18 Wheelers: Environmental Scourge or Green Hope of the Future? Improving aerodynamics, encouraging the switch to electric and hybrid drivetrains, and autonomous trucks all part of the solution

You can’t drive on nearly any highway in the United States without seeing at least one massive tractor trailer. These trucks are one of the most common and cost-effective ways to transport goods from their manufacturing points to their final destinations.

In spite of their popularity, these big trucks are among the largest offenders when it comes to CO2 production and carbon footprints. What can we do to help reduce the environmental impacts of 18 wheelers?

Long Haul Trucking

18 wheeler. credit; atomic hotlinks, flickrccThere are currently more than 15 million commercial trucks on the road today — more than 2 million of them fall into the tractor trailer or 18 wheeler family. In spite of the enormous impact that these vehicles have on the environment, around 70 percent of goods in this country are shipped by truck. Using a truck is more cost-effective and efficient than transporting by air or train, but it isn’t without its drawbacks.

The majority of these long haul trucks can travel more than 100,000 miles a year, depending on their routes, consuming massive amounts of diesel fuel — a fully loaded 18 wheeler gets an average of 6 miles to the gallon.

What can we do to reduce the impact that these massive trucks have on the environment?

Improve Aerodynamics

On a level highway with no elevation changes, around half of the truck’s engine power is dedicated to creating enough power to overcome air resistance. Modern sleeper cabs are designed to help improve aerodynamics, but older trucks with their blocky frames are less than aerodynamic.

Equipping older trucks with cab and roof extenders, also known as fairings, can help to improve aerodynamics by preventing air from moving into the space between the cab and the trailer. Fairings can also be added to the areas around the fuel tanks and drive wheels to improve overall truck aerodynamics.

Vented mud flaps at the back of the truck can also help to improve fuel consumption, but these additions need more testing before they become standard equipment.

Switch to Electric

One of the best ways to reduce the environmental impact of a semi trailer is to get away from diesel fuel entirely. Tesla has proven that it is possible with their new fully electric semi-trucks. These fully electric vehicles can carry comparable loads to their diesel counterparts and have a range of up to 600 miles per charge.

While the base price for these trucks is higher than a diesel truck and trailer, each truck is expected to be the equivalent of $200,000 or more in fuel savings. These trucks are costly, but many companies have already placed a preorder — UPS has ordered more than 100 of these trucks, Sysco has ordered 50, and even Anheuser-Busch has ordered 40 to supplement their current fleets.

Autonomous Trucks         

While electric trucks are one option for reducing tractor trailer environmental impact, they’re not the only option. Autonomous trucks haven’t made it onto the highways just yet, as most of the designs are still in their testing stages, but they could potentially make these 18 wheelers both safer and more efficient than they are currently.

Every year, there are more than 6,500 truck related accidents in the United States, resulting in more than 2,600 injuries and 136 fatalities. It’s already estimated that autonomous cars could reduce automobile accidents by upwards of 90% once they become mainstream. In passenger car accidents alone, it’s estimated that self-driving cars could save 30,000 lives or more every year.

By making tractor trailers autonomous, shipping companies may be able to reduce costs and improve safety, all while reducing fuel consumption — self driving vehicles are more efficient on fuel because they drive at a steady speed, without excessive speeding or breaking. Getting a lot of self-driving cars on the road could improve this even further, allowing the vehicles to communicate with one another to streamline traffic, reducing congestion. Less congestion means less time and fuel wasted sitting in traffic jams.

18 wheelers probably aren’t going anywhere anytime soon — they’re still the fastest and most efficient way to ship consumer products around the country, especially in areas that aren’t serviced by rail. We need to at least take steps to make them more energy-efficient and safer. Electric trucks with various levels of autonomy are just the first step toward creating a safer and more efficient transportation system.