Winds of Change

| December 12, 2008

Will record fuel prices drive more truck buyers to seek sleek?

Dima Rips is a classic truck fan, and his favorite model is a Kenworth W900. “I love the style and the look,” says the Russian-born owner-operator, who has driven in the United States for the past 13 years. “I love everything about classic trucks. Everything but their efficiency.”

With their external air cleaners, Texas bumpers, chromed tanks and big, long hoods, classic trucks like the W900, Peterbilt 379 and Freightliner Classic remain popular today – despite major gains in aerodynamic design and increases in fuel prices.

Today’s classic truck models do cut through the wind better than their predecessors thanks to incremental improvements in design, say truck engineers. Most have roof and skirt fairing options, angled windshields and other modern wind-friendly touches, like integrated sleepers.

When it comes to fuel economy and engine power, however, classic trucks can’t compare to their aerodynamically tooled counterparts, experts say. Driver behavior and specifications may have a bigger impact on overall fuel efficiency, but owners of more curvaceous cruisers save thousands of dollars in fuel every year and have more power available to them at higher speeds, all things being equal. When Rips bought a Kenworth T600 to replace his last rig, he focused on fuel efficiency. “There was no doubt in my mind that my next truck was going to be aero,” he says. “I strongly believe that trucking is a business, and the bottom line dictates the rules. Why would I want to pay extra to push the air?”

Sales driven
Rising fuel costs are causing truckers like Rips to consider more aerodynamic models, some truck makers say. “It’s really changing the way owner-operators approach buying a truck,” says Bob Weber, an engineer with International Truck and Engine Corp. “The thing at the top of their minds is fuel price.”

In fact, the classically styled 9900 and 9900i represent a shrinking percentage of International’s Class 8 truck sales, says Ron Schoon, manager of aerodynamics. “Classic sales are going down because of operating costs.”

Other manufacturers aren’t so sure. “It’s too early to really see a shift,” says Peterbilt Chief Engineer Craig Brewster. “Fuel prices are something that they’re watching. If they remain high, we may see some migration to aerodynamic models.”

“It’s hard to measure whether owner-operators are choosing aerodynamic trucks over classic trucks,” says Volvo designer Frank Bio. “Buying trends change over time. Maybe if fuel is becoming more expensive over time, owners realize aerodynamic is a way to save that you can’t ignore anymore.”

Truck makers say one reason fuel prices might not yet impact owner-operator buying habits is that many are getting higher rates or fuel surcharges, which can cover any mpg losses produced by truck styling.

Still, if the surcharge is based on a 5.5 mpg standard, a driver with an aerodynamic truck reaching fuel efficiency levels closer to 7 mpg has much to gain financially from a more streamlined tractor.

In fact, an aerodynamic truck that gets 0.9 mpg better fuel economy than a classic truck can save its owner more than $3,400 a year.

Up on the roof
The main aerodynamic difference between traditional and aero trucks starts at the roofline.”The things that cause drag are those areas that have an abrupt change in flow,” says Volvo’s Ed Saxman. “The biggest thing is the top of the trailer. We learned that in 1983 when we were the first manufacturer to put a fairing on the truck roof.”

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