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Closing the gap

Feb. 5, 2010
“We’re not suggesting this dynamic fifth wheel is a ‘silver bullet’ – but it could play a big part in helping significantly improve a tractor-trailer’s aerodynamic footprint.” –Rich Carroll, vice president-sales & marketing, JOST International So I’m ...

We’re not suggesting this dynamic fifth wheel is a ‘silver bullet’ – but it could play a big part in helping significantly improve a tractor-trailer’s aerodynamic footprint.” –Rich Carroll, vice president-sales & marketing, JOST International

So I’m heading to the Technology & Maintenance Council’s annual convention in (hopefully!) sunny Tampa, FL, next week, with a chance to examine a variety of new and updated products being rolled out for the trucking industry.

One such product is what’s being dubbed a “dynamic” fifth wheel. Though still in the prototype phase, it’s a fifth wheel design that’s got the potential to help solve one of trucking’s trickier aerodynamic issues – how to efficiently yet safely reduce the gap between the tractor and trailer.

“We call it the ‘Smart Gap System’ or ‘SGS,’” Rich Carroll, vice president-sales & marketing of JOST International, which is getting ready to start field testing this new “dynamic” fifth wheel.

“Imagine if you will a fifth wheel slider assembly controlled by sensors and an ECU [electronic control unit] programmed to sense when it is both safe and much more fuel efficient to close the gap between tractor and trailer at certain speeds and under certain conditions,” he explained. “Then, when conditions indicate the need to return to a more conventional position, such as to allow for trailer swing clearance, the fifth wheel does so automatically and quickly – without involving the driver.”

[Here’s a video clip showing a tractor-trailer equipped with a JOST SGS fifth wheel in action. At the very end of the clip, you’ll see a close up of the system working while the truck is parked.]

Carroll said that initial collaborations with OEMs and fleets to date show that there is strong potential for aerodynamic gains – and, subsequently, significant fuel savings – from the ability to shrink the gap automatically between tractor and trailer using JOST’s SGS system. How much of a fuel savings, though, is still up in the air, he told me.

“That gap also varies, depending on whether the trailer being hauled is equipped with a refrigeration unit or not, for example. So it doesn’t completely close the tractor-trailer gap for that reason,” he said.

“But by using SGS, you’re looking at shrinking that gap from say an average of three feet down to one foot; that changes everything when you look at the entire rig from an aerodynamic perspective,” Carroll added. “Now, instead to trying to manage air flow around a three foot gap, you only have a foot to deal with – and you can finish closing that gap more easily, perhaps, with other solutions.”

He noted that specific fuel efficiencies for the SGS-equipped fifth wheels are going to be determined by JOST through fleet testing and SAE test track results planned for the 2nd quarter of 2010.

Another interesting point: Most of the components used in the SGS package are “off the shelf,” so to speak, meaning they are currently commercially available and have been proven to hold up under “real world” conditions.

Carroll also pointed out that the platform for the SGS technology is JOST’s Pro Tech integral angle inboard style slider assembly, which also incorporates a cab-actuated air release for the king pin locking mechanism.

What’s the price tag for this new “dynamic” fifth wheel? That’s something JOST is keeping close to vest for now. “The caveat is that SGS remains in development and we are not in full production at this time, so we can’t provide final system costs and weight information,” Carroll said. “However, we are designing the system with an ROI [return on investment] target of 12 to 18 months in mind.”

In essence, then, the fuel savings achieving from the improved aerodynamic footprint offered by JOST’s SGS package should pay for any additional costs over the nominal price tag of a fifth wheel in about a year to a year and a half. That would be pretty impressive, if JOST can prove it out – something we’ll learn over the course of their field tests this year.

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