When it comes to fifth wheels, the all-important primary connection point between the tractor and trailer, the basics never go out of style. Safety, reliability and durability remain critical elements of any fifth wheel, manufacturers report. That being said, however, new efforts are being made to make fifth wheels lighter, more secure and even environmentally friendly — all without compromising on their core values.

“You can't arbitrarily reduce weight when it comes to fifth wheels, because safety is the single most important factor here,” explains Terry Mennen, vp-sales and marketing for Fontaine International. “[The fifth wheel] simply can't fail or you'll have a real problem — a trailer unhitching from a tractor at speed.”

Yet new designs and materials are being brought to the fifth wheel table in order to achieve weight savings without sacrificing safety. Fontaine International, for example, is working on a composite fifth wheel “shell” that would fit over a steel understructure, shaving off pounds without affecting the component's durability or reliability.

“The lubricity of that composite material would also help reduce the need for grease on the fifth wheel, thereby saving on cost and environmental waste,” Mennen says. “That shell is also designed to be easily replaceable, which would minimize downtime and cost for repairs.”

SAF-Holland is moving along the same trend lines, but using a different material to get there: aluminum. “Time used to be that fleets weren't interested in weight savings unless they totaled 100 lbs. or more,” explains Mike Ginocchio, vp-product planning for fifth wheels. “Now, even savings of fewer than 100 lbs. are a big deal, especially in light of the weight increases due to the addition of emissions control technology.”

While aluminum meets the safety, reliability and durability requirements of fifth wheels, it's far more expensive than steel, and that means its weight-saving properties are only going to appeal to certain segments of the trucking industry, Ginocchio says. “Truckers hauling high-value cargo and liquid and dry bulk carriers — folks that tend to ‘weigh out’ before they ‘cube out’ — are the customers that aluminum fifth wheels appeal to.”

For example, he notes that a 75- to 100-lb. savings can translate into 16 extra gallons a tanker can carry per trip. “Over a year, you could make one extra delivery per tanker with just that weight savings — and that revenue adds up,” Ginocchio says.

Rich Carroll, vp-sales and marketing for Jost International Corp., says that his firm is using an iron top plate to cut 40 lbs. “You also have to remember that the top plate of the fifth wheel is only half the equation; there's the slider assembly, mounting brackets, etc.,” he stresses. “You can save up to 100 lbs. by making design changes to the component assemblies around the fifth wheel if you look at the big picture.”

Air-release fifth wheels are also becoming more popular as yet another convenience for drivers. “Automation of the coupling and decoupling process is huge. We've seen a jump in the percentage of fifth wheels being ordered with the air-release option,” Carroll says.

On the safety front, SAF-Holland and other fifth wheel makers are introducing sensor systems as options. The sensors display simple color codes on the truck's dashboard when the trailer kingpin is secured properly. “What we're trying to do is prevent that rarest of errors,” says SAF's Ginocchio.

Finally, there's the environmental angle to fifth wheels. “Grease on a fifth wheel is expensive … and about 20% of that grease slides off onto the ground during the initial coupling with the trailer,” he explains. To save on that waste, low lube and no lube fifth wheels are becoming more popular, not just from an environmental perspective but a financial one as well. “That's a huge cost savings to the fleet and has a significant positive environmental impact as well,” says Ginocchio.