Much like mathematics and, for that matter, music, engineering is an international language. In no way is that truer than when it comes to how to best brake trucks.

Nonetheless, component and vehicle suppliers to the world's most advanced trucking industries — those of North America and Western Europe — were for decades largely separate and distinct, an ocean apart as it were. But even today when few North American suppliers do not have European ties or operations of some sort, trucking here and over there remain largely of two very different worlds. That is clearly reflected in the architecture of the commercial vehicle braking systems at work on opposite sides of the Atlantic.

A conundrum to be sure. But one brake suppliers to both markets clearly regard as a challenge fraught with loads of opportunity, especially given the economies of scale and resources that global manufacturers view as essential to their success.

To put a paraphrase around it, brake system suppliers here, via either European parents or partners, are engineering globally to serve customers locally. That, they tell Fleet Owner, is the biggest lesson ever learned from operating on both sides of the big pond, not to mention elsewhere in the world.

First, the three key brake system suppliers here at home and their European ties all spelled out:

  • ArvinMeritor is a global player in truck brakes and also has a joint venture for vehicle control technologies — Meritor Wabco — here with Belgium-based Wabco Holdings.

  • Bendix Commercial Vehicle Systems LLC, which also operates Bendix Spicer Foundation Brakes in a joint venture with Dana Corp., is a unit of Germany's Knorr-Bremse AG.

  • Haldex Commercial Vehicle Systems is the North American operating arm of Sweden-based Haldex AB.

PLAYING FIELDS

Besides the players themselves, it's important to understand the two playing fields on which they are so thoroughly engaged. Short and sweet, while the adoption of technology by the North American trucking industry is largely driven by the pull-through demand of fleets for it, in Europe technology usually finds its way into trucks at the behest of OEMs.

While mandatory government regulations certainly have an impact in both markets, the fundamental difference in how fast technology — be it for brakes or anything else — comes to market over here depends almost entirely on how well and quickly individual fleets can be sold on its long-term value.

To be sure, technology transfer is occurring and at an increasingly dizzy pace. That's due both to the high business stakes involved and the gradual harmonization of government regulations, as well as safety and performance expectations of fleet owners and other stakeholders in both markets.

Now that the various cross-Atlantic supplier ownership and partnership deals have been in place for some time, it should be no surprise that there is more strategizing than ever about how to leverage expensive technology as widely as possible.

On the other hand, that biggest lesson learned — that trucking markets are distinct — can't be overstated no matter how ambitious a supplier's plans.

PUSH VS. PULL

“By and large, truck technology developments in Europe are driven by the truck OEMs,” remarks Paul Johnston, senior director, compression & braking, Meritor Wabco Vehicle Control Systems, “while here the fleets drive it” by choosing whether to spec new non-mandated products and systems.

“For European suppliers, there is a lot of pressure to come up with the technology and then the OEMs decide on implementing it, vs. here where fleets have greater influence,” says Kevin Romanchok, Bendix's product line director-electronic control systems.

Ron Plantan, principal engineer for Bendix Spicer Foundation Brake, points out that other factors include the “strong interest in Europe in reducing the stopping distance [rate] between trucks and cars, and of course their commercial vehicles are different and their regulations are as well. Those are key differentiations, so the best [engineering] adaptation made for either market may not be the same. We get the opportunity on both sides [of the Atlantic] to look at what are best practices in each area.”

“Through [Bendix parent] Knorr-Bremse, there is a global technology group in place that affords plenty of communication and they keep an eye on technology a number of years out,” adds Aaron Schwass, Bendix's product line director-air disc brake. “That group keeps us focused as an organization on which technology will be applied where. And we have a mirror orientation with Europe, allowing for ongoing communications between the various product lines.”

Randy Petresh, vp-technical services for Haldex, states that the “main difference today, as it has been for 40 or 50 years, is that braking technology in general in Europe is driven by the OEMs. They choose the technology, they develop it with component suppliers, and they bring it to market.

