Trailer Aerodynamics: Ready for prime time

Trailer aerodynamic packages have been battling for acceptance for many years.

Despite documented fuel savings by independent labs and fleets themselves, however, widespread adoption was still waiting for its breakthrough moment—until now. Thanks to regulations promulgated in the state of California and the likelihood of more complex federal regulations on big-rig fuel efficiency on the horizon, that moment may have arrived.

“Before [trailer] skirts were widely accepted, repair costs and long-term durability were always the biggest concerns,” explains Sean Graham, founder & president of Freight Wing Inc. “However, now that they are more common and a wider variety of trailer aerodynamic products are becoming available, it seems initial cost is now the biggest factor.”

He adds that the ability to quicken the return on investment of trailer aerodynamic devices is a motivating factor in the evolution of those products. “For example, we recently launched the 2012 version of our Aeroflex [trailer side skirt] product at a significantly lower cost and weight than our previous model. At 150 lbs., the weight has come down a lot due to the use of more advanced lightweight material, yet without sacrificing durability,” Graham says.

“I think the next step in the design evolution of trailer aerodynamic products will be to further refine the aerodynamic geometry of device combinations to maximize the overall fuel-saving benefits,” he points out. “Research sponsored by the U.S. Dept. of Energy will certainly help push the envelope in this regard in years to come.”

Other firms specializing in trailer aerodynamic systems agree with Graham’s outlook.

Other firms specializing in trailer aerodynamic systems agree with Graham’s outlook.

“The force behind the adoption of trailer aerodynamic technology is divided between two business drivers—fuel savings and government regulation,” says Mitch Greenberg, president of SmartTruck. “Many of the larger fleets are focused on ensuring they comply with the California Air Resources Board requirements, and it is clear California’s program has forced many fleets to investigate which [trailer aerodynamic] solution works best for them.

“On the other hand, many fleets are looking beyond the mandates and looking at finding the most valuable aerodynamic technology for their fleet,” Greenberg stresses. “They are defining value as a combination of price, fuel savings, durability and maintenance factors, and operational flexibility.”

To that end, he believes trailer aerodynamic developers will eventually create more integrated products where concepts are better incorporated into the initial design of the trailer.

“Keeping components inside the footprint of the trailer will grow more important, so the systems are not subject to damage, as well as minimizing installation times,” Greenberg points out. “The way we see it is that fleets need to worry about their trailers, not just their trailer aerodynamic systems.”

Trailer makers themselves echo that view.

“As a trailer manufacturer, we know that fuel economy has been a huge item for discussion in the past several years, especially when the price of diesel rises,” says Jamie Scarcelli, vice president & general manager at Wabash Composites, a division of Wabash National Corp. “California’s mandate definitely helped jump-start the demand for aerodynamic systems, although I think the industry would have gotten there eventually. What is an interesting trend is that even fleets that are not operating in California are starting to buy trailer skirts.”

Scarcelli adds, however, that as the population of trailer aerodynamic devices on the road grows, a “distinct concern” is beginning to be heard regarding durability. “We have the advantage of being both a trailer manufacturer and an aerodynamic device provider, [and] that unique perspective allowed us to design an aerodynamic device that not only provided fuel efficiency but also provided the durability required for everyday abuse and repairability,” he notes.

That’s why Scarcelli thinks the next design evolution of these devices will be first and foremost tied to improving durability. “Trailers operate in an abusive environment, and the trailer aerodynamic device makers need to take that into consideration,” he explains. “We have had a lot of new companies jump into this space without fully understanding that key requirement. I also think we will see requirements to truly prove fuel efficiency of these technologies not only on a track under ideal conditions but also on the road in real-life situations.”

Chuck Cole, manager of technical sales and product training for Utility Trailer Manufacturing Co., says that addressing the long-term durability and maintenance needs of trailer aerodynamic devices will become even more critical in the future.

“There are two reasons driving truckers to aerodynamics: regulatory compliance and fuel savings,” he notes. “The California regulation that requires either a 4 or 5% aerodynamic improvement on new trailers starting with the 2011 model year and also the retrofit of older equipment starting next year may be instances where a government mandate is actually good for the industry and will save the trucking community lots of money.” Read the rest of the article >>

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