Trailer technology takes off

Aug. 1, 2010
When the industry was at its most vulnerable point in the economic downturn and manufacturers weren't producing trailers in abundance, it didn't make

WHEN the industry was at its most vulnerable point in the economic downturn and manufacturers weren't producing trailers in abundance, it didn't make much sense to spend a lot of time on advanced trailer technology.

Most companies were concerned about survivability, not bells and whistles. Many programs suffered because companies had to get lean and mean, prompting the release of research and development engineers.

But things have changed. June commercial trailer net orders were up 103% from June 2009, boosted by a 164% increase in dry vans for the year, according to ACT Research Co. (ACT). Through June, year-to-date net orders for trailers were up 74%.

Fleets are starting to buy again and manufacturers are starting to build again, so advanced trailer technology is hip again. Electronics are gaining a foothold — roll stability, tire-pressure monitoring, air-disc brakes — but fuel economy, aerodynamics, and environmental issues have come to the forefront because of the California Air Resources Board's (CARB) “Heavy-Duty Vehicle Greenhouse Gas Emission Reduction Regulation,” which took effect January 1.

“Business is coming back,” says Rod Ehrlich, senior VP/chief technology officer for Wabash National. “When you weren't building any trailers, it didn't make any difference. But things have really picked up. Now these real questions are becoming real problems that need real answers. So how are you going to play the game with new rules? CARB wants answers to these questions.”

CARB developed a regulation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions produced by heavy-duty tractors that pull 53-foot or longer van trailers. The idea is to make them more fuel efficient by requiring the use of aerodynamic tractors and trailers that are also equipped with low-rolling-resistance tires.

CARB believes that along with reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the regulation between 2010 and 2020 will save $8.6 billion, along with 750 million gallons of diesel fuel in

California and five billion gallons of diesel fuel across the nation.

Tractors and trailers must either be certified by the Environmental Protection Agency's SmartWay program or retrofitted with SmartWay-verified technologies (trailer side skirts, rear fairings, front-gap fairings, or other approved technologies). The type or number of technologies required is based on the percentage of greenhouse-gas-emissions reduction of each device.

The regulation applies primarily to owners of 53-foot or longer vans, including both dry-van and reefers trailers, and the owners of heavy-duty tractors that pull them on California highways. These owners are responsible for replacing or retrofitting their affected vehicles with aerodynamic technologies and low-rolling-resistance tires that are certified by the Environmental Protection Agency's SmartWay program.

Some of the provisions for tractors: 2011 and newer model year (MY) sleeper-cab tractors that pull affected trailers must have been SmartWay certified beginning January 1; 2011. Newer MY day-cab tractors that pull affected trailers were required to use SmartWay-verified low-rolling-resistance tires beginning January 1; all pre-2011 MY tractors that pull affected trailers must use SmartWay-verified low-rolling-resistance tires, beginning January 1, 2012.

Compliance plan

For trailers, 2011 and newer MY 53-foot or longer box-type trailers must be either SmartWay certified or retrofitted with SmartWay verified technologies, as follows:

  • Low-rolling-resistance tires and aerodynamic devices were required as of January 1.

  • Pre-2011 MY 53-foot or longer van trailers (with the exception of certain 2003 to 2008 MY refrigerated vans) must either meet the same requirements as 2011 and newer MY trailers by December 31, 2012, or choose a compliance schedule based on fleet size and prepare and submit the appropriate compliance plan which allows them to phase-in their compliance over time.

  • 2003 to 2008 MY refrigerated-van trailers equipped with 2003 or subsequent MY transport refrigeration units have a compliance phase-in between 2017 and 2019.

Short-haul tractors that drive less than 50,000 miles per year are exempt. Short-haul tractors and trailers that operate within a 100-mile radius from a home base may be exempt from the aerodynamics requirements, but not from the tire requirements. However short-haul tractors and trailers will need to be registered with CARB in order to obtain this exemption.

A small fleet is any fleet of 20 or fewer trailers that operates at least some of their trailers in California. Fleets with 21 or more trailers are considered large fleets.

“I think the regulation will drive improvements now that it's mandated on 2011 model trailers for 53-foot vans,” Truck Trailer Manufacturers Association (TTMA) president Jeff Sims says. “Because so many people are involved in California and touch that state in one way or another, it's going to make basically a national rule out of a state rule.

“The SmartWay program is a very good program that has been growing and getting more partnerships involved. They're looking for new trailers to pull into that program. Some of the reports coming out show fuel savings improve with various devices. There are seven or eight states that always follow CARB rules. If these states hold true to form, they will adopt similar regulations in the next few years, and you'll generally see the fleet grow as they purchase new trailers.”

