies such as Paccar will too.
“The first time you see an 80,000-pound vehicle pull up alongside you without a driver, it gets you thinking,” Mark Pigott, the company’s chairman, told the shareholders meeting. The public may have a similar reaction to seeing drones zipping by as they make deliveries. But given the familiarity with consumer remote-control aerial and ground vehicles, the public’s reaction may be less of “holy expletive deleted, is that safe?” and more of “hmm, wish I had one of those.”
Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at email@example.com.