Devices under testing at NASA may save trucking billions
The American trucking industry could save as much as $10 billion, or 3.4 billion gallons of diesel fuel, a year if devices being tested in a joint public-private initiative at the world's-largest wind tunnel in California are rolled out nationally.
Over the last few weeks, a partnership between the Lawrence Livermore National Lab, the U.S. Air Force, the NASA Ames Research Center, and the conglomerate, Navistar, has been conducting tests on the aerodynamics of tractor-trailer trucks. The findings indicate that new devices could be added onto the nation's thousands of trucks that could increase fuel efficiency on the vehicles by 12 percent.
The physical tests were conducted at the National Full-Scale Aerodynamics Complex--the world's largest wind tunnel - at NASA's Ames Research Center here, as well as on supercomputers at the Lawrence Livermore National Lab. The idea behind the partnership was to find a way to help the trucking industry--and by extension, almost every other segment of the economy--cut costs on fuel, and at the same time, reduce carbon-dioxide emissions.
The impact on the environment of the 12 percent increase in fuel efficiency, explained Lawrence Livermore National Lab (LLNL) Director George Miller, would be an annual reduction of carbon-dioxide emissions of 36 million tons.
The efficiency gains will come as a result of a series of novel devices, effectively skirts that protrude off the rear or drop below a trailer that are designed to reduce the wake size of a trailer, said LLNL senior scientist Kambiz Salari. The tests have been conducted to find the most efficient combination of the devices.
According to Salari, the U.S. Department of Energy will take the results of the wind-tunnel tests and apply them to a series of road tests and other experiments to ensure that the findings are applicable to industry. If so, the devices could be made available to private trucking companies within two and a half to three years, he said.
All told, Salari added, the findings are based on 15 years of research.
"Think of a trailer as a box," Salari said. "We're trying to trick the (air) flow into thinking the box is more aerodynamic."
The idea, he said, was to figure out how best to reduce drag that comes when air hits different parts of a truck as it speeds down a highway. By covering certain parts of the truck, drag can be reduced, Salari explained.
And while much of the flow physics research into finding the efficiencies was conducted on LLNL's Linux cluster supercomputers, the wind tunnel tests were necessary for a "sanity check" for the researchers, Salari said.
For now, the testing has been entirely about aerodynamics, Salari said. Actual operational testing that will consider additional factors such as the safety of the new devices will come later.
The wind tunnel
Originally run by NASA Ames, the wind-tunnel has for years been the purview of the U.S. Air Force's Arnold Engineering Development Center, in Tennessee, despite its continued location in Mountain View and the continued participation by NASA researchers.
The tunnel has six 40-foot diameter fans which collectively draw as much as 106 megawatts of power, and which draw between 25 miles an hour and 80 miles an hour of wind, explained Joe Sacco, the chief NASA engineer at the wind tunnel. In general, it is used to test the aerodynamics of aircraft, but occasionally is used by clients such as Navistar, in cooperation with public institutions like LLNL.
Sacco said the tests are conducted not only with wind being applied head on to a vehicle, but also at a series of different angles, from zero degrees to 15 degrees.
"By measuring the drag force on the vehicle," Sacco said, "we can determine which add-on devices reduce drag the most."
He said the measurements are done by a scale system below the floor of the wind tunnel that the truck is mounted on, which can "resolve forces down to 12 to 15 pounds of drag."
Trucking jobs return to NC, a sign of better times.
The phone rings at Atlantic Trucking Co. a couple hundred times a day lately, and terminal manager Lee Montgomery occasionally logs 12-hour shifts, taking orders and scanning rate quotes from his office off Sugar Creek Road.
A cardboard sign, stuck in the grass outside, is another signal of better times: "Recruiting," it declares, in bold block letters.
Trucking companies in Charlotte and around the country are reporting a pickup in business and, as a result, hiring, as firms ramp up inventories and consumers begin buying again. Economists and trucking officials say the industry is a leading indicator - meaning more jobs could be on the horizon for the rest of the economy.
Some truckers remain cautious, saying they're unsure how swift the recovery will be, but for now, they're optimistic.
"The good news is, we are busy," said Montgomery, who runs the Charlotte arm of the Charleston, S.C.-based Atlantic Trucking. "I just hope whatever got this big old engine going doesn't stop."
