FREIGHT Wing Inc, a developer and supplier of fuel-saving and emission-reducing aerodynamic products for the trucking industry, is in the final 11 months of a 30-month partnership with Navistar on a cooperative DOE grant project with the goal of realizing a 15% fuel savings through trailer aerodynamics.
Led by founder Sean Graham, Freight Wing performed wind-tunnel and fluid-dynamic studies of potential geometries, including testing at the NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, the world's largest wind tunnel.
Now, they are immersed in a detailed fleet test to evaluate not only the theoretical, small-scale technologies, but also full-scale track testing and fleet-operating testing so they can determine the correlation between the different methods. That will allow them to ensure that the results achieved on a small scale align to full-scale track tests, with the same things seen when the units are in operation. The testing should be finished by late 2011.
“I think the project will be really valuable for future efficiency in the trucking industry because it will paint a detailed picture of how results correlate to each other, and then really prove it in the real world,” Graham said.
Freight Wing was founded in 2003 by Graham, who at the time was a mechanical engineer pursuing a graduate degree at Penn State University.
The company began in part due to an aerodynamic research project involving a university wind tunnel. Graham had the opportunity to experiment with 1/10th scale truck models and quickly realized that box-shaped trailers had great potential for aerodynamic improvements. He discovered that many ideas regarding aerodynamic trailers had been tried as early as the 1950s, but none had been successfully adopted because they were impractical from an operational perspective.
Graham ditched his original goal of a career in aerospace and started watching trucks on the interstates. The trucking bug took hold, and Sean designed a fairing for the rear end of semi-trailers that he thought could solve the operational problems of past designs. He submitted an application to a DOE “Inventions and Innovations” grant program, showcasing his design and the potential benefits in fuel savings. His idea found a following, and a $75,000 grant was given to Graham, who then shuttered his graduate degree to become an entrepreneur, incorporating Freight Wing.
He moved to Seattle, began talking with fleets, and showcased his design to gain feedback. Initial comments indicated his design, which used pneumatics to move his rear trailer fairing, was too complicated.
“I was disappointed,” he said. “But in hindsight, they were right, and it was the best thing that could have happened.”
He went back to the drawing board, and with the advice of industry partners, developed a more practical system of three aerodynamic attachments for the front, undercarriage, and base of trailers. The industry also made it clear that it had been deluged by “snake oil” fuel-saving products, and that independent testing using SAE/TMC standardized procedures would be essential to proving the products and gaining industry acceptance.
So Graham used a majority of the grant funding to complete J1321 testing on his prototypes at the Transportation Research Center. Combined, the attachments demonstrated a 7% improvement in fuel economy — which enabled Graham to win a second-phase DOE grant in 2005 for $200,000, which allowed Freight Wing to commercialize its products through a 50% cost-sharing program with fleets.
Over 250 fairings were implemented through the test program. The operational testing further proved the fuel savings, but also revealed durability problems with the rear fairing design. The belly-fairing side skirt and gap-fairing products clearly demonstrated the best results from both fuel savings and operational perspectives, and became Freight Wing's focus. With design improvements, Freight Wing soon had fleets coming back and ordering more. Sales were slow at first, but the company grew and further improved its products.
Eventually in 2008, Freight Wing developed and launched the Aeroflex, its third generation side skirt — a flexible, durable product that demonstrated 7% fuel savings in standardized track tests. Initial test fleets were impressed, and over 1000 units were installed by 2009.