Back to the future

| December 12, 2008

Designed to haul standardized containers, the experimental Bison Bullet was developed by General Motors in 1964. It featured electronic loading and unloading equipment, so during a pickup, the driver could avoid lumpers and instead just sign autographs.

Amid all the other news stories of October 2005, you may have missed the outcome of the DARPA Grand Challenge, an off-road race in the Nevada desert sponsored by the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

TerraMax, a modified military vehicle built by Oshkosh Truck, was one of only five entries in a field of 23 to complete the grueling 132-mile course. Its time was less than 13 hours. Not too shabby, considering no one was driving it.

The Grand Challenge is for robot vehicles only. After its route coordinates were programmed in, TerraMax was left to fend for itself among the scorpions, rattlers and coyotes, making its own decisions about how best to get around rocks and gullies and maneuver its 8-foot-wide frame through Beer Bottle Pass with inches to spare.

One might be tempted to call TerraMax “the truck of the future,” but we’ve heard that before. The truck you’re driving today once was a truck of the future, its fuel economy, horsepower, cab comfort and electronic sophistication the stuff of a 1950s trucker’s Buck Rogers dreams.

But plenty of other trucks of the future fell by the wayside long ago, some because they were ahead of their time, others because their time was entirely in some other dimension.
Return with us now to what the trucking future once looked like. In the words of a promotional film for the 1950s General Motors Futurliner: “It’s an atmosphere of magic and miracles, but actually it’s all wonderfully real!”

“I didn’t set out to design a truck,” says Dean Hobbensiefken. “But when you’re a truck driver, you have a lot of time to think.”

Hobbensiefken had one truck in 1962 when he launched his owner-operator trucking business in Lyons, Ore. Soon he was running six trucks, hauling forest products and doing his own maintenance.

“You spent most all your Saturdays maintaining and servicing trucks,” he says. “I needed fewer things to grease, fewer things to check.” He also needed better fuel economy.

For the initial sketch of his dream truck, he placed the steer axle and the rear trailer axle 41 feet apart, as required in Oregon in those days, then tried different two-axle tractor designs and payload configurations. The ideal arrangement, he decided, was a 135-inch wheelbase with a 62-inch fifth-wheel offset.

“That’s a really weird-looking configuration,” he says, “but I saw that if I had a tractor like this, I could haul as much as a four-axle tractor with only a two-axle.’”

He told his idea to one OEM he prefers not to name. “They told me, ‘That can’t be done. We tried that one time.’ Having heard someone say it couldn’t be done, of course I went home and told my wife, ‘I don’t care what it takes. I’m gonna build this thing.’ After all, a truck is nothing more than a big car. I had built several cars from scratch as a kid, just modified hot rods.”

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