The future of fuel economy for heavy trucks

Among the panel discussions that took place at last week's 2013 Commercial Vehicle Outlook Conference (CVOC) in Dallas, Texas, was one entitled, The Future of Fuel Economy: 2017 and Beyond. The panelists explored what the fuel holds in terms of equipment and technologies that can drive improvements in fuel economy for commercial vehicles, especially heavy duty trucks.

One consensus was that while natural gas power will grow, it will be as an alternative to diesel fuel, not a replacement.

This was the fourth CVOC, a gathering that brings together thought leaders from all segments of the trucking industry to share real-world insights on the state of the industry and discuss what steps can be taken to survive and thrive going forward.

Moderating the panel was Derek Kaufman, chief executive officer of Mission Motors, a company that develops electric powertrain components and systems. On the panel were: Craig Bennett, senior vice president, sales and marketing, Utility Trailer; Jim Fier, chief engineer, midrange and heavy duty engineering, Cummins; David Hames, general manager, marketing and strategy, Daimler Trucks North America (DTNA); and Max Fuller, chairman and chief executive officer, U.S. Xpress

Next possible advancements

Kaufman began the session by noting some of the advancements that are impacting heavy duty truck fuel economy for the future:

  • The cost of batteries for hybrids is "reducing quickly," making plug-in and hybrid vehicles more viable as an alternative to gas- and diesel-powered vehicles.
  • Shaped magnetic field in resonance (SMFIR) technology. Developed in Korea, this technology powers electric vehicles by transferring electricity wirelessly through a buried cable in the road surface.

Such electrification is not only for traction control, noted Kaufman, and is being developed for powering such belt-drive vehicle components as water pumps, power steering and compressor drives, as well as hydraulics.

  • Autonomous vehicles. These are vehicles that can drive themselves from one point to another without assistance from a driver.
  • SARTRE Project. This aims to develop strategies and technologies to allow "road trains."
  • NEDO (New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization). This is Japan's largest public management organization promoting research and development, and deployment of industrial, energy and environmental technologies.
  • Advanced lightweight materials development, like microlatice wall structures and graphene aerogel (the world's lightest material) insulation.
  • DARPA. This is an organization whose mission is to maintain the technological superiority of the U.S. military.

Efficiency drivers

Utility Trailer's Bennett said trailer aerodynamics, which have gained widespread industry acceptance, are showing a 2 to 4 percent improvement with skirts and a similar savings utilizing trailer tails, but felt 4 percent might have be a little high.

Fier of Cummins said that as diesel engine companies are meeting the upcoming U.S. EPA Greenhouse Gas Emissions regulations, significant resources are being freed up that can be used to concentrate on fuel economy.

DTNA's Hames said his company is constantly exploring new technologies, systems and vehicle configurations to make its product more efficient, often leveraging technology from its partners in Europe and Asia.

DTNA's work in fuel efficiency "has reached the point of diminishing return," as there are no large percentage rates of fuel improvement to be obtained. It's now a matter of looking to combine smaller rates of return from all facets of a tractor trailer.

He noted that things learned from participating in the U.S. Department of Energy's SuperTruck program have found their way onto Freightliner's Cascadia Evolution tractor.

The SuperTruck program was created to develop the next generation of more fuel efficient and environmentally friendly tractor-trailers than what is on the road today.

Fuller of U.S. Xpress Max Fuller said Class 8 OEMs are doing a good job improving fuel efficiency. He said his company's new Class 8 tractors are getting 1 mpg better fuel economy than the same models that were purchased 12 to 18 months ago.

Fuel economy wild card

The truck driver is the "wild card" in fuel economy," said Fuller. "We know now that simply spec'ing an automated manual transmission can boost a bad driver's fuel by as much as 5 percent and a good driver's by 1 to 2 percent. But you have to have a proper incentive plan in place to encourage fuel economy."

U.S. Express has found that the difference between a good and bad driver, in identical trucks, pulling the same loads over the same roads, can be as much as 1 mile per gallon. "And the problem follows the driver if you have them swap trucks," Fuller pointed out.

"I's something we're working on and will continue to work on because it can really help our bottom line if we can get all our drivers focused on fuel."