Mark Roush, director of engineering for Vanguard National Trailer Corp, says trailer manufacturers are trying to adjust to the various side-skirt configurations and make sure customers are properly spec'd to meet the regulation.

“Integrating the technology into a base trailer is not such a big deal,” he says. “It's accommodating a lot of the options people would like to have and still making things work together. Skirts with lift pads on a trailer, like a TOFC trailer, sometimes become an issue. Triaxles with skirts sometimes become an issue because of the length required on a skirt, and triaxles taking up a lot of that area.

“The various manufacturers have tested their skirts at certain sizes, lengths, and widths, and had them approved for the SmartWay program. If there happens to be some interference somewhere with the way that was tested to put on there, you can't just go ahead and modify it and assume everything's all right. CARB had a conference call to discuss what would be acceptable modifications for them. It came down to, you could do some things for fuel tanks for reefer trailers, but they didn't want you messing with the overall height and length of a skirt. With a suspension sliding frontwards and backwards, it can be an issue — keeping tires from interfering with the back of that skirt.”

Vanguard has produced close to 1000 trailers with side skirts, primarily for large fleets, and the company is experiencing strong demand for low-rolling-resistance tires.

“Everybody's trying to get the lightest skirt and least expensive skirt for their money,” he says. “When CARB came around, that's when things started to pick up. SmartWay's kind of a novel idea, but the CARB regulations pushed the equipment on some of these trailers. I believe a lot of other states are watching what's going on in California and probably will start to follow suit sometime in the future. I don't think any of the fuel-economy optional equipment is going to go away. I think you'll see more and more of it.”

He says that from a manufacturing standpoint, a learning curve is always necessary when new technology arrives and starts to take off. He says that anti-lock brakes and trailer tracking even seemed like a mystery at first.

“Nothing's ever identical, but things do seem to get more common and people start adapting when they see what works and doesn't work,” he says. “We've seen that with skirts. The initial ones were heavy and could have been molded or formed-type pieces, where now they're going to lighter weight and simpler to install. It's always taking the idea and getting enough players involved where you can take the best ideas and start working towards it.

“As we keep putting things on, and trailers and tractors keep getting heavier because of their regulatory requirements, I think there's going to be a push for us to look for lighter weight materials again, which probably means a little more expensive trailer. Customers always want to get all the benefits they can and have all bells and whistles, but they always want it at the same price.

“Even now we're seeing customers asking us to remove 1000-plus pounds out of the trailer over the base weight. We're able to get there. I'm not sure exactly the financial impact that has, but we do have to do some things that add to the cost in order to get that weight out. It's mainly material changes. Can we swap steel for aluminum? Can we use a lightweight composite material in place of something that's heavier? Can we put a lighter floor system than wood? We're switching out a lot of steel with aluminum. But I think the future's going to be more composite materials instead of aluminum.”

Figuring out the tradeoff

Ehrlich says it's a cost tradeoff. Trailer manufacturers can always build a lighter weight trailer by incrementally reducing weight, but the cost goes up — and that's when customers eventually say it's not worth it.

“If you take your standard product and say, ‘This is what it is,’ he'll say, ‘Well, I want it lighter,’” Ehrlich says. “There are a number of things we can grab at $1.50 a pound. If they want it lighter yet, there are a number of things we can grab at $2 a pound. If they want it lighter yet, $4 a pound. Eventually, the customer says, ‘Ooh, it's not worth it.’

“There's a big question on the payback on some of these devices we now are required to put on 53-footers for California. If I'm a fleet and you could guarantee me that I would get 5-8% fuel-economy savings across the board, I'd be crazy not to go for it. But that has not been proven yet. The mandate for California is just the tip of it. No question trailers weigh more and cost more. The question is, ‘What's the payback?’ Maybe the question is, ‘Is there any payback?’

“I've been in this industry for almost 50 years, and these things were talked about 40 years ago. It's still the same thing, but this is the first time a mandate has required us to put these things on. In the past voluntary effort, the payback was not there, and that was reason nobody ran them. In Europe, fuel prices have been twice what they are here for decades, but you don't see these devices even voluntarily used. They're not convinced the payback is there, even at twice the cost of fuel.

“This is a trial period. What happens during it is going to be monumental, because we're going to set the stage for what we do down the road. At least on aerodynamics, I don't know that these mechanisms will be proven, but you will have much broader usage, which will help a lot of fleets begin to see if there is any difference.”

