Fuel-sipping freight equipment

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Because the world is not standing still; we all need to embrace change, not shy away from it. We all need to raise our game, because the game is constantly changing.” –Claude Mongeau, president and CEO of Canadian railroad giant CN

It’s no secret that freight haulers of all shapes, sizes, and modes are continually looking for ways to reduce fuel consumption. And while many wave the “green flag,” trumpeting the “environmentally friendly effect” of such fuel-sipping efforts, make no mistake, these are first and foremost cost saving initiatives.

That’s not a bad thing of course, for as demonstrated by a variety of efforts over the last few years – the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) SmartWay program being one of them – being green and saving money can go hand-in-hand down the merry freight lanes of the world.

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Now, however, the “fuel saving” focus in the freight community is widening – going beyond just the “engines” in charge moving goods hither and thither (trains, planes, trucks and ships) across the globe but the chassis, containers, and trailers into which cargo is put.

Canadian railroading giant CN offers one recent example of this new focus, as it plans to unveil a new “EcoRide” intermodal chassis in April that it believes will cut the fuel consumed from trucking containers to and from its intermodal terminals by some 8% to 10%.

CN says its new EcoRide equipment incorporates several design changes to gain greater fuel efficiency: side skirts to reduce aerodynamic drag, a 15% reduction in tare weight when compared to conventional CN chassis, and low-rolling resistance tires on each axle instead of the normal four tires per axle.

Next, take a look at a new aerodynamically shaped flatbed trailer concept that’s in the early stages of prototype testing in England – a trailer made from plastic.

This trailer – designed by engineers working in an independent research centre in Loughborough – reportedly offers strength and payload characteristics similar to its steel-made brethren, yet weighs 1,200 kilograms (some 2,645 pounds!!!) less. These engineers think this “plastic trailer” could reduce tractor-trailer fuel consumption by 15%.

Of course, the fuel-saving possibilities via changes in trailer design are not new. In fact, over the last few years, several U.S. companies – Freight Wing and ATDynamics are two that come to mind – have made great strides in figuring out ways to make the ubiquitous 53-foot dry van “box” behave in a sleeker, fuel-sipping fashion via the addition of aftermarket (and now in some cases factory-installed) side and rear aerodynamic devices.

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Last September, for example, Mesilla Valley Transportation – a New Mexico-based fleet long known for its willingness to test and adopt new trucking technology – announced it planned to retrofit its entire fleet of 3,500 long-haul 53-foot trailers with ATDynamics’ TrailerTail device; an effort expected to cut its diesel fuel consumption by over one million gallons annually, saving some $3 million.

That followed plans unveiled by Tacoma, WA-based Interstate Distributor Co. to retrofit Aeroflex-branded side skirts made by Freight Wing on its 6,800 trailers after achieving 3% to 5% improvements in fuel economy, depending upon the route and the speed its tractor-trailers travelled.

“And that 3% to 5% range is very conservative,” stressed Lee Owens, Interstate’s senior vice president of maintenance and facilities during a conference call with reporters last August. “Basically, with that kind of efficiency gain, we’d have installed side fairings on our trailers whether they were mandated or not. The benefits are too big to ignore.”

It’s important to note that dry vans and flatbeds aren’t the only trailer models undergoing fuel-sipping makeover designs. Take a look at a dump trailer concept unveiled by East Manufacturing last year at the Mid America Trucking Show; a design that combined two different dump trailer models into one package.

More importantly, though, all of these new fuel-saving efforts in the trailer arena represent what I term the first “beachhead,” if you will, within broader cost-saving strategies on the part of transportation companies.

Canada’s CN, for example, plans to start testing hybrid container cranes, in-terminal hybrid trucks, and energy efficient generators this year to help further lower the cost structure of its freight operations. CN is also deploying hybrid “shunt trucks” in ground switching of containers on chassis at its Brampton Intermodal Terminal this month as well, notes Jean-Jacques Ruest, the company’s executive vp and chief marketing officer.

The key to all of this, of course, is cost savings. These are broader efforts to reduce fuel consumption within freight networks – efforts that offer a significant environmental benefit, no doubt, but ones where cost savings are the primary goal. The lesson to be learned is pretty straightforward; if there are costs savings, freight companies will adopt them.

What's Trucks at Work?

Trucks at Work: Sean Kilcarr comments on trends affecting the many different strata of the trucking industry.

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