What the Tech? Here’s the 411 on Trucks

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Last week we explored why truckers feel a bit testy when it comes to today’s integration of new big rig technology. Truckers aren’t against technology, it’s just that all the excitement over advancement and rush to implement updates can lead to complications and confusion, especially in Class 8 trucks.

But what are these technologies, and why are commercial truck makers and Congress driving so hard for their development? When the furor over futuristic features eventually ends in trucks that are more thoroughly tested and realistically integrated, what advantages can we expect from their implementation?

Everyone on the road or invested in it wants to find options that can lead to greater affordability, safety, and convenience. Behind the wheel and under the hood of eighteen-wheelers, the most important technological improvements are inefficiency, aerodynamics, and fuel economy and emissions.

These top technologies offer a lot of promise for the trucking industry. Join us in exploring who is testing them, where they’re headed, and what we think they mean for the future of freight movement and (eventual) trucker satisfaction.

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Today’s Showstoppers

In the past 2-3 years, these top technologies have been displayed by several truck makers in the form of concept models. They aren’t quite overall ready for the market, but many parts of their make-up are.

According to Commercial Carrier Journal, manufactures often use these concepts as test cases for new tech they’re planning to transfer into more modern models. Peterbilt, Freightliner, and Navistar are all currently showcasing concepts that present futuristic, but feasible features targeting those goals of improved efficiency, aerodynamics, and fuel economy and emissions.

Efficient Challenge

If we can reduce the amount of energy it takes to operate the truck, there’s less wear and tear on the truck, we consume use less fuel, and can improve greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

In 2009, four major manufacturers answered the U.S. Department of Energy’s “SuperTruck” initiative, which challenged (and funded) manufacturers of Class 8 trucks to develop a 50 percent more fuel and heat efficient tractor-trailer by 2015.

Currently, both Freightliner Trucks (the largest division of Daimler Trucks North America) and Peterbilt-Cummins have produced SuperTrucks.

Peterbilt developed the first SuperTruck in 2014, which features an 86 percent gain in freight efficiency. Freightliner’s Supertruck boasts a 115 percent increase in freight efficiency and high-tech, lightweight composite materials add to the efficiency by reducing the trailer’s weight.

The Shape of Things

Another advantage being explored is the idea of changing not just the way trucks work, but the way they look, too. The less resistance a truck experiences, from the road and even the wind, the better it can operate, meaning less energy consumed overall.

Peterbilt’s Walmart Advanced Vehicle Experience (WAVE) certainly doesn’t look like any truck you’ve seen before. Designed with aerodynamics in mind, WAVE is skinny, and the cab is stacked over the engine, reducing the wheelbase and weight and improving maneuverability. There’s just one driver’s seat, in the center of the cab. It may look funny, but the new design cuts drag by 20 percent compared to conventional models.

Although WAVE has a micro-turbine hybrid electric powertrain engine, it was designed with a range extender, which means trucks need less space to store the energy it needs to operate on batteries, adding to the sleek design.

Frieghtliner’s Supertruck design, from the front radiator to the 32-degree angle windshield and fully-flush cab, sleeper and roof surface, are optimized to reduce aerodynamic drag.

One concept truck, Navistar Project Horizon, was designed especially to make an “aerodynamic statement.” The door handles are fixed, mudflaps are integrated, and side marker lights reduce drag, and active aerodynamic grill shutters force air to flow around the truck.

Project Horizon also showcases a chassis and axle skirt system that fully covers the drag wheels. Although Navistar has shown has this can improve aerodynamics, this is a perfect example of how imagination and innovation don’t always line up, as the way to implement the feature in a road-ready truck has yet to be fully determined.

Economy & Emissions

With Class 8 trucks weighing in at 33,000-80,000 lbs (loaded to unloaded), every mile gained in fuel economy can save thousands of dollars per truck each year.

Freightliner’s Supertruck has been tested at a whopping 12.2 mpg. The engine features a waste heat recovery system and a high-tech software program that manages that kinetic energy for optimal feedback into the truck’s powertrain. Solar panels on the trailer roof recharge batteries and power the truck’s fully electric HVAC system.

Peterbilt’s Supertruck converts exhaust heat into power delivered to the crankshaft and has electronic control software that uses route information to optimize fuel use. It gets 10.7 mpg, a 75 percent increase in fuel economy, and a 43 percent reduction in GHG emissions.

Peterbilt’s WAVE trailer is composed almost completely of carbon fiber, reducing the weight by 4,000 pounds. Although it currently runs on diesel, it’s powered by a fuel-neutral turbine engine that can operate on diesel, gasoline, natural gas, DME, hydrogen, and other biofuels.

On the Road to Tomorrow

Although these concept cabs won’t be hitting the road anytime soon, aspects of their innovation are already underway.

Many of the aerodynamics of Peterbilt’s SuperTruck can be found in the company’s Model 579 EPIQ, featuring up to 14 percent improved fuel efficiency. Freightliner’s Cascadia Evolution integrates many features developed from work on their SuperTruck tech, such as a 7 percent increased fuel efficiency and aerodynamic reductions in wind resistance. ProStar is the current model that has benefited from Navistar’s efforts in aerodynamic and fuel-efficient Class 8 truck research. That big rig also won the fifth annual China International Truck Energy Conservation Competition in 2012.

These are just a few examples of how the evolution of technology is impacting the future of freight. Although those in the drivers’ seat still provide the best perspective on the real-road implications of these integrations, eventually these features will be fully tested and integrated effectively, making a living on the road easier for everyone involved.

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