“North America is just the opposite,” he continues. “When it comes to brakes, the OEMs are order takers and assemblers. It's the end users that drive the market. We, the brake system suppliers, develop and test products and then field-test them for a few years. Once introduced, it's a matter of pull-through by fleets spec'ing [that determines if a product succeeds]. Eventually, if spec'd enough, OEMs have to buy into it.”

Petresh adds that the reason why one or more OEMs will decide to jump on a new technology can include a desire to attain market share or to increase product differentiation, as well as to meet government regulations.

WORLDS APART

The distinctions between how the two truck markets behave are fully reflected in the two starkest differences between the North American and European approach to truck brakes. First, the sharply different adoption rates for the air disc brake (ADB), despite its clear technical superiority. Secondly, there's the always entertaining debate as to why Europe seems to have wholeheartedly embraced electronically controlled braking systems (ECBS), while North America prefers to build advanced braking features on top of a truck's antilock braking systems (ABS).

There's quite a tale in the telling of the ADB's unique cross-oceanic and very back-to-the-future-like journey of discovery and development over the past several decades. Fleets here hear tell of the current crop of ADBs as literally representing the latest and greatest in European technology. But how many fleet owners realize the ADB originated on this side of the pond? While it did not catch on here for specific reasons the first time around, its development continued apace in Europe. And that allowed the eventual introduction of an improved ADB here, a sort of reverse immigrant as it were.

“Air disc brake development initially began in North America,” says Meritor Wabco's Johnston. That was in the late '60s. “There were problems here with some early concepts, but the ADB was taken up in Europe in the mid-'70s and continued to be developed there through the '80s and '90s. Now we are getting those brakes back here with all the subsequent improvements.”

While the ADB found a home in Europe, Johnston points out that brake suppliers here “focused on developing high-performance drums based on wedge designs to meet federal FMVSS 121 stopping-distance regs. And that low-weight, high-performance package traveled to Europe via the OEMs in the early '80s. So, the engineering traffic has really gone both ways.”

HARD LESSON

Returning to the ADB's return here, Johnston states flat out that it's “not a case of ‘turn a switch’ technical adoption. Rather, brake suppliers have learned a hard lesson. Even if a technology like the ADB is developed with an eye to globalizing it, you must take fully into account the differences in each market. Because the trucks are different, the suspension systems, the axles, etc., are different and packaging can be an issue.”

Johnston says he heard a lot of “Boy, these things don't fit too many vehicles” before seeing the industry spend the “last eight or so years fitting the ADB to the North American vehicle space envelope.” He concedes that has added cost and complexity to the equation even as it has made the product fully suitable. “The lesson remains that the North American market requires customization. As suppliers, we have to do the due diligence to understand and engineer vehicle requirements, including the brake compatibility issues that arise from the fundamentally different systems and configuration here vs. there.”

As Haldex's Petresh sees it, the ADB will rise or fall on this side of the Atlantic depending on whether suppliers — all of them — successfully create the demand for it among fleets. “In Europe, because of how the OEMs drive technology forward, there can be huge economies of scale for new developments very quickly. Here, initial volumes of a new product tend to be small. That retards the introduction process.” He says the upshot is the higher the price, the slower the adoption — and vice-versa.

Petresh points out that here ADB adoption is still in the low thousands — that's industry-wide — vs. Europe, where they are fitted on 70 to 80% of new vehicles. “We've been shipping discs here for three or four years now and the volume is still low. As we learned the hard way years ago, you can't force product on this market.

NEW RULE

“But,” he continues, “the ADB is a superior brake in terms of performance and stability, regardless of which vehicle it's on.” Petresh expects ADB volume to increase significantly over the next ten years as fleets become more familiar with it.

One driving factor may be the long-promised, yet still unreleased, revamped federal stopping-distance rules. Petresh figures that since those regs will essentially require fleets to upgrade their brake systems on new trucks, many buyers may opt for the best option — ADBs — offered.

Petresh agrees that the ADB's time away in Europe ultimately benefited fleets here. “When a product is introduced first in Europe, it means we can go to school on it there, so to speak. But it's really a matter of developing a technology globally and then tailoring it to local markets. With brakes, though, that does require significant changes to product from one place to the next.”

