Concept Trucks Closer to Reality

by Chelsea Wherry - Published: 3/07/2017
4.0 1 votes

Concept semi trucks have very much been in the news lately, but now it seems that these new trucks are closer to becoming a reality. Two of the largest contenders getting sooner to come to fruition are the Volvo FH and the Tesla Electric Semi Truck. By far, the most impressive fact about these two vehicles is that they take a large step from full reliance on the use of fossil fuels.

While the idea of these concept semis may seem futuristic, both trucks have been long in making by the respective companies. First introduced towards the end of May 2016, Volvo Trucks, a company completely separate from other Volvo companies, promised a semi that would reduce the consumption of traditional fuel by an astonishing 30 percent. The President and CEO of Volvo expressed their ongoing progress to producing a more fuel efficient semi in order to bring both environmental benefits and a reduction of costs to consumers.

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Volvo's Entrance

In the 2016 Volvo Trucks concept announcement, they attributed the vast fuel reliance as nominal due to the 40 percent increase in sheer aerodynamics. Much of this is caused by the switch from traditional rear-view mirrors to the use of cameras, which cuts wind resistance for both cab and trailer. In turn, the truck produces less of a need for energy.

Another facet of this reduction of fuel use deemed in the 2016 version of the Volvo Concept are tires that provide less rolling resistance, meaning these tires will reduce motion when they hit the road. In addition, the trailer of the concept would also weigh 4,000 pounds less than the trailer Volvo compared it to. Comparing the new trailer may not mean much as the prospective consumer does not know the weight of the compared trailer, the maximum weight of a trailer in the United States is 80,000 pounds including freight, while an empty semi weighs about 32,000 pounds. Volvo Trucks also announced the concept would increase the connection between the transmission and drive axles, or drivetrain.

Though announced in May of 2016, the Volvo concept semi had been in the works since 2011 and a concept of the concept was even test on roads in Sweden in late 2015. Volvo Trucks' president and CEO Claes Nilsson announced that their main goal was to get the truck to improve efficiency by at least 50 percent.

Realizing this was a lofty goal, Volvo Trucks announced an improved version of their concept truck remains with the claim of reducing fuel consumption by 30 percent. While this is the same, they also announced they hope to continue to reduce fuel consumption as they test their new hybrid powertrain.

The improved concept, announced in late February, also attributes most of its fuel reduction to the increased aerodynamics and lower weight of the semi, but has also progressed to being capable of fully relying on electric power for 6.2 miles. This translates to an impressive engine shut off time of 30 percent of drive time meaning a drop of diesel consumption by somewhere between five and 10 percent. As much of the time, trucks are either braking or going down hill, this is when the hybrid powertrain is able to repower the energy it takes to use the all electric feature.

Improved Driving Functionality

Another new feature of the improved Volvo Trucks concept is it now comes equipped with a specially calibrated version of the I-See system. Volvo Trucks explains I-See as a cross between their I-Shift and “intelligent cruise control”. With this system, the more you drive, the more it learns the topography of the road and then uses that information to save fuel when the driver turns on the intelligent cruise control. This system could benefit those that are required to run diverse and somewhat difficult routes to minimize some stress on the road and allow trucker jobs that are generally solo to feel as though their second seat is occupied. 

This I-See system is nearly futuristic in many ways. For one, as it notices the the semi will have to go uphill soon, the system will increase the speed of the truck. In turn, as it begins its ascent, the system then recognizes the areas where it is not necessary to downshift. All of this means that less fuel will be wasted by not having to engage a lower gear once reaching the top of the hill.

Of course, with every uphill, there is a downhill, which the I-See system also accounts for. This is where Volvo Trucks Eco-Roll technology comes in. As the truck reaches the descent, Eco-Roll lets the truck roll by itself by not using the driveline for the optimal amount of time. As this decreases the amount of braking the truck will have to account for, it saves energy. By learning when the hill comes to an end, the truck brakes much more gently than it traditionally would.

The special version of the I-See system that is included in the Volvo Trucks concept semi takes into account when the best time to engage the electric power option and also when to recover the energy to power the electric driving feature.

Other changes this new concept includes include chassis side skirts to reduce air from passing underneath the truck and therefore increase gas mileage while reducing fuel use, extended fairings which cover every wheel except the front set to reduce drag and save fuel, and also better spoilers, often called wings or panels. While Volvo Trucks boasts a fuel reduction amount of 30 percent, it also leads to the semi truck being 40 percent more aerodynamic than a traditional semi.

While this version of the truck will not be produced for consumer use, Volvo Trucks says that much of the new aspects developed through the conceptualized process have lead to advancements in real world products available for truck driving jobs. They also said they will continue to work on the concept truck, as they have an end goal of 50 percent fuel consumption reduction.

Enter Tesla to Trucking?

Tesla is also making headway in the concept truck game with their Electric Semi Truck. Unlike the Volvo trucks concept, Tesla has more or less put their concept truck on the back burner to concentrate more on their all electric passenger car, the Model 3.

Still, the fact that Tesla has made a movement towards completely changing the truck driving game speaks volumes for the direction truck driving jobs are going. Last July, the company founded in 2003 and famous for trying to move away from reliance of fossil fuels, hired Jerome Guillen to head the program. Gullien first became well known with his work for Tesla when he became the Program Director for the Model S in 2010. Tesla noted his skills while he was an engineer for Daimler and developed the Cascadia truck.

While this may all sound like resume fluff, Gullien's Bachelor's and PhD in Mechanical Engineering make for him to be a great fit in leading the Tesla Semi project. The fact that he in large developed the well known and incredibly successful Cascadia also shows that he is well skilled in his knowledge of what makes a great semi truck. The Cascadia is also impressive due to the fact that after its 2010 release, it received a 12.2 miles per gallon fuel economy rating, which is double what the Department of Energy set as their SuperTruck initiative goal.

The SuperTruck was a Class 8 semi truck introduced as a demonstration vehicle developed by Cummins and Peterbilt which “...demonstrated a 20 percent increase in engine efficiency and a 70 percent increase in freight efficiency with over 10 miles per gallon through real world driving conditions on a Class 8 tractor trailer.” This is compared to the average 5.8 miles per gallon Class 8 trucks usually get.

The Tesla Semi has not made much headway, but in February, when Elon Musk announced his Master Plan Part Deux, he stated there is a dire need for electric powered heavy duty trucks in the market. With so little known, except that the Semi is in the early stage of development, Tesla mentioned only that it “...will deliver a substantial reduction in the cost of cargo transport, while increasing safety and making it really fun to operate.” Fun may be the last aspect truck drivers are looking for, but there is no doubt that many are looking forward to the Semi concept that is stated to be unveiled in six to nine months.

Within the last ten years, the popularity of any sort of hybrid or electric vehicle has steadily risen within the consumer market. As more and more of these vehicles are successfully developed, it is no surprise that the technology has now reached the trucking industry. For semi trucks, however, it seems a long way coming until an electric or even hybrid semi will be available for retail as both Volvo Trucks and Tesla make strides towards developing a truck which fits each of their high standards. Still, only a little over five years ago, these ideas were mere ideas, these concepts are slowly becoming a reality and will, no doubt, change the face of trucking jobs and semi trucks.

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