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Pickup Trucks: The Future of Trucking Drives Closer

By Brian Normile

The trucking industry, like the automotive industry, is keeping one eye on fuel-efficiency improvements even as regulations governing such things may be loosening. It's one of the rare instances where capitalism and environmentalism are in agreement as efficiency is good for the environment and the bottom line. Here's the latest on what the big-rig industry is up to.

Aerodynamic All-Star

Shell Lubricants and the AirFlow Truck Co. teamed up for the Starship Initiative, an attempt to drastically improve trucking efficiency. The Starship truck combined significantly improved aerodynamics with other improvements to produce a more efficient semitruck. The result? Shell Lubricants reports that after a 2,300-mile trip, the Starship truck returned a 248 percent improvement in freight-ton efficiency over the industry average. The industry average is 72 ton-miles per gallon while the Starship produced 178.4.

Can all of this be put into mainstream production? Over time, perhaps. But the Starship has a custom carbon fiber cab that likely would prove too cost prohibitive. A custom boat tail trailer with full-length side skirts presents its own difficulties as well; not every industry or shipping company can switch to trailers like that.

More reasonable improvements include the Cummins X15 Efficiency series engine, low-viscosity lubricants, low-rolling-resistance tires and improved driving strategies. The mild-hybrid drivetrain with axle motors and temperature-activated grille shutters aren't likely to be near-term improvements but seem like possibilities in the mid- to long-term.

Diesel power isn't the only option according to some, however.

It's Electric

Tesla CEO Elon Musk made a big splash last November when he revealed the Tesla Semi, an all-electric semitruck prototype. Since then, we haven't heard much about it. According to Business Insider, at the company's most recent shareholder's meeting Musk announced that the production version would be slightly different and have "range and functionality" improvements. No specifics were given; the prototype shown in November had a claimed 400 miles of range, and functionality is such a broad term that it could mean anything. Will its capacity increase? Maybe the driver no longer sits in the center and is thus capable of paying tolls or interacting with entry/exit gate personnel?

Daimler, meanwhile, announced its own electric big rig and says it is sending 30 prototypes of the Freightliner eCascadia and its smaller medium-duty sibling, the Freightliner eM2 106, to customers for field testing, according to Autoblog. Daimler says the semi will have a range of 250 miles and a gross combined weight capacity of 80,000 pounds; the medium-duty electric truck will have a range of 230 miles. Daimler expects both trucks to enter full production in 2021.

The Big Picture

All-electric semitrucks aren't the sole answer to fuel-efficiency and environmental issues without a massive change in infrastructure or a change in charging methods. It's simply not feasible to use electric vehicles for long-haul trucking right now. They'll work much better for shorter, local routes, but then the issue becomes cost and maintenance. If an electric truck is significantly more expensive to buy or maintain, it won't catch on with fleets or owner/operators.

Improving aerodynamics and fuel efficiency will have a more significant impact across the industry than switching powertrains entirely. Taking the largest step in the right direction will involve combining both types of improvements, but any smaller step is an improvement.

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