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The Evolution Of The SuperTruck Continues

We’ve spent a lot of time talking about autonomous trucks, telematics, ELDs, safety, and other trucking technologies, but it is time to delve into a really interesting topic: The SuperTruck. What exactly is a SuperTruck? And is that even a word? Technically, no. While SuperTruck has not yet made its way into the Oxford English Dictionary, it has been in use for some time now, specifically when the U.S. Department of Energy launched the SuperTruck initiative in 2009. Since then, the SuperTruck initiative has gone through several iterations and updates.

The goal of the SuperTruck initiative was to demonstrate a 50% improvement in overall freight efficiency, as expressed through a ton-mile per-gallon metric. For a heavy Class 8 tractor-trailer, this would represent a significant gain over technologies in place prior to the initiative. Yet, as a perfect example of what industry and government can do when they work together, the industry team participants have successfully met or exceeded the goals outlined.

Consider this: If all Class 8 trucks operating in the U.S. would adopt SuperTruck technologies, we would lower oil usage by an estimated 300 million barrels annually. This would also save trucking companies an estimated $20,000 per year on average. So, what are companies waiting for? It is important to remember that much of this is still in development. Let’s learn more about what they are working on.

The SuperTruck Develops

The DOE most recently completed a SuperTruck progress report in 2016. The teams involved in this report included Cummins/Peterbilt, Daimler, Volvo, and Navistar. Together, they have completed approximately 32 different technologies outlined in the initiative. Many of the innovations the team completed relate to aerodynamic and engine/drivetrain integrations. Considering the promising returns seen when these technologies were implemented, customers quickly became interested.

Now, in the near horizon, another 15 technologies look to be ready for market reach by 2020. Between 2021 and 2026, customers may see another 13 technologies come to market. Innovations are centered around aerodynamic packages and engine thermal efficiency improvements. Yet, not all the technological solutions being worked on focus on those two factors. Partner companies are also developing individually-marketed design efficiencies that will work across a broad suite of technological solutions.

With relatively easy integration and a demonstrated quick return on investment, fleets have already begun incorporating SuperTruck technologies into fleet operations. Awareness around fleet efficiency and climate change has also influenced those who are early adopters. One example of this is Hendrickson’s 6×2 axle configuration and lightweight brake and suspension components. These are SuperTruck technologies that have been quickly picked up by fleets across the country.

Dead tag axles and liftable forward tandem axles have been tested in the marketplace for many years and are now showing real potential. The new Freightliner Cascadia, which has demonstrated impressive new efficiency numbers, is one such example of an OEM adopting a SuperTruck technology and then demonstrating real gain in its use.

Here are all the areas in which SuperTruck technologies have become commercialized and are seeing widespread adoption.

The Engine and Driveline

The big rig engine has come a long way over the years. The efficiency numbers we see today represent a huge improvement over engines manufactured just 10 or 20 years ago. Still, the diesel engine has been a constantly-evolving machine. Since it was first developed in the 18th century, it has undergone countless revisions and updates to suit the needs of industry.

Did you know that diesel engines have the highest thermal efficiency of most standard internal and external motors (when excluding electric motors)? Yet, because of efforts like those made in the state of California, the trucking engine has evolved even more. Now, SuperTruck technologies have helped evolve the engine in a way never thought possible:

  • Current SuperTruck Engine Tech:
    • Downspeeding
    • Intelligent torque management
    • Integrated engine/transmission controls
    • Friction loss reduction using lubricants, materials and coatings
    • Parasitic loss reduction using engine accessories
    • Improved internal combustion
    • Improved aftertreatment
    • Improved air handling
    • Synthetic engine lubricants

Yet the engine is not the only place where SuperTruck tech has changed the name of the game. The driveline has also seen widespread change. Weight reduction has been one area where change has come quickly. From automated manual transmissions to predictive shifting, let’s take a closer look at some of the driveline technologies changed by the SuperTruck program:

  • Current SuperTruck Driveline Tech:
    • Automated manual transmissions (AMTs)
    • Predictive transmission shifting
    • Optimized transmission gear ratios for downspeed engines
    • Optimized transmission/engine integration
    • 6×2 axles
    • Neutral shifting on downgrades
    • Reduced parasitic loss using lubricants and better transmission design
    • Improved driveline lubricants for reduced friction

Aerodynamics, Weight, and Energy Management

One of the main thrusts of the SuperTruck program surrounded aerodynamic enhancements. We have come a long way from the days of a diesel-belching cab pulling a single boxy trailer. Today, there are almost too many aerodynamic enhancements to count, with many states making some of them mandatory additions. Even the federal government has weighed in on the issue of aerodynamic device compliance.

