Tech Talk

Good technology follows needs of users

Back in 2013 I was contacted by Chet Cline, the principal of the Air CTI company, which specialises in tyre inflation technology for the Australian trucking industry.  

Chet’s plan was to update the operator controls for the AIR CTI product. Since 1990 my company had been doing electronic design and engineering work for a wide range of industries, but tyre inflation technology was new to us  

The CTI company had already resolved the hard issues around moving air into tyres at highway speeds and had plenty of trucks in the field with working systems. However, at that time they used a basic analogue control method that required a fair amount of customisation between trucks. This made it tougher to support vehicles at remote locations. 

We were given a brief to see what improvements could be made to the system. We looked at several trucks, examined how they were being used and noted common problems experienced by installers.  This is the usual process. Clients can have an approximate idea of what they want, but don’t always know what is possible.  

The challenge for any new design is that it must be implemented without risking the reputation of the company. This is the eternal paradox of product design. Nobody can learn how to swim by staring at a pool. Sooner or later, you have to get into the water.

The next step involved some imagination. What would an alternate CTI control system look like? How would it feel for the operator?  How readily can it be supported from the far side of the country over a scratchy phone line?  The list of essential requirements grew longer.

The yellow OLED display tells the driver which pressures have been selected and where their tyre pressures are now.

We would need a bright display screen that is easy for the driver to read, day or night. Earlier systems used rotating knob controls to select pressures. However, pressure settings can be hard to fine-tune on a bumpy road. It’s easier for the driver to select a pressure preference with single button press. The electronics need to be smart enough to self-diagnose a wide range of problems under harsh operating conditions.

Good design does not occur in isolation. An outsider can’t just enter a specialised industry and create the perfect product. It requires collaboration with people who understand that industry. The trick is to bring it all together.  

An early step was to develop a circuit board that would support the new concept. Circuit board design is complex. It is an art form where the necessary components and the available space must come together.  In the middle of this must be a microprocessor with enough capability to meet current and future needs.  The operator console needed a customised label. 

This would have raised button areas to make it easier for drivers to feel their way around the controls under low-light conditions. Yet it must be tough enough to endure extreme UV light and high dashboard temperatures. Cheap materials will never last long under the Australian sun.

Any intelligent system requires software to make it go. The two yellow lines of information that appear on the display don’t reflect the nine thousand lines of program code written to define the internal workings of the product.

The new design was first introduced to the field in 2013. The transition away from a rotating knob for a pressure setting was controversial, but rapidly accepted. Drivers could now press a single button to choose between a pre-selected high, medium or low tyre pressure. 

The yellow OLED display tells the driver which pressures have been selected and where their tyre pressures are now. Background features constantly look for anything out of the ordinary. Is it taking too long to inflate? Is there a slow leak somewhere? If something unusual is detected, the driver will be informed.

There are about 70 different settings that allow the installer to fine-tune any new installation.  Some fleet owners don’t want their drivers to make adjustments, whereas owner-drivers may be keen to dive in and make changes on the fly. Selectable levels of access in the CTI controls support all of these situations.

An early release of the new AIR CTI controls was fitted to my classic 1985 4WD Mitsubishi van. It let the dynamics of a live CTI system to be exercised and studied in real time. While this van gets a few odd looks on the road, it has made a vast difference to the boggy places it can go and to the hills it can climb.  Whenever a gravel road is encountered, dropping the tyre pressures improves stability of the van and smoothes out the ride.

Now in late 2021, the 3000 controller threshold is about to be passed.

The AIR CTI team, now in Morwell, East of Melbourne, have created a bold new enterprise where none existed, that is delivering valuable driver safety and vehicle efficiency to our trucking industry.  The rest of the world has shown a lot of interest in this mature technology: if it will survive our conditions, it will work anywhere.    

It has been a privilege to work with Chet Cline and the entire AIR CTI team. From basic principles, they have created amazing advances that have reshaped how our transport industry regards its most precious and yet most abused asset, the tyres that link Australia’s trucks to Australia’s roads.

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