Giant side-view mirrors, accelerators and brake pedals – there’s a lot of equipment on semi-trucks that’s rapidly becoming obsolete, according to Martin Daum, chief executive of Daimler Trucks North America.

Daum sat down with Trucks.com at the unveiling of the manufacturer’s 2018 Freightliner Cascadia semi-truck last week and described how he expects trucks to change in the coming years.

Daum praised the improvements his team has made to the Cascadia in its first full redesign since the truck’s introduction in 2007. The new vehicle will offer advanced connectivity that allows trucking companies to monitor their vehicles around the clock and make over-the-air updates. Depending on the configuration, it will achieve as much as 8 percent in fuel savings over the existing model.

Customers are already lining up to purchase the vehicle, with big carriers such as Swift Transportation Co. and Old Dominion Freight Line saying they will purchase thousands of new Cascadias.

“We wanted to have the truck of choice for the big fleets of North America,” Daum said.

But even as it readies full production of the new Cascadia in January, Daimler is already thinking about the improvements it will have to make to subsequent versions of the truck to meet both the demands of federal regulators and its customers.

The 8 percent gain in fuel economy is just the start.

“We will have to get more,” Daum said, “to meet the new greenhouse gas regulations that require a 25 percent savings by 2025… It gets a lot more difficult from here on out.”

Daum said that regulation needs to catch up with technology.

Eliminating the mandate to have big side-view mirrors that create drag and suck up energy would advance fuel economy, he said.

Red Large Semi Truck Side

Could large truck side-mirrors soon become obsolete? (Photo: Randy/Flickr)

“We don’t need mirrors anymore. We can use digital displays and remove those big ears that just block wind,” Daum said. “But it isn’t legal at the moment.”

Similarly, Daum could see a day when there is no need for accelerator and brake pedals in a semi-truck.

Automatic braking technology can stop a truck faster and better than a human can, he said.

Meanwhile, adaptive cruise control – which measures the distance between vehicles and slows down and speeds up with traffic – also is advanced enough to control a truck. It does a better job of managing fuel economy than a human driver, and it is safe because it better matches the speed of the truck to road conditions, he said.

“I want to introduce that sticker in a truck that says, ‘Keep your foot off the pedals,’ ” Daum said. “Within just two or three years I think that can happen.”

But Daum doesn’t see Daimler or the trucking industry rushing anytime soon into fully autonomous trucks that could travel the highways as driverless drones.

He sees autonomous systems controlling how the truck moves forward at the pace of traffic, slows and stops. For now, safety requires that a driver remains in control, handling turns and making steering adjustments, Daum said.

“The driver still has to be fully alert; we can’t take him off yet,” Daum said.

The Daimler executive sees truck platooning as an interim step to fully autonomous vehicles.

In platoon technology, tightly contained, digitally connected packs of two or more trucks drive in formation to reduce wind resistance and increase fuel efficiency. The pack can be controlled by a “captain” in the cab of the front vehicle, and the rest could follow autonomously.

Daum described a scenario in which two trucks are configured as a platoon. The driver of the first vehicle is in control. There’s a human in the second truck, but that person can be sleeping to be ready to take over the next driving shift. Such a system would speed the transport of goods and create fuel and labor savings.

“This is possible but probably not within the next five years,” Daum said.

Manufacturers are just figuring out how to engineer vehicles that can safely platoon, but they still need to overcome hurdles such as what to do if a passenger car attempts to cut in between the two trucks or how the trucks can overtake a slower vehicle without adding to road congestion, he said.

“Between five and 10 years it is possible,” Daum said. “The technology is there to make it happen.”

But between now and then advances in vehicle connectivity will allow manufacturers and carriers to mine massive amounts of data to improve truck reliability and operations, Daum said.

The challenge for the industry is to figure out how to take all the data that is becoming available from trucks and make better sense of it, he said.

One sensor, for example, can monitor oil quality and send a notification message 500 miles in advance of a needed oil change.

Such real-time tracking “could easily double the time between oil changes” and keep a truck on the road, hauling goods longer between maintenance service, Daum said.

A manufacturer would be able to measure the fuel economy of thousands of trucks making the identical run from Denver to Seattle, for example.

“We will see the efficiency of every truck and driver, Daum said. “Some will be great and some will be poor.”

Daimler could provide the information to carriers, flagging whether their truck is configured incorrectly for that drive or has some other problem. It could also identify which drivers have lead feet.

“When you are up against everyone else on the same route,” Daum said, “that information is important.”

Watch the Redesigned 2018 Freightliner Cascadia Truck Reveal