It’s not the same old trailer anymore

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The old traditional trailer designs using different metals – i.e. aluminum in lieu of steel – and cutting corners to reduce weight have been virtually exhausted. That’s why we’ve spent a lot of time and money developing new products.” –Hank Prochazka, vp-sales and marketing with Fontaine Trailers

Let’s face it: for many years, most trucking operators regarded trailers as something of an afterthought. Far more attention got paid to the front of the tractor-trailer and for some very good reasons, too; the biggest one being a Class 8 truck costs a lot of coin.

Nowadays, though, trailers are getting almost as much attention, and for good reasons of their own.

Take for example California’s Air Resources Board (CARB) broad heavy-duty vehicle greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction mandate that went into effect Jan. 1 this year, requiring fleets operating 53-ft refrigerated or dry van trailers to use models certified under the Environmental Protection Agency’s SmartWay program, or use trailer aerodynamic devices to achieve 5% fuel savings for dry vans and 4% fuel savings for refrigerated models.

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While flatbed trailers are lucky enough (for now, at least) to avoid being targeted by such regulatory efforts, that doesn’t mean they get to stand pat – not by a long shot. Even flatbeds are rapidly changing as fleets and owner-operators alike demand models that can haul more, last longer, and save fuel – all in an effort to help the trucker reduce bottom-line costs over time.

“Most fleets expect lighter weight flatbed trailers to be more fuel efficient, but that is not necessarily the case,” Hank Prochazka, vp-sales and marketing with Fontaine Trailers, told me recently.

“A traditional trailer that is 1,000 pounds lighter only equates to a few dollars per year in fuel savings,” he explained. “To improve fuel economy with a flatbed, the flexibility of a trailer needs to be recognized as the critical factor. When a traditional flatbed travels down the road it bends more than a box van since it does not have side walls and a roof to help support it. This bending and flexing magnifies tire scrub and intensifies the frictional forces that pull against the power equipment. Obviously, this reduces fuel mileage and causes tires to wear prematurely.”

Prochazka noted that it’s a simple law of physics that the straighter a flatbed tracks, the better the fuel mileage. That’s one reason why Fontaine developed its “unitized flooring system” for its new Revolution trailer line. “A ‘unitized’ floor does not bend and flex like traditional designs, while drivers do not feel the ‘sway and pull’ behind them, resulting in better traction, less friction and improved fuel economy,” he pointed out.

That flooring design also helps fleets spec’ing wide-based tires on their flatbeds in an effort to gain both fuel economy and weight savings.

“We have noticed an increase in the flatbed demand for these tires, [but] fleets that try them are usually disappointed by the poor tire life caused by trailer flex and tire scrub associated with traditional flatbed trailers,” Prochazka told me.

“The unitized flooring, though, solves this problem as its straighter track virtually eliminates tire scrub and leads to an increase in wide-base tire life,” he said.

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All of this is critical, Prochazka noted, because customers are looking at lower deck heights for their flatbeds – some moving from 48-in. x 102-in. decks to 53-in. x 102-in. decks to offer their customers more versatility. “All this comes with the added weight concerns,” he stressed.

“There is an active demand for both unit weight reduction and increased floor loading capacity,” added David Pickup, manager of product engineering development for Wabash National.

Though Wabash is known mainly for its DuraPlate dry van trailer model, Pickup said all trailer models are feeling the squeeze on weight, longevity, etc.

“These requirements are, and will continue to be, a driver [for] the use of newer, higher strength materials, together with associated changes in design to ensure their optimal use,” he told me. “We'll also see increasing demand – driven by both legislative and environmental reasons – for the greater incorporation of aerodynamic devices into the trailer structure rather than as ‘after the fact’ add-ons.”

To gain greater longevity, trailer makers are stepping up their efforts to combat the negative effects of corrosion. Fontaine’s Prochazka said design changes are one weapon OEMs are using. “On traditional trailers, cross-members pass through holes that are punched into the main-beams. But our Revolution design eliminates this major point of corrosion due to dirt, snow and ice accumulation since the enclosed floor rests on top of the main-beams,” he noted.

Steve Zaborowski, senior vp-operations for XTRA Lease, pointed out to me that his company is spec’ing its undercarriages more frequently with galvanized steel and coated with a variety of paints to help them better resist corrosion. This is also true for trailer brake shoes, which XTRA now buys with special liners to help them resist what’s called “rust jacking.”

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“The magnesium chloride and other chemicals they use to clear ice and snow off the road can get into the brakes and cause the brake shoes to crack,” Zaborowski told me. “It’s not a safety issue, because we’d catch something like that during inspections when trailers enter and leave our yards. But it leads to shorter product life, costing us time and money to replace. By getting shoes with shields on them, we avoid that cost for us and our customers.”

“Corrosion resistance of both the under frame and the rear frame have certainly become a key factor for many customers,” added Rob Fortney, Wabash’s general sales manager. “That’s why we offer a hot dipped galvanized rear frame and under ride guard as well as a full stainless steel offering. We are also working with a number of our suppliers to expand the number of other components we can offer with galvanizing such as cross members, bogies, support gear bracing, etc.”

Looking into the future, customers are going to continue examining their business environment first – what shippers will demand, changes in regulations, fuel and other operating costs and competitive environment – and then establishing their true cost of ownership over that expected life span of the equipment, Fontaine’s Prochazka told me.

“Customers are typically willing to pay more up front for better equipment if they can see savings down the road,” he explained.

And if that perspective holds up in the rough and tumble world of trucking, that’ll be one of the biggest changes to the world of trailers.

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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