The transportation sector has grown in recent months, a sharp contrast to many other fields. Transportation and warehousing companies added 15,000 jobs nationwide in June, about 18 percent of the total private-sector gains, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found.
Transportation-related job postings jumped 73 percent last month over June 2009, according to job search engine Indeed.com.
The American Trucking Association trade group found recently that for-hire truck tonnage increased about 7 percent in May over the year before, the sixth straight month of gains. The May figure was down slightly from April, but trucking association economists said the upward trend remained solid.
Those increases point to a rebound in the general economy, said Rick Kaglic, an economist with the Federal Reserve's Charlotte branch. Truck tonnage is tied directly to manufacturing, indicating that companies are replenishing their inventories and businesses and consumers are buying more, he said.
Kaglic said the trucking industry usually leads the rest of the economy by one to three quarters - meaning a modest recovery is in the works.
"I think it's going to be a sustained pickup, although it's going to continue to pick up at an ungratifying pace," he said.
To be sure, the broader economy has a long way to go. The Charlotte area's unemployment rate was 10.9 percent in May, down slightly from the month before but still far above pre-recession levels. More than 94,000 people remain out of work in the region.
And while the trucking industry has posted gains, it remains in a deep hole compared to years past. Locally, about 31,800 people were employed in the Charlotte region's transportation, warehousing and utilities sector in May, according to the N.C. Employment Security Commission. That's up about 2 percent from the month before - but down 4 percent from May 2009.
Employment in the sector, which accounts for 5 percent of local private-sector jobs and 4 percent of wages, is down 12 percent from the start of the recession. And the May jobs total hasn't been as low since the early 1990s, ESC data show.
Still, trucking workers are optimistic.
The Federal Reserve reported in its latest beige book, a snapshot of economic conditions, that manufacturing and transportation activity continued to improve in June, with most Fed districts reporting increases in factory production, shipments and new orders.
And the American Trucking Association's U.S. Freight Transportation Forecast, released in May, found that freight transportation is poised to grow through 2021. The study found that total freight tonnage will grow 25 percent and total freight transportation revenue will grow almost 70 percent - though it said that the nation's freight pool contracted by more than 12 percent in 2009.
T.G. Stegall Trucking Co. in Matthews began noticing a pickup in January, though business remained relatively steady through the recession, company Vice President Gene Stegall said.
"One week you need two or three drivers, the next week you need two or three trucks," he said. "It's a fine opportunity to be growing a business right now."
Part of the increase, Stegall said, comes from the smaller companies that closed during the recession. These days, Stegall Trucking is snapping up orders from shippers who never used the company before, he said.
Stegall said he gets more calls now than in a long time. Some of them come from people in different industries in the community who simply want to know how business is - and what they can expect for their own businesses.
The pickup extends to truck manufacturers, too: Daimler Trucks North America announced last week it would call back about 540 workers to three Freightliner manufacturing facilities in the Charlotte region. The company said that's partly in response to daily build rates, which are rising sharply in response to strong order activity this year.
"I think up and down the industry chain, we're seeing some activity again," said Robert Van Geons, executive director of the Salisbury-Rowan Economic Development Commission. "For a long time, people were only doing what they absolutely had to do to maintain operations. Now they are looking to replace what needs to be replaced. ... I really think it's a sign that our regional economy has stabilized."
Van Geons said it's still a long road, but that the improvement in the trucking industry is an early indicator and a positive sign.
At Atlantic Trucking, the office is bustling by 9 a.m., as drivers stop in to get directions to their next drop-off and dispatchers take phone calls. The company, which has seven terminals across the Southeast, receives orders from shipping companies and freight forwarders to deliver ocean containers carrying just about everything, from just about every industry.
The 20 or so truckers from the Charlotte terminal, private contractors who own their trucks, usually pick up the containers from local rail lines and deliver them around the region and, sometimes, the country.
Montgomery, the terminal manager, said he's looking for about five new drivers and is advertising through newspaper classifieds, word of mouth and cardboard signs like the one outside. He's even offering a signing bonus to lure qualified workers, noting that every trucking company he talks to is also on the lookout, he said.
If the recession was a challenge - and it was, with a handful of layoffs companywide and an "incredibly tough year" in 2009 - it's been equally difficult to juggle the work that's cropped up since late last year.
"It's definitely pointing to a pickup," he said. "We just hope it sustains itself."