“The air disc did go dormant here for 20 years,” asserts Bendix's Schwass. “In the meantime, it became the de facto standard for Europe. How the new stopping-distance rules — now expected to be in effect in 2010 — affect ADB adoption will depend on the vehicle configuration. Some will opt for an optimized drum and others will choose air discs.”

Bendix's Plantan says that over the past two decades, the ADB has grown to a 17-in. diameter to make it optimal to run with the 22-in. wheels now common here. “We've also made improvements to disc linings to add robustness,” he notes.

BEST OF BOTH WORLDS

ECBS and ABS — so how come the former there and the latter here? The answer involves a history lesson, to be sure, but comes right back to the differences that divide us from our European cousins in trucking.

Petresh says he believes that a few years back our own NHTSA was “extremely interested” in ECBS, even to the point of running operational tests to investigate the entire performance spectrum of brake-by-wire systems and what performance benefits they would offer.

“The performance advantages were found, but it was difficult to demonstrate a financial payback and so interest in ECBS slowed down from there,” he relates. “Again, in Europe the OEMs drove it into the market. At the same time, here we had ABS already mandated so it made sense to use that as the platform to add in other braking- and safety-related features and benefits.”

PIGGYBACKING

He says that rather than further adapt the European approach — ECBS or full brake-by-wire — “the real opportunity was to piggyback stability and collision-warning systems, etc., onto the ABS electronics already in place.”

According to Petresh, the lesson learned and applied here was there was no need to push brake-by-wire. Instead, with what he calls enhanced ABS, “features that truck buyers wanted and were willing to pay for could be added at incremental cost instead of the high cost of rolling out ECBS.”

He does also point out there were specific compelling reasons Europe moved directly to brake-by-wire. “There were severe brake balance issues in Europe, and ECBS was one way they could utilize discs on tractors and keep drums on trailers.”

According to Bendix's Romanchok, it's ECBS there and ABS here thanks to two different sets of regulations. He explains that European regs were adjusted to address the greater degree of braking power that had been assigned trailers. The resulting incompatibility issues were addressed by Regulation 13, which led to using a complex set of mechanical valves. That led the industry to turn to electronics in the form of truly brake-by-wire systems.

“ECBS was developed as a reliability improvement — and at a cost reduction — over what they had been doing mechanically to meet the regulation,” says Romanchok. “By contrast, over here equal brake pressures were being applied to each wheel end in what is, in effect, a simpler architecture. For a long time here, until the mandate for ABS in '99, we had no electronics” involved with braking.

Yet the technology transfer was there for the leveraging. “The partnering and best practices developed with ECBS enabled us to bring some of the same braking and safety features here,” Romanchok explains. “The difference being we made it ABS-based to ensure greater familiarity for users and to deliver it at lower cost.

“What we have seen,” he continues, “is an evolution here toward a braking system with greater functionality in an optimal architecture instead of bringing over the whole ECBS. This may all play out over many years before there is a potential point of convergence [for ECBS and ABS].

“Really, we view this as not technology for technology's sake,” Romanchok adds. “It's applying technology to meet customer needs, including braking, stability and active safety solutions.”

HARD SELL

Meritor Wabco's Johnston observes that “ECBS has been sold a bit past its capability to fit every application. ECBS is limited in its intelligence; there are a limited amount of inputs and outputs. That has slowed down the application of ECBS beyond linehaul freight combinations in Europe. There is simply a higher system cost, lower return on investment, and much greater complexity when it comes to putting ECBS on vocational trucks.

“Unless even greater sophistication, such as measuring brake torque at each wheel end, comes to these brake-by-wire systems,” he adds, “they won't be adopted across the board, even in Europe. Compared to other systems, ECBS is not advanced enough and too costly over the life of the vehicle to be the solution for all vehicles.”

To paraphrase Kipling, Europe is east and America is west and their trucks shall never meet…nor perhaps their braking systems.

The biggest lesson of all though, as Meritor Wabco's Johnston puts it, is that all brake suppliers agree that highway safety can be enhanced by building on the solid foundation that is the truck brake system.