Worth It or Not? The Aerodynamics Debate

truck line drawing

They’re ugly. They don’t make enough difference in fuel economy to be worth it. They won’t hold up to road abuse. They don’t produce the savings I can get just by slowing down.

Drivers and fleets have plenty of reasons they’ve generally opted out of aerodynamic add-ons, and while it’s true they’re not smart for everybody, companies are getting better at making durable, effective drag reducers. If you’ve always written the things off, it might be time to re-investigate.

Henry Albert, a trucker since 1983 and a contributor to TeamRunSmart.com, drives a 2013 Cascadia Evolution and has been on a pretty well-publicized quest to achieve 10 mpg for over five years. In a recent interview, he says he’s achieved in excess of 10 mpg on many individual driving days. His truck is completely decked out, with side skirts, nose cone, a trailer tail and wheel covers.

“I have drivers tell me all the time, ‘side skirts don’t make that much difference,’ and they’re right – they only save between 2.5% and 3% in fuel cost. But they also say the same thing about the nose cone and the wheel covers and trailer tail, but cumulatively, when I put it all together, it adds up,” Albert says. The fuel savings of adding aerodynamic modifications to his truck covered his cost in six months.

On the other side of the debate are drivers who point to the weight of the add-ons and the fact that on certain routes, crosswinds in combination with accessories like trailer side skirts can actually create drag. In the comments section of this article, a driver who travels the I-80 corridor between Milwaukee and San Francisco, a route where he’s usually rolling through 25 mph crosswinds, installed side skirts. He reports no difference in fuel mileage and concludes, “There is only one way to good fuel mileage, and that is SLOW DOWN. I went from driving the 75 mph zones to driving 60 and have saved an average of 160 gallons per trip.”

But this driver begs to differ: “I don’t subscribe to the theory that slowing down increases profits!” In the comments section of an article on the trailer Kevin Rutherford developed for owner-operators, he explains that, “when you slow down, your are also reducing your per-hour revenue.” By way of example he says that a driver averaging 70 mph and earning $2 per mile grosses $140 per hour, while someone driving an average of 60 mph at that same pay rate makes $120. Since fuel only costs $11 per hour more to run at 70 mph, the 70 mph driver is $9 per hour more profitable. His philosophy: “Revenue first, then control costs.”

One way he controls his costs is by employing an undercarriage device and nose cone to diminish aerodynamic drag. He uses an Airman undercarriage add-on, which is designed to move with the tandems, unlike the skirts that are stationary. He says, “For every slider hole you move the skirts away from the tandems, your efficiency decreases. At a certain distance, the efficiency is actually worse than no skirts at all. The 5-6% fuel savings I’m getting from skirts is only achieved at the 40-foot California setting. Utilizing both the nose cone and Airman, I am achieving 7.2-7.4 mpg running @ 75 mph in 75 to 80 mph states, usually grossing 75-80,000 lbs and am hitting 11 mpg empty.”

An option for drivers who determine trailer side skirts aren’t right for their situation are tractor wheel covers. As Mario Bravo, marketing manager for Flow Below points out in this article, one advantage of making a modification to the tractor is that you get that fuel economy benefit even when the trailer is sitting in a customer’s yard, unlike trailer side skirts. “The higher a fleet’s trailer-to-tractor ratio, the more standing time, and no aerodynamic device saves anything when the vehicle is sitting still,” he says.

His company’s AeroKit consists of panels that close the gaps between a tandem’s drive wheels, and others that guide air as it leaves the tandem area. Circular covers block wheel indentations and reduce turbulence.
The advantage of being an owner-operator vs. a fleet manager in this situation is that owner-operators many times run dedicated loads and/or routes, according to comments in this article by Mitch Greenberg with SmartTruck Systems.

He points out that they also tend “to measure their fuel mileage more consistently and run the same equipment day in and day out. Any differences that stem from aerodynamic add-on devices will more effectively and directly present themselves, Greenberg says, due to the aforementioned variables being so controlled, which is often not the case for large fleets looking to implement aero devices.”

There’s no one right answer and every driver needs to test for himself what combination of equipment, accessories and driving skills will create the best results.

Nifty Apps for Truckers

smart phone apps

Depending on your device and driving style, there’s a smart phone application out there that will make the miles roll by a little easier.

Here’s a list of apps that score well – reviews average four stars or better – on Google’s Android app store.

