Big Rig Redesign Still Going Strong

By Tiffany Trader

August 26, 2013

Long haul tractor trailers are a fixture of the American landscape, delivering all manner of supplies from one end of the country to the other. The estimated 1.3 million Class 8 long-haul trucks on this country’s roadways carry approximately 70 percent of all freight and use more than 20 percent of all fuel consumed in the US. Big rigs are essential to the country’s economy, but there is a price to pay in the form of a big environmental footprint. Most trucks only get about 6 miles to the gallon and altogether they emit about 423 million pounds of CO2 into the atmosphere each year.

Supercomputing simulations at Oak Ridge National Laboratory enabled SmartTruck Systems engineers to develop the UnderTray System, some components of which are shown here. The system dramatically reduces drag – and increases fuel mileage – in long-haul trucks. Image credit: Michael Matheson, Oak Ridge National Laboratory

An HPC-developed technology is helping to save billions of gallons of fuel each year. In 2011, South Carolina-based BMI Corp. partnered with researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) to develop the SmartTruck UnderTray System, “a set of integrated aerodynamic fairings that improve the aerodynamics of 18-wheeler (Class 8) long-haul trucks.” After installation, the typical big rig can expect to achieve a fuel savings of between 7 and 12 percent, amounting to $5,000 annual savings in fuel costs.

The effort has been going strong since 2011. Last week, the Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility (OLCF) announced that BMI-offshoot SmartTruck Systems has sold more than 25,000 UnderTray Systems to trucking fleets in North America.

Mike Henderson, chief executive officer and founder of BMI and SmartTruck’s Chief Scientist observes: “If all of the 1.3 million Class 8 trucks in the country were configured with just the minimum package of new components, the U.S. could annually save almost 1.5 billion gallons of diesel fuel, reduce CO2 by 16.5 million tons and save more than $6 billion in fuel costs.”

Simulating a technology like this requires some heavy-duty HPC smarts. That’s what led SmartTruck engineers to the Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility and the Cray Jaguar supercomputer. Using the National Aeronautics and Space Administration application code, they studied the airflow around the 18-wheelers and identified a way to significantly reduce drag through the addition of an aftermarket component. With Jaguar, the time it took to model these components went from days (using a modest in-house cluster) to mere hours. BMI/SmartTruck was able to go from concept to production in just 18 months instead of the 3.5 years it had anticipated.

Recently SmartTruck president Mike Henderson revealed the company was tapping the HPC resources of another OLCF machine, Titan (the new-and-improved Jaguar). Henderson needs to ensure that trucks passing through California satisfy state air quality laws. Specifically, the law requires that all trucks are outfitted with low rolling resistance tires and other aerodynamic devices to boost fuel efficiency. Solving these problems takes complex simulations paired with the most powerful supercomputers.

SmartTruck’s bold plans are part of a national push to create more fuel-efficient vehicles. The Department of Energy’s Super Truck Program, for example, aims to improve the fuel mileage of Class 8 trucks by 50 percent by 2015. Given the current average of 5.5 to 6.5 MPG, a 50 percent increase could save about $25,000 annually per truck (based on traveling 120,000 miles per year), which would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 35 percent for each truck.

SmartTruck, which currently employes more than 25 employees, has doubled in size each year since 2011. According to the recent announcement from OLCF, “UnderTray Systems have a quick payback period and a favorable return on investment, so fleets have strong incentive to upgrade trailers with the components, which are manufactured entirely in the USA and are 100 percent recyclable.”

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