Designing A Fuel-Efficient Truck

Tractor trailers use a lot of gas. Every time fuel prices rise, the cost of doing business goes up for truck owners. Now, they're getting a bit of help from an engineering professor and his students who have come up with a new way to reduce drag on the trailer, saving fuel and money for truckers.

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The trailers you see on semi-trucks are great for packing and moving goods, but they're not always good for fuel economy. As Ryan Morden reports, researchers at Clarkson University in Northern New York have designed a product to reduce drag from those trailers and improve gas mileage.

RYAN MORDEN: Gene Phrampus is a truck driver from Texas, stopping to take a break at a gas station outside of Syracuse, New York. I asked him how much he spends on fuel.

Mr. GENE PHRAMPUS (Truck Driver): $45,000 to $50,000 a year.

MORDEN: Thats as much as the median household income in the United States. Phrampuss rig is just one of approximately two million registered in the United States, burning billions of gallons of gas each year.

Ken Visser is a professor from Clarkson University and a former engineer at NASA and Boeing. He says a lot of work has been done to reduce drag on the front end with sleeker semi-trucks, but the boxy trailers have still been a problem.

Professor KEN VISSER: (Mechanical and Aeronautical Engineering, Clarkson University): If you take a look at a semi-truck trailer driving down the road, its probably the worst aerodynamic, you know, thing that could cross your mind.

MORDEN: For the past decade, Visser and his students have been working to come up with a device to improve the aerodynamics of the truck. Improving air flow around the truck would make it easier to cut through air resistance on the highway. The result of that research looks like the flaps on a Chinese food take out box, tipped on its side.

PROF. VISSER: So whats happening when we put this device on the back? Is it stabilizing the flow? Is it reducing that kind of turbulence? Is it increasing the pressure on the back?

MORDEN: At Clarkson, they can answer those questions by replicating driving conditions on the highway in their labs, by putting scale models of semi-trucks into giant wind tunnels.

PROF. VISSER: We put in an artificial roadbed. It goes in here and then a truck goes on top of that.

MORDEN: Graduate student Josh Kehs shows me a model truck, and a closet full of those carryout carton panel attachments.

Mr. NAT KEHS: So we have about 15 of these different rear ends that all are a little bit different.

MORDEN: Theyve all been tested in the wind tunnel. Professor Visser says the one that did the best there was tested by a real trucking company.

PROF. VISSER: So we built a prototype and we put it onto one of their rigs. And they drove it back and forth across the country and it showed a marked improvement in fuel mileage.

MORDEN: Its now being built by ATDynamics and its called The Trailer Tail. Close to a thousand are on the road. And Visser says 3,500 are on order. He calls that just the beginning. With demands for fuel efficiency rising along with oil prices, he estimates that truckers can save $1,500 a year on fuel costs using a Trailer Tail.

PROF. VISSER: If you charged $1,500 for one of these things, youd make your return on your investment in a year. Anybody would go for that. If you charged $3,000, youd get your return on your investment in two years. Anybody would go on that.

MORDEN: Right now the Trailer Tail only works with trucks that have French door style openings on the back. Next, theyll research how the technology might apply to trucks with garage door style openings.

For NPR News, Im Ryan Morden.

SIMON: This is NPR News.

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