The only things more fascinating than the technology coming into the trucking arena these days are the opinions about such technology within the transportation industry. Some people are eager to see new developments in vehicles, while others argue just as enthusiastically against such change, preferring to keep things “the way they’ve always been.”
It would seem that about all these groups share — besides a willingness to share their opinions — is that most are starving for reliable information about new technology entering the industry, from trucks to singular components, and how to spec them correctly to perform best according to their needs.
That’s where Joel Morrow comes in. In addition to being a professional truck driver with more than 5 million miles under his belt, he’s the CEO of Alpha Drivers Testing & Consulting
Like everyone else, Morrow has opinions on the subject of new tech, but his commentary is different. As a longtime tester and consultant to manufacturers, he’s well-versed on the history of trucks, and he’s an expert about where truck technology is headed.
Put quite simply, when Joel Morrow talks about the subject, people listen.
“I’ve been around transportation my entire life,” he said. “I grew up in northern Ohio, right smack between Cleveland and Toledo, by Turnpike Route 20. My grandfather was a long-haul driver for Norwalk Truck Lines, which at one point was the biggest trucking company in the United States. So, I’ve been around trucks forever.”
Morrow followed the usual path of many kids in trucking families, as his father’s recycling business gave him almost unfettered access to things with four wheels.
“I started driving trucks around the lot at probably eight, nine years old,” he said. “I was hooking up trailers and backing stuff around 10, 11. When I got my driver’s license, I took a 1-ton Chevy truck and we put a homemade garbage dump on it. I made a little trailer, and I was working with some of the local businesses at 16 hauling garbage to the local landfill. From 16 to 18, until I graduated, I was running the wheels off that truck.”
It wasn’t long after that Morrow started driving over the road as his father’s recycling company shifted into trucking and transportation. But he and one of his brothers chafed under the slow pace of change in the family business.
“Me and my younger brother Jerry used technology, understood it and embraced it,” Morrow said. “We made a split from my dad and older brothers, and (Jerry) opened up what is now Ploger Transportation. They’re a very well-respected 100-truck fleet that’s out there on the cutting edge in terms of fuel efficiency.”
Morrow speaks of his brother and their company with pride, but admits the more mundane parts of running a trucking company that size simply wasn’t for him. While involved with the company, however, he made some very good connections with Volvo, Dana Corp. and other equipment manufacturers — and that led to his forming Alpha Drivers Testing & Consulting a few years ago. There, Morrow has hit his stride as one of the most sought-after consultants of his kind.
“I get pre-production items to test. Some of the stuff I talk about on social media, some of it I don’t — just depends what we’re working on and how soon it’s going to be available to the public,” he said. “I provide very high-level feedback to Volvo’s advanced engineering. I kind of speak ‘engineering language’ to a certain degree. They take my feedback and we’re comfortable with each other.
“Same thing with Dana Corp. on their components,” he continued. “I’ve developed an excellent relationship with them over the years. They will do retrofits on my truck, if need be, to get product into the real world and provide feedback. I also work very closely with the people at BASF and their new supe- low-viscosity lubricants in axles and transmissions that significantly help improve fuel efficiency.”
Morrow’s client list may include some of the largest and most well-known manufacturers in the business, but the focus of his work hasn’t wavered since Day 1: He says he always frames his assessment with the individual trucker or operator in mind.
“You can bury yourself very quickly if you don’t get the spec of your truck right, especially nowadays,” he said. “Having the correct spec on a truck really impacts how well the system is going to perform, how trouble-free it’s going to be. If you get that wrong, it’s nothing but problems — and we all know a trip to a dealer for an emissions system issue can be $30,000 in the blink of an eye. Getting the spec of the truck right goes a long, long way toward improving that situation and reducing that risk and liability.
“I have toyed with the idea of opening up a service to the individual small fleet owner-operator to help them spec trucks, especially down-spec powertrains because that seems very confusing to a lot of people,” he added. “My problem is, I’m so busy it’s very difficult.”
One of the big things that’s occupied Morrow’s time of late has been Purple Haze, a Volvo VNL that has been equipped with Volvo’s I-Torque powertrain. He says it provides the perfect balance of power and efficiency. In February, he debuted the custom rig via a YouTube series, where he took the truck through its paces on the test track. He then hit the open road to meet other drivers and capture their reactions to the brawny-yet-nimble rig.
“Purple Haze is the culmination of 30 years of spec’ing trucks,” he said. “It’s a 6×2 configured truck, which is somewhat unusual in that it got a bad name over the years because the OEMs did such a poor job when they decided to put 6x2s together. They just said, ‘Well, let’s just drop a driveshaft out of there and run it down the road.’ It doesn’t work that way, and that’s why it failed spectacularly here in North America.”
Because of this, Purple Haze has been through a bit of tinkering.
“So, I spent a lot of time with European suspensions — put together a very nice non-torque reactive suspension on the drive axle part of it and had some very advanced torque management going on,” Morrow said. “We have some axle capacity up front that’s pretty unique, that isn’t necessary on a 6×4.
“As such, I have what I believe is one of the most efficient trucks on the road, without a whole lot of tire wear. (This) will be very hard for a lot of people to believe,” he continued. “I’ve also worked very hard with the guys at Volvo to solve some of the tail steer issues and helped them develop the weight biasing logic from the ground up.”
As he talks, Morrow’s voice reflects the excitement he has for both the rig and the road. And even though Purple Haze was fresh from the factory less than six months ago, he’s already chomping at the bit, as they say, to see what the next chapter of truck technology holds.
“I love all the new technologies coming into the market,” he said. “I love the fact that there’s going to be electric trucks, that there’s going to be hydrogen electric. It’s exciting to me. I am not one of these guys that says, ‘Oh, it’s a diesel engine or nothing.’ That’s not me. I see the potential for all of these technologies. They will get better and better and I’m all for it.”
Dwain Hebda is a freelance journalist, author, editor and storyteller in Little Rock, Arkansas. In addition to The Trucker, his work appears in more than 35 publications across multiple states each year. Hebda’s writing has been awarded by the Society of Professional Journalists and a Finalist in Best Of Arkansas rankings by AY Magazine. He is president of Ya!Mule Wordsmiths, which provides editorial services to publications and companies.