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11:45 AM

Winds of change

Streamlining Europe's truck fleets to meet CO2 targets

By: Jeremy Gray

EU freight transport will become a lot greener as tractor-trailer makers bone up on aerodynamics. Now that Brussels has weighed in with new emissions limits, the Germans are getting with the program.

Wikimedia Commons

Sleek, but stiff around the gills: the Concept S tractor-trailer.

In car design, smarter aerodynamics have long been recognized as an ally of fuel efficiency. But Europe's truckmaking industry has been notoriously slow to explore this frontier — until now. Suddenly, the pressure is on from Brussels to find emissions-busting solutions for heavy-duty road vehicles.

Last spring, the EU Commission set a target to cut emissions of big trucks and buses by 30 percent by 2030, as part of international efforts to fight climate change. These vehicles account for 6 percent of CO2 output in the 28-member trading bloc, according to the executive body. From next year, manufacturers must report the CO2 emissions and air resistance of new vehicles weighing 7.5 tons or more to the European Environment Agency, which will then make the data public.

This means the industry will, in effect, pool its development data. "The transparency this creates will help us," said Uwe Sasse, head of technology and development at Krone, a German semitrailer maker.

Until recently German truckmakers such as VW's unit MAN and Daimler — Mercedes-Benz's parent company, the world's largest rig maker (see rankings at bottom) — have only dabbled in aerodynamics. Some of the more outlandish experiments include designer Luigi Colani’s electric Innotruck (2012), sponsored by industrial conglomerate Siemens and Munich’s Technical University. Such pet projects pose little threat to nimble rivals such as America's Tesla, which plans to start producing its long-range Class 8 electric tractor-trailer rig next year.

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    Colani's zany electric Innotruck.

    Also in 2012, German trailer manufacturer Krone launched a more serious attempt in its Concept S streamlined Aero Liner trailer coupled with a MAN tractor (photo at the top). The prototype reduced fuel consumption by up to 25 percent. The rooftop spoiler — also known as “the whale's hump,” an increasingly popular feature on kings of the road — is part of a sleek design that cuts down on turbulence and wind resistance.

    But Krone discovered that, like many trial vehicles that look good on paper, the Concept S was tripped up by regulatory constraints. Betting on a relaxation in EU rules on truck length, Krone designed a prototype that exceeded the legal limit of 16.5 meters (54 feet) in order to offset cargo space lost in the slanting roof design. So far, however, the EU hasn't budged on this requirement.

    The gap between the cab and trailer, another source of drag, throws up a practical issue. In industry prototypes such as Krone's, the two sections tend to be linked seamlessly — but that design limits maneuverability, said Andreas Dillmann, head of the Institute of Aerodynamics and Flow Technology at the German Aerospace Center DLR in Göttingen.

    More promising is the Transformers venture, which better marries cab to trailer and sports a dippable roof to optimize aerodynamics depending on the shape of its load. This refinement is the result of a four-year, EU-funded trial conducted by German trailer manufacturer Schmitz Cargobull and 13 partners, including vehicle makers DAF and Volvo, automotive supplier Bosch and the Fraunhofer Institute, a science think tank.

    Schmitz Cargobull

    A science fiction hero hits the road.

    Unveiled in 2017, Transformers have foldable air diffusers on the rear door and a separate electric engine that drives the axle and relieves the tractor. During braking, energy is recovered and stored in batteries under the chassis. All told, a fully-equipped trailer cuts fuel consumption by 9 percent and CO2 emissions by up to 25 percent, while meeting Brussels' standards. Roland Klement, head of R&D at Schmitz Cargobull, said the company aims to mass-produce Transformers in the next few years.

    The art of streamlining also involves shifting drag-producing items inside the truck. Two years ago, automotive supplier Bosch unveiled so-called mirror cams, which replace traditional large wing mirrors and pipe the rear views onto displays in the cab.

    Johannes-Jörg Rüger, boss of Bosch’s commercial vehicle parts division, said the system trims fuel use by up to 2 percent, saving up to €1,000 per year. Spread over entire fleets, which number in the thousands at Europe’s largest freight forwarders, the benefits are considerable. Mercedes-Benz is among Germany’s first truckmakers to take mirror cams on board, with plans to make them standard in its next generation of Actros hauler.


    Swapping wing mirrors for cams.

    Bosch, the world's largest maker of car parts, is also working on advances in “platooning” or convoying to tap the slipstream. The company has come up with an "electronic drawbar" to find the best interval between vehicles. Perfect platooning can save 8 to 40 percent in fuel, depending on the truck's position in the group.

    Despite all the talk about cost savings, many freight managers are reluctant to adopt streamlining innovations because of doubts over the added value. Schmitz Cargobull sells diffusers and other fairings but less than 5 percent of owners shell out the €1,500 to €3,000 for an upgrade, even though it pays for itself after two to three years and cuts fuel consumption up to 6 percent. Klement said haulers fear repair costs, as fairings are vulnerable to damage in loading bays.

    DLR’s Dillmann is convinced that truck aerodynamics will improve dramatically within a few years. "We saw it happen with passenger cars, where aerodynamics played no role until the 1980s,” he said. Today, cars are routinely tested in wind tunnels, something that will eventually become standard procedure for trucks, the researcher added.

    Quite another, and less surprising, emissions-busting challenge lies under the hood: Nearly all heavy trucks in the EU run on diesel, still the dirtiest juice around.

    Jeremy Gray is an editor for Handelsblatt Global in Berlin. Handelsblatt's Thomas Mersch and Stefan Merx contributed to this report from Cologne. To contact the authors: [email protected]

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