Future of Freight: 4 Semi Trucks That Look Like Transformers

Freightliner SuperTruck
Freightliner SuperTruck | Source: Daimler

Chrome brightwork glistening in the sun, the multi-ton metal mastodons glide across the American landscape. Optimus Prime would lick his lips as semi as these new, sexy semis begin to hit the road, with trucks like the futuristic tractor trailer Freightliner built for the the U.S. Department of Energy leading the pack.

Aerodynamic and efficient while remaining powerful and practical, today’s semi trucks sport features like active grille shutters, and high tech computer-filled cabins that look like they were designed by Tony Stark. And the rigs of the future aren’t far behind either; these trucks offer all the amenities power truckers need, but with fuel efficiency gains beyond their wildest dreams.

Freightliner interior
Freightliner interior | Source: Daimler

Government regulations on heavy trucks are slated for reform by 2018, and with advancements in GPS monitoring, and the cost of diesel fuel in flux, manufacturers are evolving these rigs faster than ever before. The semis of the future will feature things like adjustable ride height control, enabling the truck to better eliminate air resistance at high speeds and clear pesky speed bumps when backing into a loading bay. And Freightliner’s “SuperTruck” got an average of 12.2 miles per gallon on the highway when it was first tested, which is about double that of traditional tractor trailers.

This got us thinking: While Freightliner’s been busy working on the SuperTruck, what have all the other truck manufacturers been working on?

Hot on the heels of the Freightliner comes a highly focused crop of semis, set to bring trucking well into the future. While none have been able to best the 12.2 mile per gallon mark set by the SuperTruck, many of them feature different solutions to the same problems. These four trucks may look like Autobots, but they’re the future of long-haul trucking.

 1. Walmart’s “WAVE” concept truck

Walmart’s “WAVE" concept truck
Walmart’s “WAVE” concept truck |  Source: Walmart

A massive collaboration, this Peterbilt/Roush/Great Dane/Capstone Turbine semi is a wild interpretation of what the future of truck transit may look like. With advanced aerodynamic design that boosts fuel efficiency gains by at least 10%, Walmart’s “WAVE” concept truck is quite the sight to see, especially with its 53-foot carbon fiber trailer in tow. Propelled by a microturbine engine that runs on natural gas, and a cockpit that looks more SpaceX than big rig, the “Walmart Advanced Vehicle Experience” (WAVE) could be a game changer.

Walmart let the designers run wild with this project, the end result is unlike anything seen on the roads. A few interesting touches include a 180-degree rotational center-mounted driver’s seat, fully adjustable touch-screen gauge pods that monitor every component on the vehicle, and that sharply convex splitter nose for enhanced aerodynamics.

Walmart concept truck
Source: Walmart

Other nifty features found on the truck included a sliding driver’s door, which reminds us of something straight out of Star Wars, and fold out steps, which pop out and then retract into their own pocket for safety and security purposes. The truck also uses next-generation LED lighting both inside and out to save power, special hub caps that reduce drag, and an engine that sits beneath the cabin instead of in front of it to help the truck’s overall turning radius and visibility.

Despite having a shorter wheel-base and a smaller external footprint, truckers can “rest assured” knowing that this cargo carrier still sports a full-size cab, and comes complete with a sleeper “Flex Studio” that rocks a hidden fold-out bed. But perhaps the most appealing aspect of the WAVE truck to us is its powerplant. Harboring a hybrid is one thing. Sporting a hybrid power-pack that is mated to a fully functional turbine driven drivetrain, now that is something special. Apparently the engineers opted for this route since Capstone Turbines are known for running cleanly on almost any fuel imaginable, and since they don’t have a lot of moving parts they weigh next to nothing, leaving them surprisingly inexpensive to repair.

2. Cummins-Peterbilt “SuperTruck”

Cummins-Peterbilt “SuperTruck"
Cummins-Peterbilt “SuperTruck” | Source: Peterbilt

While the folks at Peterbilt were with Walmart’s freighter, they received a challenge from the U.S. government to see what it could do to make advancements in current truck functionality, in direct response to Freightliner’s SuperTruck. The “Cummins-Peterbilt SuperTruck” was quickly rolled out onto America’s roadways in the hopes of proving that its Model 579, with its best-in-class aerodynamic efficiency rating, could best its Detroit-based rival.

Under real-world driving conditions, the truck gets around 10.7 miles per gallon, which breaks down to a 75% increase in fuel economy over previous models. This was accompanied by a 43% reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions across the board as well. While these numbers still fall short of what Freightliner achieved, the Peterbilt was still able to boast a staggering 86% improvement in freight efficiency with its modifications, and is far more production-ready than the competition.