Ehrlich says Wabash's DuraPlate Aeroskirt, manufactured with DuraPlate composite panels that are 100% recyclable, has some design advantages in that it deflects in and out — unlike those that have a knee brace that allows the skirt to deflect in but not out. Too much force and the brace will break.

The Aeroskirt can be installed on existing fleet equipment or factory-installed on new trailer orders using brackets that are fastened to the trailer crossmembers. Because of a low total part count, typical installation can be completed in two hours.

“We install at least four different manufacturers' versions,” Ehrlich says. “Some of them are labor intensive. Labor's a big part of it. Whether it's two hours or 10 hours, that's a big number. It also has to fit with our assembly line. We're building over 150 trailers a day. The assembly line goes quite rapidly, and you have to be able to do it within a time frame. If you have to build a trailer and then bring it back in and do it like a job shop, the cost goes way up. That's something we pay a lot of attention to when fleets request it. How can it be installed, and what is the installation time?

“Then there's certification. Who's certifying what? We're a vehicle manufacturer, and when we put on somebody else's skirt that makes a claim that this has been certified, it has been certified to a particular configuration and installation. So how does another manufacturer install it and certify that it was installed the same way it was tested, because certification is sensitive? The way that California is going to play the game has yet to be determined. I think when we see a number of fines assessed, we're going to see some legal cases that set some precedents and tell us how to play the game.”

John Cannon, VP of engineering for Brenner Tank, said his company ran side-skirt experiments with four of the largest tank-trailer fleets in the country, but they took the skirting off before the test runs were even finished.

“The reception to that has been tepid at best,” he says. “We build strictly tank trailers, and it's substantially added cost, weight, and maintenance. There are so many more panels to get the desired aerodynamic effect. We found we could improve fuel economy several percent, but at this point, fuel would have to be more expensive for more fleets to go that way on tank trailers. People aren't putting them on new tank trailers.”

Cannon says Brenner is working with alternative materials, leveraging different types of stainless steel that reduce the tare weight of a tank by 700 pounds.

“That's important, with 2010 emissions on the tractor raising the weight about 700 pounds in most cases,” he says.

Questions debated

Ehrlich says logistical and cost issues are creating complex questions. New fuel-efficient tires, for example: When they go bad or one goes flat or is ruined, what kind of tire is going to be put back on the trailer?

“In our trailer industry, they typically use recaps,” he says. “You get maybe three caps out of an old, existing tire. So with these large fleets, what are they going to put back on it? You had to comply in the beginning with California. But now, from a maintenance activity, are you going to go out and buy a brand new certified tire to put back on, as opposed to using what you have in your tire bank, which is a recapped tire? Trying to integrate that is a new twist. We have to look at tires and tire retreaders differently. I don't believe there are any retread tires out there that are low-energy-certified. We have to figure out how we're going to play that game.”

Then there is the expense of certifying the side skirts. Every SmartWay trailer must have a certifiable SAE Type 2 test proving it can produce a 6.5% or greater reduction in fuel consumption, relative to a baseline 53-foot dry van trailer.

“From a practical standpoint, if we could do some of these tests in a wind tunnel, we could get variations done very quickly,” Ehrlich says. “But a wind tunnel has not been accepted by the EPA, so there is some push to try to get some correlation between a wind tunnel and SAE Type 2. Unfortunately, the cost of each SAE test is $50,000, so the question is, ‘Who's going to pay for it?’ With the EPA having a lot of these grants out there, the EPA would probably be in the best position to do something like that.

“And what kind of modification can you do to a skirt? If I'm going to put it on refrigerated trailer, can I cut a hole in it where the tank is so I can fill up the fuel tank? Initially, CARB was living in an idealized world and saying, ‘No, you can't modify anything on that, because what you did certify is what you have to put on it.’ The question is, ‘What if I have four axles on a trailer?’ The skirt can't go where the tire is. From a practical standpoint, you're going to have to shorten the skirt in length. Again, they said, ‘Well, you didn't certify that.’ I may only produce 10 trailers that way. The cost to do this test is $50,000. You see the rub there. It's not practical to recertify a skirt to modify and build 10 trailers. So it's a Catch-22. So is it illegal to build that trailer? There are a lot of unanswered things in there.”

Is it a bird? Is it a plane?

The development of new technologies is being spurred not only by the CARB regulations, but by the Department of Energy's (DOE) 21st Century Truck Technology Partnership, which is funding three projects totaling more than $115 million that are aimed at developing cost-effective measures to achieve a 50% efficiency in Class 8 long-haul trucks by 2015.

Under what is known as the “SuperTrucks” program, OEMs have begun five-year projects to develop and demonstrate prototype vehicles with systems-level, fuel-efficiency technologies for improved aerodynamics, reduced engine idling, waste heat recovery, advanced combustion techniques, and powertrain hybridization.

