Trucking needs technology boost

John Denslinger is a former executive VP Murata, president SyChip Wireless, and president/CEO ECIA, the industry’s trade association. His career spans 40 years in electronics

This month, John Denslinger highlights new standards impacting the design, manufacture and operation of heavy-duty trucks, then explores six areas of opportunity.

The EPA recently finalized stronger national greenhouse gas pollution standards for heavy-duty vehicles specifically targeting freight trucks and Each contributes to lower fuel consumption. These standards apply to upcoming model years 2027 to 2032. Manufacturers tasked with balancing sustainability requirements and the quest for greater fuel efficiency have more visibility now, but the larger question might be: will truck manufacturers have sufficient time to apply optimizing technology that satisfies both worlds given the design window for model years 2027-2029 is likely closed?

First, let’s clarify the term heavy-duty truck as it has a number of more common names: semi, eighteen-wheeler, tractor trailer, freight truck, long-hauler, etc. Each is defined as a Class 8 vehicle and refers to the tractor only.

America’s economy rolls along smoothly thanks in large part to a reliable trucking network. For an economic perspective, long-haul trucks account for less than five per cent of all the vehicles on the road but transport 70 per cent of all freight. The Federal Highway Administration reports heavy-duty trucks move a staggering 10 billion tons of freight across the US each year. The industry itself has more than 1 million for-hire and private carriers employing some 7.3 million people directly or in related businesses. There are 3.5 million long-haul trucks travelling more than 68,000 miles each year. Freight levels are steadily growing year over year. By 2045, the Federal Highway Administration forecasts freight levels will increase another 40 per cent.

On the downside, the average age of a Class 8 semi- truck on the road in 2018 was 12.8 years old (Bureau of Transportation Statistics). Even more astonishing is the average fuel efficiency at 6 to 7mpg. Re-tooling the trucking industry with state-of-the-art technology offers significant economic and social advantages.

Assuming manufacturers have adequate time to scale up promising technology, as well as regulatory flexibility to achieve compliance with fuel efficiency and emission standards, here are some excellent design opportunities:

Aerodynamics: Design vehicles to reduce drag. Streamline cab shapes, side skirts, boat tails and underbody fairings. Each contributes to lower fuel consumption.

Electrification and fuel cells: design vehicles for zero-emissions and lower mpg costs. Electric battery technology seems to be a good option for urban and short haul deliveries, while fuel cells make sense in long haul situations. Fuel cells weigh considerably less than batteries, take up less space, refuel faster and pack greater energy density.

Advanced ICE: the diesel isn’t dead just yet. Improved engine designs combined with hybridization or alternative fuels like biodiesel or renewable diesel are real possibilities. Minor modification for CNG or LNG is also practical. This option has an entire supply infrastructure in place already, so it’s logical to explore further.

Advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS): design for the future autonomous vehicle. Introduce technologies such as adaptive cruise control, predictive cruise control, automated manual transmissions, telematics and GPS.

Light-weighting: design tractors and trailers with more composite materials, aluminum and high-strength steel. Create a lower weight vehicle.

Autonomous trucking: design as an early adopter. Long-haul freight transportation presents a more predictable and less complex driving environment than urban settings. The technology also delivers safer roadways and less congestion.

While not specifically stated, the rush to boost fuel efficiency to 10mpg appears to be the short-term goal. That figure alone represents a hefty 50 per cent increase in fuel efficiency. According to the EPA, its new standard will avoid 1 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions. Trucking definitely needs a technology boost.