If you watch NASCAR racing, you know that two cars traveling nose to tail are faster than one car driving alone on the track. That’s because the cars racing together have less aerodynamic drag to overcome. Bicycle racers use the same wind cheating strategy. You may have experienced this yourself on the highway. If you get close enough to a truck ahead of you, suddenly you don’t need to push quite so hard on the gas, because the suction from the truck is helping pull you along.
If you are a trucker, fuel economy is critically important because your fuel costs are about $70,000 a year. The more miles per gallon your truck gets, the more money you put in your pocket. Ideally, two semi-trailers out on the highway could cozy up to each other like NASCAR racers on the back straight at Daytona and help each other save some fuel. But doing so is dangerous because he driver behind can’t see what is going on up front. If the lead driver has to brake suddenly, a serious collision is bound to result.
A company called Peloton Technology thinks it has a solution – a system that links two trucks together electronically so that the lead truck controls the throttle and brakes on both. All the driver behind needs to do is steer. With the trucks linked wirelessly, the following truck can snuggle right up to the back bumper of the trailer ahead (actually, a gap of 33 feet seems to be ideal.) and save some fuel.
In testing, the system increased fuel economy for the trailing vehicle by 10%. Somewhat surprisingly, the leading truck also used less fuel – about 4% less. Overall, the two trucks together saved 7%. These numbers were achieved on a flat, straight highway at 65 mph. That 7% translates into annual fuel cost savings of about $10,000 per truck. Now imagine if these numbers were applied to a cutting-edge truck design, like the WalMart WAVE Concept.
Of course, those two trucks are not always going to be on a level, straight road travelling at 65 mph. But any increase in average fuel economy is always welcome and a good thing for the environment, since trucks use more than 10% of all the fossil fuels consumed in the United States each year. Managing aerodynamic drag can pay big dividends for the trucking industry and for society as well.