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Truck equipped with the Clarkson University-developed drag reduction device, Trailer Tail.
Truck equipped with the Clarkson University-developed drag reduction device, Trailer Tail.

Better gas mileage for big trucks

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The trailers you see on semi-trucks are great for packing and moving goods, but aren't good for fuel economy. As the Innovation Trail's Ryan Morden reports, researchers at Clarkson University have designed a product to reduce drag from those trailers and improve gas mileage.

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Gene Phrampus is a truck driver from Texas, stopping to take a break at a gas station near where I-81 and the Thruway intersect, just outside of Syracuse. I asked him how much he spends on fuel a year. After a long sigh from doing some depressing math in his head, gives a number, "$45,000-$50,000 a year."

That's as much as the median household income in the United States. After all the expenses of running his truck, what¿s left for him isn't much.

"Somebody at McDonald's gets a little check every week, sometimes makes more than I do," said Phrampus.

His rig is just one of approximately 2 million registered in the United States. All those trucks combined burn more than 132 billion gallons of gas every year. That's according to a paper co-authored by Ken Visser, a professor from Clarkson University and a former engineer for NASA and Boeing. He says the boxy trailers on the trucks creates drag and contributes to that fuel consumption.

"If you look at a semi-truck trailer driving down the road, it's probably the worst aerodynamic thing that could cross your mind," said Visser.

For the past decade, Visser and his students have been working to come up with a device to improve the aerodynamics of the truck. Improving air flow around the truck would make it easier to cut through air resistance on the highway. The result of that research looks like the flaps on a Chinese food take out box, tipped on its side.

"So what happens when we put this kind of device on the back? Is it stabilizing the flow, is it reducing that kind of turbulence, is it increasing the pressure on the back?" said Visser.

At Clarkson, they can answer those questions by replicating driving conditions on the highway in their labs, using giant wind tunnels to put scale models of semi-trucks. Graduate student Josh Kehs shows me a model truck, and a closet full of those carryout-carton panel attachments.

"We have about fifteen of these rear ends, all are a little bit different," said Kehs.

They've all been tested in the wind tunnel. Once they came up with right measurements that could best reduce drag on a model, Kehs and the rest of team went to Lavalley Transport, a local trucking company, who agreed to do a real world test using their prototype.

"So we built a prototype, and we put it on one of their rigs, and they drove it back and forth across the country and it showed a marked improvement in fuel mileage," said Visser.

Professor Visser says after figuring out the concept works, they found a firm to help commercialize and market the device. They partnered with ATDynamics Californian company. They gave it a name: Trailer Tail.

Visser says ATDynamics received an order from New Mexico for 3,500 Trailer Tails, and calls that just the beginning. With demands for fuel efficiency rising along with oil prices, Visser estimates that truckers can save $1,500 a year on fuel costs using a Trailer Tail.

"If you charged $1,500 dollars for one of these things, you'd make your return on your investment in a year. Anybody would go for that. If you charged $3,000, you'd make the investment in 2 years, anybody would go on that," said Visser.

The team at Clarkson is hoping to increase the number of trucks that can use the Trailer Tail.  Right now the device only works with trucks that have French door style openings on the back. But researchers have received more money from the New York State Energy and Research Development Authority study how they might apply the technology to truck with garage door style openings.

Right now, all of the work is just for the sake of energy efficiency. No one at Clarkson is making any money on the product currently, though if a couple of patents get approved, Visser and the school might be able to pick up a little cash from licensing fees.

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