Shaving weight, saving fuel

DAVE BROWN provides technical production for corporate presentations. From his base in Los Angeles, he travels to locations to set up sound, lights, and video, and provide technical expertise to organizations as sophisticated as the White House Communications Corps.

Brown, 53, who loves to tinker with trucks, decided that his newest vehicle would take advantage of weight and fuel reduction. And he sure has done it. By using composite materials and a multitude of other lightweight options, he has taken out 2500 lb. And he figures he might be able to reduce the weight by another 400-500 lb by using aluminum underbody cargo boxes and integrating them with aerodynamic side skirting.

“We focused on fuel economy and weight reduction, to the point of being a little extravagant,” he says. “We figured a premium cost of $3 to $4 per pound to get rid of that weight. Will we achieve that payback on fuel savings in the long run? Well, fuel eventually is going to hit $4 a gallon, so we should. And it's just a good idea. The less fuel you use, the better the idea is.

“It's a very fun project. Even though we cry every time we pay the next bill, in our hearts we're just jumping for joy: ‘This is the way to do it.’ We keep saying that over and over.”

Brown says he got the “rare opportunity” to start with a Freightliner Argosy that came out of the factory as part of an original fleet in 2003 and has an aerodynamic cab and Detroit 12.7L.

Then he really started to attack the weight-reduction issue with:

  • A factory-ordered long chassis out of lightweight, high-strength aluminum, including all-aluminum reinforcements, and a 26' dry cargo van box that was spec'd out to dovetail aerodynamically with the cab.

  • An innovative Auxiliary Power Unit (APU) system.

    “It's pumped into the main engine coolant so it pre-warms the engine,” he says. “It would also pressurize the main engine oil pressure so when you turn the key to start the main engine, it's not like you have a cold, oil-less engine that you're going to wear out prematurely. When you shut it down, it fires the APU and engages the post-lubricator, and it lubricates your turbo bearings. As the turbo's spinning down, the bearings are lubricated with the engine off.”

  • Meticulous attention to weight reduction in the cargo box, including a lightweight, high-strength, minimal-maintenance composite floor and a lightweight, composite roll-up door.

    “The floor will shave off 700 to 900 pounds,” he says. “We had to talk our box builder in LA into using it. At first he wanted to stay with a traditional floor. This box builder had pioneered the use of structural 3M double-stick tape foam adhesive to apply the aluminum skin to the inside ribs. We told them, ‘We came to you because you're an innovator. Keep innovating. Don't get old and tired and cranky and withdrawn on us. C'mon. Innovate on us one more time.’

    “The box also has fiberglass-reinforced composite on the bottom that is exposed to the elements. Basically, the bottom side of the cargo box is virtually impervious to the elements. Once you install it, you forget about that as a maintenance issue.”

    He says the roll-up rear door weighs about one-fourth to one-fifth of the traditional roll-up rear door and has a seamless construction that is maintenance-free.

    “There are thousands of them in Wal-Mart trailers and FedEx trucks,” he says. “With their accounting program, they can figure out value better than anybody. If it's good for them, I figured it'd be OK for us to try.”

  • LED lighting wherever possible, especially inside the cargo box.

  • An array of other items, including engine horsepower tuning and rear axle-ratio changes.

“We plan to change out the rear-axle ratios,” he says. “You don't have to go 75 mph with the big boys who aren't paying for their own fuel. You can do the speed limit or a few mph below. On long hauls, you can have judicious selection of axle ratios and maybe drop down three gears instead of two going up over a hill because you have a smaller rear-axle ratio. When you're on the level and have it in top gear, your RPMs are down 1300 to 1400. That's where you get the fuel economy over the long distance.”

Brown says he has built this truck specifically for his own use and will not be selling any similar units.

“We've always wanted to do something like this,” he says. “The cab and chassis coming out of the factory are $120,000 to $130,000. Now what do you want to do with it? We'd love to do this a couple of times over. We may do it again, based on what we learn. Every time we do a new truck, it gets better and about 40% more expensive, and it comes out easily that much nicer each time. We try to incorporate not just innovative thinking but innovative materials.”

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