Avoid Traffic Delays

Waze Social GPS, Maps and Traffic is free and consistently scores top reviews on AppCrawler and the Android app store. Fellow Waze users drive with the app running, which contributes real-time traffic and road info. Helps find the cheapest gas station along your route with community-shared fuel prices. Allows Facebook users to meet up and coordinate on the road. Includes voice-guided navigation, automatic re-routing as conditions on the road change, and ETA notifications for those you designate.

Track Sleep Cycles and Wake at the Optimal Time

There are a variety of apps that monitor bedtimes, wake times, and sleep-time noise and movement to determine your cycle. Sleep Cycle seems to be the most widely used and most positively reviewed. The app relies on findings in sleep science to estimate what cycle stage you’re in and wake you when you’re least likely to be in deep sleep. Syncs with mysleepbot.com so you can get more detailed analysis of your sleep and help diagnose sleep apnea and other sleep problems. You can download it from the Android app store for $1.

Learn Something About the Country You’re Traveling Through

For history buffs and fans of local color My GeoReader combines GPS location technology on your phone to alert you to “talking points.” There over 130,000 of these preloaded data points covering historical markers, interesting bridges, UFO sightings, and more. The app is free.

Digitize all Those Receipts

CamScanner is also free and lets you use your phone’s camera to scan a document, crop, correct the contrast and send as fax or email. Send in your monthly receipts without having to find a fax machine. Archives all your scans so you’re ready when tax season rolls around with all your receipts stored in one place.

Keep Yourself Safe from Night Tornadoes

Red Cross Tornado App – When you can’t see the clouds in the dark, this app from the Red Cross will let you know if you’re near a tornado. Be sure to cross reference with an app that enables radar on your phone to avoid over-reacting and stressing out to false alarms.

Get Weather Predictions and Radar

MyRadar is a fast, easy-to-use, no-frills application that handily beats the Weather Channel’s app (which is $3.99), based on AppCrawler and Android store reviews. Displays animated weather radar around your current location, allowing you to see what weather is coming your way. Can zoom in and pan around the map to and see what the weather is like anywhere in the contiguous 48 states.

Find the Best Place to Stop Tonight

Trucker Path is free and lets you look ahead to truck stops on your route. See which have showers, overnight parking, RV dumps, restaurants. Includes up-to date information about weigh stations and truck stops, including reviews and directions. Find info on rest areas, CAT scales, truck washes, low clearances, motels, current weather, map views, and notifications for the opening and closings of truck stops.

A crowd-sourced feature also alerts drivers to openings and closings of weigh stations. Reviews are mixed on how accurate it is.

Find locations of: Flying Js, Love’s, TA Travel Centers, Pilots, Petro Stopping Centers, AM Best, Pacific Pride Commercial, Petro-Canada, Sapp Brothers, Roadys and other smaller brands, and thousands of independents.

One reviewer says while it omits quite a few places that are in his hardcover book, it’s so much easier to use – tap the screen and see all the options on your route. If what you want doesn’t appear, you can always cross reference with another info source.

Trucker Tools, also free, includes a truck stop locator with the same establishments covered as Trucker Path and a crowd-sourced portal for weigh station opening/closing info. It also offers trucker-specific restaurant, truck stop and service promotions information and real-time traffic updates. You can find latest and lowest diesel prices, live traffic, turn-by-turn directions and a truck routing and fuel optimizer.

The app has a chat feature, a way to find cargo insurance instantaneously, help with IFTA and DOT compliance, a jobs and messages board – and is voice-activated, so it’s more comprehensive than Trucker Path, but may be a bit more glitchy as well. Reviews on Android’s app store average a bit lower for Trucker Tools and the app scores more negative reviews on average than Trucker Path.

AllStays Truck and Travel is $10, but doesn’t require wireless service to function and is ad-free. Data is a bit more reliable and comprehensive as well. Includes truck stops, rest areas, weigh stations, WalMarts, Lowe’s, UPS and FedEx outlets.

Want to Find More?

Try App Crawler to find more apps for truckers. It categorizes user reviews by “positive,” “minor pains,” and “issues” to make it relatively easy to compare options. App Crawler’s engine will also suggest alternatives.

The Good, the Bad and The Ugly of EOBRs

truck at weigh stationA professional trucker for 30 years, Dick Pingel usually hauls sausage and cheese out of his home state of Wisconsin. He’s covered three and a half million miles in his career and never had a chargeable accident – and he’s pretty unhappy about the EOBR mandate.

