What lies beyond the low-hanging fruit?

by James Menzies

The trucking industry is about to step into a bold new age for fuel- and weight-saving technologies.

Let’s face it, all the low-hanging fruit has been harvested. Think of all the easy-to-deploy and inexpensive technologies that have become mainstream over the past five years in an effort to curb high fuel costs?

Wide-base tires are now commonplace, and so are trailer side skirts. Trailer tails will be too, once the government gets its act together and allows for their use.

All the truck manufactures have within their stables extremely aerodynamic tractors that slice through the air with ease. Even aerodynamic mud flaps are available.

The question becomes, what next? It seems all the obvious solutions have been developed, deployed, proven out and widely adopted. But fuel continues to be the highest operating cost for fleets and owner/operators.

It seems OEMs and component manufacturers are already working hard on the next generation of fuel-saving technologies.

One of the more promising technologies is waste heat recovery, which will allow the excess heat created by the engine to be captured and then used to power certain functions of the vehicle, decreasing the load on the engine.

Another intriguing technology is the use of 6×2 axles, which until recently would seem unthinkable in Canada, with our wintery conditions. However, advancements in electronics are making 6x2s a more compelling proposition, even here in Canada.

Fleets can save about 400 lbs by running a dead axle, increasing payload or improving fuel economy by more than 2%. This solution won’t work for everyone, but the 6×2 is a standard spec’ in Europe, including in some of the most rigorous applications.

Electronics can now shift the weight of the load onto the powered axle in low traction situations, automatically and transparently to the driver. I saw a demonstration of Meritor’s soon-to-be-released 6×2 SMARTandem this past month and was impressed by its capabilities.

Truck operators are going to have to get creative when it comes to ferreting out further fuel savings and productivity improvements from their equipment. Government needs to keep out of the way when some of these systems and technologies are brought to market, provided safety, infrastructure and environmental health aren’t put at risk.

As always, there is no magic bullet that will deliver double-digit fuel savings, but there are still plenty of opportunities for incremental improvements. Some of these emerging technologies, like 6×2 axles, will require fleet owners and owner/operators to take a leap of faith and abandon some of their preconceived ideas.

Stepping outside of our comfort zone and doing things differently than what we’re accustomed to is never easy, but it’s necessary to stay ahead of the game.

I, for one, am interested to see what the next big thing will be, now that all the no-brainers have been exhausted.

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