Fuel economy: 2017 and beyond

Aug. 22, 2013

DALLAS. The next advancements in fuel economy are already in the works, according to a panel of experts at the opening session of the Commercial Vehicle Outlook Conference being held here in Dallas this week. They will come from enhanced batteries, lighter weight materials, improved aerodynamics, integrated drivetrains, and from treating tractor-trailer combinations together to create greater combined efficiency.

Craig Bennett, senior vice president sales and marketing for Utility Trailer; Jim Fier, executive engineer, on-highway for Cummins, Inc.; Max Fuller, chairman and CEO of U.S. Xpress, Inc.; and David Hames, general manager marketing and strategy for Daimler Trucks North America (DTNA) made up the panel, which was moderated by Derek Kaufman, CEO of Mission Motors.

Although there were thousands of new regulations created last year, Kaufman observed, the industry may be at a point where “innovation may take the lead over regulation.” By way of example, he cited the fact that advanced battery costs are now dropping quickly, plug-in hybrids are getting more competitive and the industry is finding new ways to deploy electrical power to its advantage, including the use of Shaped Magnetic Field Resonance (SMFIR) in Korea that enables buses to run above an embedded electro-magnetic rail, without their wheels touching the ground.

Kaufman also mentioned Google’s Autonomous Control vehicles, which are now operating on the highways in a test mode in San Francisco, Volvo’s Safe Road Trains for the Environment project, new ultra-light “micro-lattice” wall structures and (also ultra-light) grapheme aero gel insulation as further examples of innovation pulling out ahead of regulation to create more efficient vehicles in the years ahead.

Bennett, whose family-owned and managed company will turn 100 next year, noted that trailer skirts have already contributed a 2% to 4% improvement in fuel economy as have new aerodynamic treatments for the back of trailers. About half of the new trailers Utility produces now include trailer side skirts, he said.

“I think the future holds a plethora of ideas [for further improvement], many for treating tractors and trailers in combination,” Bennett added. “In two or three years, we will see some very interesting improvements.”

Fier noted that Cummins is already “a year ahead” in meeting the pending greenhouse gas regulations, which are closely aligned with fuel economy improvements. The Department of Energy (DOE) Super Truck project has been great incubator for new concepts, according to Fier. Within the project, Cummins and Eaton have been working together to match transmissions to engines to produce the best fuel economy.

“I see a continued trend,” he added. You really need to match what you are trying to do with your equipment in order to maximize fuel efficiency. That will become more and more important.

Like Fier, Hames credited the Super Truck project with helping to further the cause of improved fuel efficiency, noting that Freightliner’s latest Cascadia “includes some things we’ve learned on the Super Truck Project.

“We internally set new targets for fuel economy about every two years,” Hames said. “On chassis [in isolation] we are reaching a point of diminishing returns [when it comes to opportunities for significant fuel economy improvements]. We think in terms of 'vehicle integration,'" he added. “You have to make sure you are designing for customer value.”

Hames also noted that drivers also impact fuel economy. “There is huge variability in drivers’ impacts on fuel economy,” he said. They represent an opportunity for further improvement. We are working to provide them with better data, better feedback to help them get the most from their equipment.

Max Fuller, well-known and respected for his willingness to try and test new technologies and new systems, added the fleet perspective to the panel. He seconded Hames’ remarks about the importance of the driver. “We track trucks with the same specs for [fuel economy],” he said. Automatic transmissions, for instance, can improve a driver’s ability to operate efficiently by as much as a full mile per gallon. The improvement is not as great among our best drivers.

“We have grown through using technology and being innovators,” Fuller noted. “Sometimes, we’ve been frustrated by how slowly things move, even telematics. Innovations can give us a competitive advantage. My newest trucks are getting close to a mile per gallon better than the trucks we purchased last year.  One-third of my cost is fuel,” he added. “We need the Super Truck project in the worst way.” 

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