Quoted in The Atlantic magazine’s article, Haulin’ Data: How Trucking Became the Frontier of Work Surveillance, he says, “They’re forcing me to put something in that’s not gonna help me any. And they keep saying, ‘Well, it saves you time…’ You know, I can do a lot. I can write up a log book in the same amount of time that it takes me to program what I’m doing into the EOBR.”

Pingel’s not alone. The move toward mandating EOBRs (a.k.a. electronic logging devices or ELDs) ranks high in the top five problems of both owner/operators and fleet-owners, according to polls by Overdrive Magazine and the American Transportation Research Institute.

The problems revolve mostly around their use being required by law and less around the devices themselves, which record driving time, manage HOS log data, and support driver log inspections.

The Bright Side of EOBRs

But unhitch the devices from the aggravation around the mandate, and it’s possible they could be a force for good, improving fuel efficiency, productivity and making logging a little easier. In the same Atlantic article, another thirty-year veteran of trucking makes the case for EOBRs. Cliff Downing claims that the device has benefitted him financially.

“My gross revenues have been up year over year, each year since using electronic logs,” he says. “Now is it due to electronic logs? Not the machine itself, it’s the efficiency that’s been forced onto us by the machine.”

Detention Time Leverage for Drivers?

Acknowledging his own resistance to the EOBR mandate lemons, owner-operator Henry Albert thinks drivers could make lemonade from the rule.

He believes that the FMCSA envisioned the fourteen-hour rule as a way to combat the detention issues that drivers face at the dock. The agency has no authority over shippers and realizes that detention time is a major fatigue issue. Albert guesses that FMCSA’s thinking is that if drivers had more limited ability to make up for delays caused by shippers and consignees, the practice of detaining drivers would be eliminated.

So far that hasn’t panned out, but Albert thinks EOBRs will further force drivers to watch their time – under penalty of law – which may finally force shippers and dispatchers to better respect drivers’ time.

Imagining a world where EOBRs are in virtually every truck, he says, “shippers would be calling dispatch wondering where their shipments are. Dispatchers would be calling drivers and asking, ‘Why didn’t you make it to your destination?’ Here’s the beauty…the driver would simply respond to dispatch saying ‘I was out of hours.’”

Who Does the EOBR Mandate Affect?

Drivers who must file a record of duty status (RODS) are subject to the rule as it currently stands. That totals  3.4-million drivers, including 1.7-million owner-operators according to this article on FleetOwner.com.

Where the Legislation Stands

There’s been no mandate finalized, but the FMCSA is expected to re-publish the rule in early 2014, after taking input on how to protect drivers from pressure to work in violation of safety regulations. Industry insiders anticipate a one- or two-year grace period before enforcement begins.

EOBR Options for Drivers and Fleets that Want to Get Ahead of the Mandate

By combining wireless technology and cloud computing software (software that’s accessed via the Internet instead of being installed on your computer), companies are now able to develop products that are much less expensive. On-board computers are no longer necessary, and special hardware can be replaced by a driver’s smartphone or tablet.

Versus the two to three hours installation used to take, it’s now done in five minutes. Christian Schenk, VP of market development and product marketing for XRS Corp predicts that when the new rule hits, there won’t be enough qualified techs to install the number of traditional onboard computers needed to handle all the demand. A brief install will be a nice advantage.

After the initial software purchase (which for example is $600 for the Turnpike product from Xata), monthly fees can be as low as $30. Qualcomm and XRS Corp also offer logs that can be used on smart phones and tablets.

Pitfalls to Look Out For

Certification – With the law mandating a device for such a large industry, the number of companies competing for the business will likely skyrocket – and a few years is a short time to have EOBR solutions ready to supply that will be truly compliant and meet massive demand.

How many of those companies will be able to manufacture a device that actually serves drivers and fleet owners in following the law remains to be seen. Whether or not the government gets into the business of certifying these devices, companies will need to do their homework on a vendor. “The key component is the company behind the device. The software is the easy part; the hard part is staying up on the regulations and changing rules.”

Data Transfer – How will electronically-logged data be transferred to law enforcement during an inspection? Transferring via a wireless connection is one option, or handing the device to the officer and letting him read it off the screen. Some suppliers are considering a USB stick, or sending info via the telematics provider, where the data would be transmitted to the provider’s server and then transferred to the enforcement agency’s system and then back down to the patrol car.   But all this is dependent on what’s compatible with law enforcement systems.

Steve Keppler, executive director of the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance: “Agencies don’t have a lot of money around to buy the newest technologies…The rule needs to be able to account for the differing levels of technology in the field.”