Fleets Adopt Trailer Fuel-Efficiency Tech as Federal Rules Stall

August 29, 2018 by Alan Adler, @AlanAdler

Many shipping companies are ordering fuel-saving technology on new truck trailers, even as federal regulators stall Phase 2 Greenhouse Gas Emissions rules.

The trailer industry, long exempt from emissions rules, is responding to the freight industry’s push to increase fuel economy of its semi-tractor trailer combos. Trucking companies want to squeeze every extra tenth of a mile per gallon of fuel, whether it’s from the cab or the trailer. Technologies like trailer skirts, automatic tire inflation and low-rolling resistance tires deliver proven results.

Side skirts and automatic tire inflation systems are being included on about 60 percent of new truck trailer sales.

“It’s a lot of tenths here and there,” said Jimmy Nevarez, owner of Angus Transportation Inc. in Phelan, Calif. “The little bits you do make a difference.”

Jimmy Nevarez, owner of Argus Transportation Inc.

Jimmy Nevarez, owner of Angus Transportation Inc. (Photo: Molly Nevarez/Angus Transportation Inc.)

Nevarez is adding side skirts and plastic fairings to his trailers to increase efficiency.

He said the trailer side skirts raised his average fuel economy from 7 mpg to 8 mpg as his trucks haul bottled water, beer, apple juice and organic taco chips throughout California. He said he would get 9 mpg if he drove more on highways. The typical big rig averages 6.5 mpg, according to the North American Council for Freight Efficiency.

With some exceptions, California will enforce greenhouse gas regulations identical to the federal Phase 2 rules for manufacturers of any new box-type trailer, flatbed container chassis or tanker purchased in the state that is built after Jan. 1, 2020, said California Air Resources Board spokeswoman Karen Caesar. Automatic tire inflation and side skirts would meet the 2020 mandate. Non-compliant trailer manufacturers could face millions of dollars in penalties and possible criminal charges, Caesar said.

When the Phase 2 greenhouse gas regulations were published in December 2016, trailers were targeted as a contributor to air pollution. Before then, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency tested a range of wind-deflecting devices and tire technologies through its SmartWay Transport Partnership, whose 600 members include the American Trucking Associations and shippers like FedEx and Schneider National.

“Those companies have made the investment,” Jeff Sims, president of the Truck Trailer Manufacturers Association, told Trucks.com. He said the return on investment can be realized in months, even allowing for the hundreds of pounds the equipment adds to the trailer.

The Truck Trailer Manufacturers Association was shocked that all trailers, especially those whose local use would gain negligible fuel savings, were included in Phase 2 greenhouse gas rules. The association asked the EPA and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to write new rules exempting trailers from the mandates. In 2017, the association sued in federal court, which stayed the trailer regulations until the EPA and NHTSA acted.  The agencies have not issued a ruling.

“We have no idea when we’re going to get an answer,” Sims said. “We will prevail in our court case if we go that far.”

Side skirts can smooth the ride and save fuel.

Side skirts can smooth the ride and save fuel. (Photo: Alan Adler/Trucks.com)

If enacted, the requirements would become tougher over time. By 2027, trailers would need a combination of technologies, such as low rolling-resistance tires and a so-called boat tail at the back of the trailer to meet rising fuel economy requirements, said Ben Sharpe, senior researcher at the International Council on Clean Transportation in Sacramento.

“A fair percentage of fleets out there could benefit, but they are resistant to tire and aero regulations,” Sharpe told Trucks.com. “We see the role of regulation as speeding up the process.”

He said 80 to 90 percent of trailers will include additional aerodynamic equipment by 2035, based on how “industry is speeding up that adoption curve.”

Automatic tire inflation systems are included in more than 60 percent of new trailer orders, said Al Cohn, director of new market development and engineering support for P.S.I. in San Antonio.  

P.S.I. invented automatic tire inflation 25 years ago. The system uses air from the antilock brake system to keep consistent pounds per square inch in each trailer tire.

The average cost for a system is about $1,000. However, the company also offers less-expensive tire pressure monitoring systems.

“Trailer tires are the worst maintained on the vehicle. What’s so nice about this is going from 6.5 to 6.7 mpg just by keeping tires properly inflated,” Cohn said. “The payback is 12 months. There are not many things on a truck that have less than a 12-month return on investment.”

Read Next: EPA Walks Back from Allowing Increased Production of Dirtier Trucks

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