  • Current SuperTruck Aerodynamic Tech:
    • Tractor aerodynamics, including better bumper designs, roof fairings, chassis fairings, tractor/trailer gap fairings
    • Trailer aerodynamics, including side skirts, boat tails, gap fairings, vortex eliminators

And the fun doesn’t stop there. Weight reduction and energy management have been huge targets. As novel new composites hit the market, trucking companies test them, determine their efficacy, then move forward with utilizing them in the manufacturing process. Energy management has been spearheaded using technologies, better wheel and tire design, and more.

  • Current SuperTruck Weight Reduction and Energy Management Tech:
    • Aluminum fifth wheels
    • Aluminum tractor and trailer wheels
    • Aluminum driveshafts
    • Lightweight brakes
    • Fabricated seer axles with integrated disc brake knuckles
    • Single wide-base tires for both tractor and trailer tandems
    • Reduced rolling resistance tire compounds and designs
    • Predictive GPS cruise control
    • Eco-driving feedback systems
    • LED lighting systems
    • Overnight idling reduction systems using auxiliary power units (APUs)

Eye on Mid- and Long-Term Adoption

With so many current technologies in place, the future of SuperTruck tech looks very bright indeed. This can be seen with the launch of SuperTruck II. SueprTruck II has set the energy-saving bar higher than ever. It aims to ensure research, design, development, and demonstration of advanced Class 8 fuel economy technologies continues unabated. Their goal? A whopping 100% improvement in fuel efficiency!

The cutting-edge technology concepts required to meet this goal are currently undergoing testing and development and, as with any brave new concept or launch, there have been some obstacles and roadblocks, whether it be in technology readiness, cost reduction, or regulatory compliance. While these obstacles are standing in the way of commercial viability, progress is made almost daily on addressing the concerns.

Yet, that should not stop the big dreamers. The SuperTruck technologies available today are quickly morphing into the SuperTruck technologies of tomorrow.

  • Future SuperTruck Engine Tech:
    • High-pressure fuel injection systems
    • Improved piston bowl designs
    • Turbocharger and EGR enhancements
    • Electrified auxiliary systems
    • Waste heat recovery
    • Advanced engine controls
    • Engine structural materials for higher peak cylinder pressures
  • Future SuperTruck Driveline Tech:
    • Dual clutch AMTs
    • Gear coatings and lubricants for reduced friction
    • Electrified auxiliaries
    • Hybridization

Beyond what is going on under the hood, currently available integrated air suspension systems can be further adapted to optimize weight reduction. These systems will also enable suspension lowering technologies and other integration opportunities.

Aerodynamic and tire rolling resistance technologies and solutions will also continuously evolve. By properly maintaining controlled tire pressure even more than it is today, and depending on the environmental conditions, we will see these factors have an outsized impact on fuel efficiency.

  • Future SuperTruck Aerodynamic and Energy Management Tech:
    • Active aerodynamics, such as grill shutters
    • Cab and hood redesign
    • Tractor and trailer underbody aerodynamics
    • Further tractor/trailer gap reduction
    • Cameras to replace mirrors
    • Articulation gap reduction design
    • Lightweight suspension, driveline, and frame rails using advanced composites
    • Automatic tire inflation systems
    • Novel low rolling-resistance tire compounds
    • Battery-based idle management systems
    • Cab thermal management
    • Advanced predictive engine accessory and driveline controls
    • Wind/weather-based cruise control
    • Solar energy harvesting

The Promise of Tomorrow

Innovations proceeds unabated, which is something that holds true for SuperTruck technology. The technologies gained through this successful program have increased overall efficiency and reliability, without a huge increase in cost to trucking companies. With the new challenge looking to gain even greater efficiencies, expect to see SuperTruck tech evolve at a breakneck pace.

With the OEM teams proving up to the challenge, not only to achieve the goals outlined, but to bring the products to market, the promise of freight efficiency of tomorrow has become the new target for today. If you think today’s truck technologies are special, just wait another few years. The game is going to look very different thanks to the SuperTruck.

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