Using what it calls “Predictive Cruise Technology,” Peterbilt utilizes a series of on-board computers that tap into GPS to adjust how a vehicle climbs and descends, and optimizes fuel efficiency. The truck also sports radar-based adaptive cruise control, which automatically accelerates and decelerates to maintain safe following distances, and has the ability to come to a complete stop on its own if the driver can’t react in time. The truck is also semi-autonomous, and can handle parking assistance and new driver proficiency training protocols on its own.

This truck has become so symbolic of the future of trucking that it was displayed when President Obama announced guidelines for increasing fuel-efficiency and lowering GHG emissions in heavy-duty commercial vehicles. While it may not have a space-age turbine engine like the WAVE, it still has plenty of real-world innovations. These include a cutting-edge clean diesel Cummins motor, an advanced heat waste recovery system, an aerodynamic tractor/trailer combination that reduces drag, and a lithium ion battery-auxiliary power unit that cuts down on unnecessary engine idling.

Peterbilt says that this increase in fuel economy could “save about $27,000 annually per truck based on today’s diesel fuel prices for a long-haul truck traveling 120,000 miles (193,121 km) per year.” To put it into perspective, the company added: “… there are about [two] million registered tractor-trailers on U.S. roads today,” This could mean savings of $3.24 billion a year.

3. Kenworth T680

Kenworth T680
Kenworth T680 | Source: Kenworth

The T680 is one of Kenworth’s newest models, and returns a 10% increase in fuel economy compared to 2013 models. This means an annual savings of more than $4,600 per truck, which is helped by a factory-installed aerodynamic package that reduces drag and a “Predictive Cruise Control” system that that piggy-backs on a GPS. With this setup in place, the computer can anticipate steep terrain and increase the speed of the truck as it approaches a hill, or release the throttle at a crest to allow for energy-efficient downhill coasting.

Big news for truckers is its next-gen AC system, which stores power generated by the truck’s engine while driving, then uses it later to keep the driver cool as they lounge in the cabin. The system’s under-bunk footprint is small, but it still delivers the goods on the hottest summer days, with an LCD display in the sleeper that controls cooling, heating, and monitors battery life. The batteries can fully recharge in just 4.5 hours, and by having an all-electric AC system, the expensive logistical challenges of maintaining a second engine can be eliminated.

Kenworth cabin
Kenworth cabin | Source: Kenworth

The trucks also come with “Driver Performance Assistant” system, a built-in virtual adviser that gives drivers real-time coaching based on utilizing coasting and braking as a means for improved fuel economy. To make things a bit more fun, it uses a point system, giving drivers incentive to beat their earlier scores. It also gives tips and warnings to discourage excess fuel consumption, as simple stuff like idling a semi’s engine for just an hour can consume up to half a gallon of fuel.

But the most interesting upgrade to Kenworth’s truck line has more to do with the driver. Drivers with good driving and fuel efficiency habits will see a “bump” in electronic performance mods and increased speed adjustments for better cruising, like leveling-up in a video game.

 4. Volvo’s DME and natural gas driven trucks

Volvo’s DME and natural gas driven trucks
Volvo’s DME and natural gas driven trucks | Source: Volvo

Volvo may be synonymous with Swedish safety, soccer moms, and station wagons, but its trucks have been a major player in the trucking industry for decades, and offer some of the nicest and (surprise, surprise) safest cabins in the industry. Lately, it’s been focusing on alternative fuel, and the company says that “field testing of Volvo’s dimethyl ether (DME)-powered vehicles will continue.”

DME (which is best explained in this informative Volvo video) is an interesting fuel, as it can be produced from damn near anything. According to Volvo, it’s “non-toxic, non-carcinogenic, degrades rapidly in the atmosphere, and is not a global warming agent.” While Volvo hasn’t committed to using DME on a larger scale, there’s a strong chance it will if market and stakeholder interest in the fuel increases. Until that time comes, truckers can still opt for Volvos that run on pure natural gas, and with recent aerodynamic and power upgrades, most 2016 Volvo trucks are 3.5% more fuel efficient than 2015 models.

Volvo semi truck cab
Volvo semi cab | Source: Volvo

These gains are helped by Volvo’s new “XE-Adaptive Gearing and Torque Management,” which improves fuel efficiency by more than 2.5% in certain trucks. In a truck that crosses the U.S. several times a year, this adds up to a lot of savings. For 2016 models, Volvo offers its XE-Adaptive Gearing Package for trucks that typically leave loaded and return empty, like liquid tankers or flatbed carriers. These customizable gearing packages can be easily tweaked for a change in load weight or shape, and dialed in for desired cruising speeds, terrain, or the driver’s preference for fuel efficiency or performance.

On the exterior, Volvo uses cutting-edge bumper designs that push air below the chassis instead of over or around it, for increased aerodynamics. Volvo’s VNL 630 and 670 models also feature flared sidings that provide better airflow around tires and trailer skirts. They may not look as futuristic as the Freightliner SuperTruck, but these Swedish semis are at the forefront of innovation when it comes to cutting-edge trucks.