Meet the Media: John Baxter, Freelance Writer

I work out of my home and call my freelance writing business Baxter TechWrite. I eschew corporate titles, and simply refer to myself as a freelance writer. Today, the majority of articles I write are for Transport Topics, but I have also worked on four different Confidence Reports for NACFE, the North American Council for Freight Efficiency. My background in trucking industry publishing stems from work for several publications allied with Commercial Carrier Journal, including Owner Operator and, later on Overdrive and Truckers News. My specialties relate primarily to engine operation and maintenance, and powertrain specification and design, migrating recently into the brave new world of electric and hydrogen-electric powertrains.

Can you tell us what types of stories, trends or issues are on your radar now?

I’m presently working on an article relating to the emissions systems that diesel engine makers will utilize to significantly reduce both NOx and particulate for 2024, while at the same time reducing fuel consumption. I attended a symposium at the Engine Research Center, at the University of Wisconsin in Madison two summers ago entitled Technologies to Meet Ultra-Low NOx Standards, which should supply an excellent background for that article. My most recent articles included one on the Achates two-stroke, opposed-piston diesel, which I had written about extensively before in Mechanical Engineering, and the Ducted Fuel Injection System developed by Dr. Charles Mueller of Sandia National Laboratory, which provides a surprising step reduction in diesel particulate emissions. Future articles will likely relate to fine points of engine maintenance that have the side benefit of helping reduce emission system maintenance, but I am always looking for articles on advanced concepts that may make it into production in real world trucks.

Describe the craziest or most fun story you have written.

The most fun story I have ever written was about the glories of what the Country & Western lyricists call “gear-jamming,” or shifting a constant-mesh manual truck transmission. This brief column was a response to the opportunity I had to drive a Volvo tractor with an X15 Performance Series Cummins engine with a 13-speed manual transmission, a gearbox that was practically the industry standard in the early ‘80s. This was at the Cummins event in 2016 when they introduced the X15 engine, which had extensive internal changes in order to reduce its fuel consumption. While automated transmissions have come a long way and now make life easier for drivers, reduce fuel and maintenance bills for fleets, and just generally improve life on the road, there is a special rhythmic joy to slipping gracefully (once you learn proper timing!) through the gears of a good manual transmission and coordinating your actions with the sound of the diesel. These transmissions were developed at the Fuller Transmission Division of Eaton Corporation and, to me, represent a true engineering milestone. Considering the size and weight and relative simplicity of the transmission in a Class 8 tractor, and the absence of the wear-prone synchronizers used to simplify shifting in a car, moving from one gear to the next in a big truck is a breeze because of the clever way these gearboxes are laid out. A good driver can practically make them dance a ballet. In the conclusion, I likened my emotional attachment to “real truck driving” to the nostalgia many old railroad engineers must have felt when the enormously inefficient but incredibly impressive and powerful steam locomotives of yore were replaced by the simpler, quieter, and much easier-to-maintain diesels.

What story or stories are you most proud of?

I am proudest of an article done for Transport Topics on the extensive changes all the truck diesel engine makers made for the 2017 model year, and of a more recent one on how electric powertrains actually work. I read the fine print in what was given out at the Cummins event that introduced the X15 and then broke the story on the Atkinson Cycle that makes the Efficiency Series of this engine more efficient than earlier versions. This engine takes advantage of an altered sequence of events, enabling it to behave like it’s smaller than it is in some respects, while also taking advantage of its larger cylinders to further expand the burned gases, thus deriving more useful work from them. I convinced fellow editors on the awards committee of the Truck Writers of North America to give the engine the Technical Achievement Award, later renamed for the late Jim Winsor, that year. The Transport Topics article on electric powertrains delves into the technical details of how they actually work, and how they will be maintained, subjects I felt had hardly been addressed. Learning how the advanced components cooperate to make the truck operate smoothly and efficiently throughout the speed range, how the components are both heated and cooled to both protect them and maintain efficiency, and how the motors are cooled without causing the coolant to create a short circuit to ground are concepts every large or small fleet maintenance manager should begin getting acquainted with. Hence my desire to write such a piece. Many of the maintenance issues are surprisingly similar to those we face with today’s diesels, a fact that I hope will lend some comfort to those who may be dreading the electric future.

What elements or characteristics do you look for in a story?

I search for subjects that are off the beaten path and cry out for exposure, normally fine points of maintenance or advanced engineering that should prove exciting and enlightening. Good examples include writing a piece on experimental powertrains that, with the right overall tractor specifications and operating technique, will allow a Class 8 tractor to give the driver good performance while running an ultra-fast drive axle ratio. These experimental ratios will slow the engine to a cruise RPM so low that nobody had ever dreamed they would ever be practical, making the engine more efficient than ever. Or how certain specifications and maintenance techniques can significantly reduce DPF maintenance. Or how we soon could actually see a return to two-stroke diesels, but with opposed pistons. These Achates engines are simpler and far more efficient that today’s diesels, yet don’t have oil consumption or other maintenance issues two-strokes had in the past. Or how a simple in-cylinder metal duct system installed near a diesel engine’s fuel injector may virtually eliminate many of the problems we see today with soot-clogged Diesel Particulate Filters while also greatly reducing the soot that contaminates diesel engine oil.

How long have you been in journalism and how did you get started?

