On the road: Future of trucking is headed this way
Today’s modern long-haul semi-trailer truck is as different from the trucks of just 20 or 30 years ago as a modern jetliner is from the old Ford Trimotor passenger plane. And even more advancements are coming in the near future, thanks in part to a Department of Energy initiative called the SuperTruck Project, begun in 2011.
A number of truck manufacturers participated in the project, with the stated goal of improving freight efficiency (calculated in tons of freight per mile per gallon of fuel) by 50 percent. Manufacturers participating in the project included Cummins/Peterbilt, Daimler Freightliner, Volvo, and others. Each received a portion of the $284 million set aside by DOE for the project, and also contributed funds of their own to the multi-year engineering exercise.
The results exceeded expectations. Volvo shaved 3,000 pounds of truck weight, reduced drag by 40 percent, and achieved 70 percent better fuel economy than its standard trucks.
Freightliner shattered the 50 percent freight efficiency goal, scoring a 115 percent improvement and attaining 12.2 mpg in fuel economy.
Cummins/Peterbilt came up with a smaller, more powerful engine and lightweight materials, which translated to an 80 percent gain in ton-per-mile efficiency.
All these gains were driven by a variety of innovative techniques involving engine management, aerodynamics, weight reduction, and computer control of many truck functions.
In addition to the SuperTruck Project, truck manufacturers have been independently working on efficiency for years, with incremental gains year by year. Dave Lundy, general manager of TEC Equipment in Sparks, sells and maintains Volvo, Mack, and Hino trucks. He said that the innovations — aided by the use of computers — have been driven by the need to meet federal emission standards.
“Our trucks have 14 computers integrated in them, controlling the transmission, fuel consumption, cruise control, and many other functions,” Lundy said. Volvo has achieved drastic gains in fuel economy over the past 10 years, from an average of 5 to 6 miles per gallon to an average of 7.5 in their fleets.
“The range is 6.5 to 8.5 miles per gallon, depending on the terrain and driver, whereas before, some trucks were as low as 4.5,” Lundy said.
Lundy added that truck engines are now smaller in displacement, but all use turbochargers. Details such as high-efficiency piston design, split injection fuel delivery systems, predictive shifting, and adaptive cruise control also contribute to better mileage. Local delivery trucks in some markets are even going to hybrid power units.
“We don’t see much demand for the hybrids here yet,” Lundy said, “but they’re very popular in California, especially in high-density urban areas.”
Aerodynamics also play a huge part in fuel mileage. Trucks have adapted techniques from racing cars to help smooth air turbulence and reduce drag. Many trucks sport side skirts and spoilers to smooth and direct the airflow around both the tractor and trailer.
Safety is another area where dramatic improvements have been made. Vehicle stability control has come to the forefront in the last five years, and computers have also made possible lane departure correction, adaptive cruise control to maintain distances in traffic. Cab design is safer, with engines designed to drop down in a front-end impact rather than entering the cabin. Crush structures to absorb energy in an impact also reduce the possibility of driver injury.
All this technology has impacts on the business side of trucking as well. One of TEC’s Volvo customers is Full Tilt Logistics, a locally owned, family-run freight broker that recently opened a trucking division. Full Tilt President Tiffany Novich said that she and her husband Nic opened the company three and a half years ago, but just got their own trucks this past June. Already they have gone from two trucks to five tractors and six trailers, and plan to increase the fleet to 10-15 units by year’s end.
“Full Tilt specializes in high value freight,” Novich said. “A lot of our clients are trade shows and companies in the solar industry.”
Handling 300-400 shipments per month, Full Tilt recently signed a contract with Amazon. The company fully utilizes the technological capabilities built into today’s modern trucks.
“We use Geotab from Telematics, a freight management system that gives us real-time information,” Novich continued, noting that both UPS and the Department of Defense use the same software. The system also provides electronic logging of driver hours for full accountability to Department of Transportation requirements.
So what’s next? Autonomous trucks will be the next big step.
Paul Enos, CEO of the Nevada Trucking Association, said a fully implemented nationwide system of self-driving trucks could potentially save thousands of lives. But it’s not going to be an overnight transition. There are a lot of moving parts to converting the highways to autonomous vehicles. Among other considerations, Enos says he and other trucking associations are working with the FCC to ensure there is enough bandwidth secured for the necessary communication signals to and from the trucks to make the system work.
The future of trucking is on the way.