While the fuel economy of cars has increased dramatically over the last few decades, the fuel economy of semis has merely inched its way up. Two interesting developments may improve things for these gas-guzzling vehicles that get between 4 and 8 miles per gallon. President Barack Obama recently announced greater EPA standards for the fuel efficiency of heavy-duty trucks, and Walmart unveiled its futuristic next-generation concept truck.
The cab of the Walmart Advanced Vehicle Experience (WAVE) concept truck looks reminiscent of a bullet train, with a sleek, aerodynamic appearance that blends into the trailer. It features a microturbine hybrid power train with an electric motor and a battery. Because the front end is so tapered, the driver sits in the middle and the entry door slides open. The innovative trailer is made of 53-foot-long sheets of carbon fiber and is the first trailer to be made out of this strong and lightweight material.
The WAVE truck was created in partnership with Peterbilt Motors Co., Great Dane Trailer and Capstone Turbine Corp. It is part of Walmart’s fleet efficiency program for its 7,000 trucks, with a goal to double fleet efficiency by 2015, compared to its 2005 baseline.
It is testing the Walmart Supercube, trucks that haul 30 percent more goods in the same footprint. In addition, Walmart is testing alternative vehicle fuels, including natural gas and synthetic fuel from animal fat, grease and vegetable oil. According to its 2013 sustainability report, Walmart has already boosted efficiency by 80 percent by purchasing more fuel-efficient trucks and by finding ways to deliver more goods while driving fewer miles. This resulted in savings of nearly $130 million and nearly 103,000 metric tons of CO2 emissions.
Walmart has harvested the low-hanging fruit of fleet efficiency, and the goal is pushing the company to utilize partnerships with truck and component manufacturers to create prototype tractors, including hybrid assist, full-propulsion hybrid and wheel-end hybrid assist. Ambitious sustainability goals are designed to push companies beyond their comfort zones, to encourage innovation, even if the fruits won’t be reaped in the short-term. The carbon fiber trailer in the WAVE concept truck is a great example, trimming 2 tons from the vehicle.
Carbon fiber consists of extremely thin fibers that are twisted together and coated with resin or plastic. This creates a composite material that is much lighter than steel, but has similar strength. Compared to aluminum, carbon fiber is lighter, has similar corrosion-resistant properties and yet is more durable. Carbon fiber is used in spacecraft, satellites, and some race cars and can withstand high stress. Amory Lovins has been urging the auto industry to utilize carbon fiber materials for years, touting its ability to reduce fuel consumption due to its light weight, while boosting safety. What’s not to love about carbon fiber?
The auto industry has been slow to utilize this material due to its cost. Some of the strategies for lowering its cost include identifying lower cost raw materials, advancing technology to convert raw materials into carbon fiber, and testing low-cost carbon fiber design and capabilities. The Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards for the auto industry will help motivate faster adoption of this material, which has been starting in the luxury car market. Ramping up production and use of this material will lead to falling prices and greater use.
With just a video announcement of the WAVE concept truck, next steps are unknown. In the meantime, we’ll be dazzled by the brief images of this sleek truck.
Image credit: Youtube
Sarah Lozanova is a regular contributor to environmental and energy publications and websites, including Mother Earth Living, Green Building & Design, Triple Pundit, Urban Farm, and Solar Today. Her experience includes work with small-scale solar energy installations and utility-scale wind farms. She earned an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio Graduate School and she resides in Belfast Cohousing & Ecovillage in Midcoast Maine with her husband and two children.