Cummins, in partnership with Peterbilt, has received $38,831,115 to explore a highly efficient and clean diesel engine, an advanced waste-heat recovery system, an aerodynamic tractor and trailer combination, and a fuel cell auxiliary power unit to reduce engine idling.

Daimler Trucks North America, shared by DTNA's sister company, Detroit Diesel, received $39,559,868 for engine downsizing, electrification of auxiliary systems such as oil and water pumps, waste heat recovery, improved aerodynamics, and hybridization.

Navistar received $37,328,933 for improved truck and trailer aerodynamics, combustion efficiency, waste heat recovery, hybridization, idle reduction, and low-rolling-resistance tires.

“With more than 80% of the nation's diesel fuel consumed by heavy-duty, on-highway Class 8 trucks, the development of a ‘Super Truck’ has enormous energy-saving potential as well as significant environmental benefits,” says Dee Kapur, president of Navistar Truck Group.

Stability control spurring electronics

The electronics arena of trailer technology has rebounded with an improvement in the economy, just as it has for aerodynamics.

Most of the talk surrounds the possibility that by the end of the year, stability-control systems could be mandated as standard equipment by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA). In addition, the Commercial Motor Vehicle Advanced Safety Technology Tax Act of 2009 (HR 2024 and S 1582), if passed, would provide an income tax credit to facilitate the development and deployment of advanced safety systems for commercial motor vehicles.

“This is the single biggest issue on electronics,” says Mike Pennington, senior director of global communications and industry relations for ArvinMeritor. “All of our information says that by December 31, NHTSA will have a rulemaking on stability control. It's a heads-up. You should be at least studying or assessing tractor and trailer stability systems that might work for you. To ignore it would not be a good business move.

“Fleets should not be caught off guard. They can get suppliers in there and run trial units. Run two of this type and two of that type and do some evaluation. A lot of them don't want to just read about it and spec it. They want to do the trial or the evaluation themselves.”

The Commercial Motor Vehicle Advanced Safety Technology Tax Act of 2009 amends the Internal Revenue Code to allow a general business tax credit for 50% of the cost (up to $1500) of placing in service any qualified commercial vehicle advanced safety system — brake-stroke monitoring, lane departure, collision warning, or vehicle stability — identified by NHTSA or the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration as significantly enhancing the safety or security of commercial drivers, vehicles, or passengers. The total credit allowed would be up to $3500 per vehicle and $350,000 per fleet.

“It's really designed to help the smaller fleets get into these technologies,” says Fred Andersky, director of marketing-controls for Bendix.

NHTSA's final report, “Safety Benefits of Stability Control Systems For Tractor-Semitrailers,” released last October, concluded that stability systems have the potential to prevent as many as 4659 crashes, 126 fatalities, and 5909 injuries, and as much as $1.738 billion in economic losses, on a yearly basis.

Pennington says there has been increased specification of stability-control systems, with almost 10,000 units of SmartTrac systems sold by Meritor WABCO since the product's introduction, and sales for this year up 97% over 2009.

“The market acceptance continues to grow,” he says. “The tanker market shows the most promise for growth and is moving towards going standard. Multiple trailer OEMs have gone standard with RSSplus, including Walker Group Holdings' Brenner, Bulk, and Walker.”

Says Brenner's Cannon, “I would say tank trailers have another dynamic that vans and other trailers don't have as far as liquid level movement within the tank. I know some cattle trailers have some issues with that stability also, but movement of cargo presents a little bit more of an issue with tank trailers and makes roll stability even more welcome. In the tank market, there's very limited demand for electronics outside of rollover stability and ABS. Most tank-trailer customers really are not anxious to use other electronic things. We're doing some things related to security and having some kind of electronic locking system on our food-grade tanks, but it'll probably be a couple of years before that's in demand.”

Advancements drive popularity

Andersky says advancements are making these systems more popular. For example, Bendix's TABS-6 Advanced is a single-channel system that builds on the 2S/1M (two-sensor/one-modulator) configuration that is the most popular system for today's trailer manufacturers and owners.

“The nice thing is that it can be tank-mounted and provide a good level of performance to help with rollover situations, and it's perfect for those fleets that have a lot of trailers being run by non-company-owned vehicles — owner-operators supporting the fleet — where they may not know if the tractor has a stability system on it,” he says. “This gives them extra insurance. We found in our testing that the combination of stability on the tractor and trailer gives the highest level of stability performance versus a tractor or trailer system by itself.

