To paraphrase from the Bible: In the beginning of highway transport vehicles, there was the wagon. Those wooden devices that banged along roads and were slowly pulled by animals were the oldest ancestor of today’s trucks.
But they had a problem: as a means of transport, they were expensive (in part because of the need to feed the animals) and with a very limited space for goods. So human inventiveness began looking for better ways to move merchandise.
In the year 1765 the French military engineer Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot was ordered to create a vehicle capable of transporting the heavy cannons that were used in war. Cugnot began carrying out experiments until in 1769 he came up with a solution: a vehicle driven by a steam engine, his fardier à vapeur (steam car).
Cugnot’s invention, whose prototype was improved a year later, was capable of dragging four tons and moving at a speed of up to 4 km/h. It was a very heavy vehicle, with two rear wheels and one in the front, that carried the steam boiler and was steered by a tiller. And it was also involved in the first traffic accident in history when it crashed against a brick wall in 1771. But that’s another story.
As the years went by, those first steam vehicles were perfected, and it could be said that in the first decade of the 19th century they became very popular. In 1881 the first semi-trailer was built, by De Dion-Bouton (a French manufacturer) and it was pulled by a tractor, which was also powered by steam. Those steam trucks were sold in the United States and France up to the First World War, and in the UK until the Second World War, when they were known as steam wagons.
But since these steam trucks could only cover short distances (usually from a factory to the nearest train station), it was necessary to come with another solution. In 1895, the German Karl Benz, who had created the first internal combustion engines, used one of his models, the Benz Velo, as the basis for creating what is considered to be the first truck in history. That set off the race to improve these vehicles so as to transport greater loads over greater distances.
A year after the Benz invention, another German, Gottlieb Daimler, created his own model of a truck. In this case it was based on a carriage placed on wooden wheels encased in iron. Daimler replaced the traditional drawbars of the horses with a motor that provided power. It was a two-cylinder Phoenix motor equipped with chain drive with four speeds. To the original wagon he added an elevated cabin for the driver in the front part, and on one of sides he printed the words Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft Cannstatt.
This first prototype was capable of moving a load of 1,500 kilos. Curiously, the company wasn’t able to sell a single one of these vehicles in Germany, where the public in general seemed to be more interested in cars than in trucks, although it was able to sell one of its first trucks in England.
Other automobile companies, like Renault and Peugeot, also built their own versions in Europe, while in the United States the Autocar company built that country’s first truck in 1899. In general, those first trucks used motors of two and four cylinders and could carry loads of between 1,500 and 2,000 kilos.
Following the First World War, there were other important advances: rubber tires replaced the solid tires, electric startup devices were added, as were brakes and engines of four, six and eight cylinders, and the cabins were closed and illuminated by electricity. This was the period of the first modern semi-trailer trucks, which would be followed by the heavy trucks created by Ford and Renault.
But the diesel motors were not implanted in these trucks until the 1930s, in spite of the fact that they had been invented in 1890. At least that was the case in Europe, because in the United States they would not be in use until many years later. In fact in the 1970s there were still heavy trucks with gasoline motors. But not in Europe and Asia, where they had been replaced 20 years earlier.
When compared to other kinds of fuel for trucks, diesel offers a number of advantages: it is cheaper and makes the motor more powerful. In addition, diesel engines have more torque (potential for traction), they last longer, they adapt more easily to adverse temperatures, and the newer models contaminate less and less.
At present, in addition to diesel and gasoline, there are trucks that function with liquified natural gas (LNG), although this is not the majority choice. This fuel produces fewer emissions to contaminate the environment, but demands special adaptation in the fuel tanks and the motors, which makes it more expensive.
Electric trucks are still not viable for several reasons. On the one hand is the problem of autonomy because battery life is still too short for the great distances that these heavy vehicles must cover. If more batteries were added, this would considerably increase the weight of the trucks, with the result that their loads and capacity would be lower and there would be greater consumption of electricity.
Although there are some electric models on the market, they are few and are limited to small trucks that cover little ground. What does seem to be a more viable option for longer hauls are hybrid trucks. But there is still a long road to be followed and more research to be carried out before this is a reality.