My start begins with the Vietnam War, and my job in a motor pool fixing trailer refrigeration systems and trucks. Since I had a degree in English, had been a reefer mechanic in a motor pool, and had worked on trucks, Chilton Book Co. hired me in 1971, after I was out of the service, to help revise a professional manual they had on air conditioning service, and to work on their manuals on repair of truck diesel engines. (Chilton manuals were a fixture of publishing. There was even one on the shelves of Carroll Shelby’s office in “Ford Versus Ferrari.”) While there I wrote Chilton’s Auto Troubleshooting Guide as a freelancer, and also had the privilege of editing a wonderful book on the Gas Turbine Engine by famous auto writer Jan Norbye. By late 1979 I’d secured a position as managing editor of a Chilton magazine called Fleet Specialist, which dealt with truck sales and aftermarket parts and service, and that was my start in truck trade magazines. A chart from one article I did on picking the right transmission ended up in Eaton’s marketing that year. A recession suspended publication of that magazine, which was part of the CCJ group, in 1982, but after that I ended up spending a year with Automotive Industries and Truck and Off-Highway Magazine before I was laid off from there due to economics and a change in company ownership with a sharper eye to the bottom line (welcome to the 1980s). That was one of my favorite years because I was writing about the engineering of trucks and cars. By 1989, the company was ready to increase the number of issues of Owner Operator Magazine, and since I’d worked before with its editor/publisher, I was hired as Senior Associate Editor. I’ve been writing ever since about truck technology and maintenance, and at Owner Operator I also wrote about trucking business and safety. In addition to working for OO as we called it, I wrote some for CCJ (Commercial Carrier Journal), and then after the sale of the CCJ group of magazines to Randall-Reilly in 2001, for CCJ, Overdrive, and Truckers News. My life as a freelancer began in 2012.

Finish this sentence: If I am not reporting, I am …

If I am not reporting, I am delving into advanced combustion, at least when it comes to work-related activities. I met an independent developer who was working on an advanced automotive diesel in 1973. His theories made sense to me and they actually anticipated those upon which the design of the unusual Multifuel Diesel that the Army used in Vietnam was based. This engine was a smaller, lighter truck engine used even in heavy-duty Army tractors in convoys all over Vietnam. It revved faster than regular truck diesels, was smoother and quieter, and would, if necessary, run on jet fuel, plentiful because of all the helicopters in the war zone, or even low-octane military gasoline. Since then, I’ve contributed to the literature of advanced combustion with various letters to the editor and a 2001 ASME paper on the subject. One letter, published in Automotive Engineering, explained why Miller Cycle cooling of the intake air of a heavy-duty diesel would help reduce emissions. Today, I am involved in an advanced diesel combustion small venture called Advance Diesel Concepts, where we have used computer modeling to show that an ultra-low emissions diesel may prove to be practical.

What advice do you have for PR people that want to pitch you?

PR people need to read your magazine before submitting something your readers won’t care about. We used to get any number of new product announcements for worthy devices that should have been aimed only at those magazines serving the manufacturing industry. Nobody preparing to buy a new truck cares about some tiny electronic component that may make his or her truck work better, but which will never appear on the option sheet. Single manufacturer case histories aren’t too helpful either. Help with input from one manufacturer you represent that will become part of a feature that covers all the manufacturers in one sector of an industry is very helpful, however. Just getting people to speak to us is also more welcome than almost anything when companies are slow to respond, and many PR people are really helpful there.

Any pet peeves with PR people?

Please, please, please, avoid the hype and the clichés. They will not sell a technical editor, even though a couple of beers might grease the wheels a bit (I’m chuckling). If I ever hear “Thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule. . .” again, I will want to leave your event! Straightforward English and, above all, full TECHNICAL explanations of how things work from knowledgeable sources is pure gold. We honestly don’t care that you’re excited, only about HOW DOES THE THING WORK, and WHAT DOES IT ACCOMPLISH? A simply brilliant PR guy, and believe me there are many out there, having received my compliments about his wonderfully done 3D computer graphic of a Hendrickson suspension opined, “A presentation is intended not to sell, but to inform.” Enough said.

Tell us a little about yourself (family, interests, hobbies, background, some fact about you that few people know, etc.)

I have a simply fantastic wife named Theresa McKenna who is a banking executive in a field that is very hot these days—fair lending. This means ensuring that banks lend in areas that are often inhabited by minorities and may not be the most prosperous, but may have any number of responsible, hard-working individuals living there—people you can profitably lend money to. We both had been Pennsylvanians our whole lives, but now live in a very nice suburb of Jackson, Mississippi because the state’s largest bank needed help in her field. We still don’t drink sweet tea, though. I have a son who does computer graphics and puts advertisements and commercials together and has photographed stars like Jude Law and Kelsey Grammar for the Tony Awards. He and his wife have a delightful son who has a communications degree and works in sales. I have a daughter who is a teacher of elementary school-age children in a Christian school in the Nashville area, and two granddaughters via her and her husband. I have been in Rotary since the mid-1980s. I have managed club finances and been a club president, was the treasurer of a Rotary district foundation for a year, and managed Rotary Foundation funds for a South Korean woman who studied at the University of Pennsylvania, receiving an advanced degree in women’s studies. I was also active in the SAE section in the Philadelphia area for a while as its treasurer, and for a term served as an elder in the Presbyterian Church where Theresa and I were married. I love to work out at the gym nearby and ride my bike on local roads. As a Vietnam vet, I’ve pondered the ultimate significance of that war and had an opinion piece about its possible long-term positive effect published in the Clarion Ledger of Jackson around Memorial Day three years ago. Once a year or so you may find me at the St. Andrews Day annual dinner of the St. Andrews Society of Philadelphia in a kilt, listening to bagpipes, and sharing a wee dram or two of single-malt.

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