“The trailer roll stability system is working through ABS. It is basically ABS with an additional sensor that measures lateral acceleration or side-to-side motion of the trailer, and when it feels that there be a condition ripe for rollover, it acts to intervene by applying the trailer brakes to help slow the vehicle down and help mitigate a rollover situation. So it's a functional part of the system that can be bought new, but also can be retrofitted, especially single-channel systems.”

Some experts estimate that 30% of new trailers now specify automatic tire-inflation systems (ATIS), with tanker and other vocational usage low, while usage on dry and refrigerated vans is higher. Retrofit of existing trailers to add tire-inflation systems is also growing in popularity with many large fleets adding systems to their existing vehicle population, according to Chris Kemmer of CK Marketing.

Over 12% of fleets intend to add ATIS technology to their trailers sometime in the next five years for the first time.

In late 2008, ATIS was the top trailer technology that fleets expected to add in the next five years. Kemmer said many fleets, both private and for-hire, are recognizing the value of adding ATIS to “extend the life of the tires” and to improve fuel economy, plus many have shifted to wide-based tires, which makes ATIS even more important.

“I think tire-pressure monitoring is one of those technologies you are not going to need to mandate, because the savings on the technology really come through pretty quickly, especially when tires are such a major cost for fleets,” Andersky says. “Just think about your personal car, and the little bit of fuel economy you can get just by keeping tires properly inflated. Imagine doing 125,000 miles a year, and just keeping them inflated, and the return on investment for doing that. In terms of the combination, we sometimes view the tire-pressure monitoring system paying for itself in eight months.

“Tire-pressure monitoring is taking off as we see fuel prices increase. As diesel goes up, people look for ways to improve fuel economy. Even without increases, just the maintenance costs on tires — and because trailers may not get the same level of attention a tractor does — being able to keep them in shape keeps cost down.”

Ehrlich says it would be beneficial to have requirements for tire-pressure monitoring on heavy trucks and trailers.

“It doesn't matter if it's a bicycle or automobile or truck,” he says. “It's easy to enforce. The vehicle is operating with less than the rated capacity that is stamped on the tire. All an officer has to have is a tire gauge. It would be easy to enforce, and would be beneficial in reducing fuel consumption across the board for every vehicle out there, as opposed to this theory we have on how side skirts are going to perform. We don't know.”

Riding on air

Pennington says there is increased interest in air-disc brakes on trailer axles and suspensions. More fleets and dealers are asking for disc-brake quotations, particularly on tank and other cargo-sensitive applications.

“There's been a temporary small shift in specification to more mechanical suspensions in the van market recently, primarily due to this segment being the hardest hit through the recession,” he says. “Generally, the mix hasn't shifted significantly, but there is still a soft general trend toward air ride, considering the whole market. In a nutshell, the trend is still toward air suspensions, but not nearly as pronounced as it was 10 to 15 years ago.

“Most air-ride manufacturers in the past have rushed to market with the lightest weight, and with the most economical design to compete with mechanical suspensions. All air-ride manufacturers seem to have faltered in the required design parameters for durability and have discovered more maintenance issues than anticipated. Combined with the higher cost and the tight economic times, air ride has taken a second seat, with the one exception being food-related motor carriers. We fully expect the air ride market to recover since air ride remains the highest fleet request due to its versatility, from a sensitive mix of loads like electronics and food or related products.”

Looking down the road

What does the future hold?

Ehrlich says anti-corrosion technology will drive the market.

“The environment is worse, and yet the life expectancy they want for equipment is longer,” he says. “That almost necessitates doing something different. Stainless steel will definitely last the duration. However, the upfront cost is one thing. When you look at that versus having to repaint in year seven or eight, it may be the prudent thing to do. On refrigerated trailers, that has been standard for a long time. But on dry freight, because of longevity and corrosion getting worse, we're seeing more options.

“Galvanized is an interesting step in between. It's not real attractive. If we had a galvanized automobile, I don't think anybody would buy it because it'd be so ugly. But it does stop rust and corrosion, at least until the zinc is gone. It's is not a utopia but it is an alternative. The performance of galvanized and painted-over-galvanized has been a proven performer in our industry. Sidewalls on trailers are done the same way as buildings. It is a steel skin, but then it's galvanized to give you rust prevention. And then you put on paint to give it attractiveness, but it also preserves the zinc so it doesn't wash off.”

About the Author

Rick Weber | Associate Editor

Rick Weber has been an associate editor for Trailer/Body Builders since February 2000. A national award-winning sportswriter, he covered the Miami Dolphins for the Fort Myers News-Press following service with publications in California and Australia. He is a graduate of Penn State University.