This country used to be full of workshop inventors and garage tinkerers, guys with little light bulbs constantly flashing over their heads, trotting out outlandish creations that usually blew up but sometimes worked – sometimes marvelously so. The first working airplane was patched together by two brothers who owned a bicycle shop.
Even in 1903, though, Wilbur and Orville Wright were something of an anachronism. A quarter century before Kitty Hawk, Thomas Edison built the first phonograph, pretty much by himself and pretty much the last time he did anything by himself. Edison was a great inventor but an even greater entrepreneur. Within a few years his little shop in Menlo Park was a full-scale research lab with dozens of employees working on what ultimately became thousands of patents.
Sadly, the day of the garage tinkerer is long past. Modern technology requires lots of equipment, lots of brainpower (human or silicon) and lots of money. Alexander Graham Bell would be stunned at the sheer size of Bell Labs.
Still, the very American spirit of Edison, Bell and the Wrights hasn’t expired, not as long as there are guys like “Gearhead” tooling up improvements on their Class 8s. We’ll get there, but first the Big News.
A Very Big Deal
In January U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu appeared before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Chu testified (actually, given Chu’s assertive self-confidence, “declared” would be a better verb) that aggressive government-funded fuel economy research and development could reduce fuel consumption of long-haul trucks by 30 percent.
"That would be a very big deal," he added with uncharacteristic understatement. Chu isn’t your average talking-point politician. In 1997 he won the Nobel Prize in Physics, so when he thinks something is a big deal, folks take notice, even dozing Congressmen.
Chu’s comments were chiefly directed at diesel research. Despite a worldwide recession, demand for diesel and other distillate fuels continues to grow, particularly in the US, Europe and China. Tight global refining capacity is getting tighter, and the cost of fuel is going up – at the pump, in our dependence on foreign oil, and of course on the environment.
Secretary Chu has done more than talk though. On January 11, he visited the headquarters of Indiana-based engine manufacturer Cummins, Inc., to announce $187 million for funding nine projects aimed at improving fuel efficiencies in big trucks and passenger vehicles. “Improved efficiency is critical to reducing America's dependence on foreign oil and addressing climate change.” Chu said.
Funding the Very Big Deal
The goal for Chu’s trucking research plan is bold: to improve the efficiency of Class 8 long-haul trucks by 50%. Toward that end, three projects will receive more than $115 million in funding from the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act. The private partners conducting the research—Cummins; Daimler North America; and Navistar—will contribute an additional 50% to their respective projects.
Making big trucks more efficient will have a big pay-off. Transportation accounts for 28 percent of all energy use—in light bulbs, manufacturing, heating and cooling, you name it—in the U.S. Heavy duty vehicles make up less than 10% of all the vehicles on the road, yet they use about half of all vehicle fuel.
The participants in the Trucking Projects are:
Cummins - Almost $39 million received. The company will work on a highly efficient clean engine; an advanced heat waste recovery system; and a fuel cell auxiliary power unit to reduce engine idling. It will also work with Peterbilt to develop an aerodynamic tractor-trailer combination.
Daimler Trucks North America - $39.6 million received. Technologies that Daimler will work on include engine downsizing; electrification of auxiliary systems such as oil and water pumps; waste heat recovery; improved aerodynamics; hybridization.
Navistar - $37.3 million received. Navistar will focus on improving truck and trailer aerodynamics; combustion efficiency; waste heat recovery; hybridization; idle reduction; and reduced rolling resistance tires.
On the Passenger Vehicle front, the DOE awarded $71 million for six smaller projects directed toward improving fuel efficiency and powertrain systems. The goal is to improve fuel efficiency in passenger vehicles by 25% to 40% by the year 2015.
(Besides fuel savings, these awards bring additional benefits in the form of job creation. They’re expected to create more than 500 jobs in the immediate development phase, with an additional than 6,000 jobs by 2015, most in manufacturing and assembly.)
If these technologies pan out as expected and are broadly adopted, DOE estimates that by 2030 they could save more than… get ready:
One hundred million gallons of gas and diesel fuel per day. This translates into lower carbon emissions from on-road vehicles by 20 percent.
All this is laudable and someday applaudable. But it’s also years in the future. Big business may need big grants to make big advances, but working on their own, without government funding or big industrial labs, ordinary American truckers are making their own advances in fuel efficiency. Admittedly, these aren’t on the scale Secretary Chu envisions, but they have the advantage of being achieved right now.
Consider for example this impressive list submitted by a contributor known only as “Gearhead” to the web publication Green Car Congress in September 2009:
We have made some minor changes to our Class 8 trucks and are achieving 8.5 to 10.5 mpg over our 45 daycab trucks. Our average load is 45,000. 62 mph fixed set point, dual electric fans set to come on 5 degrees below the clutch fan. Progressive shift, super single tires, full synthetic lubes/oil, Ecoflaps, airtabs, transtex trailer skirts. Driver training and awareness. Currently [we are] testing two hydrogen gener-ators. Economy engine tune. High flow mufflers. High flow air inlet. Investigating two waste heat generators, energy generating shock absorbers. Turbo generators, fuel reform-ers, Electric hybrids and alternative fuels.
“Gearhead”—whoever he is—is obviously an owner or employee of a small trucking company. To non-truckers, his jargon is a little hard to follow. What isn’t hard to follow, is his grit and optimism. Why sit on your hands waiting for big savings when you can make small ones on your own?
Where Have You Gone, Gyro Gearloose?
We admit not only to admiration for Gearhead, but a nostalgic fondness for his moniker. When we were slightly younger, back in the sixties, the old Donald Duck comic books featured an inhabitant of Donald’s hometown of Duckburg named Gyro Gearloose. Gyro was a cartoon fowl of unspecific species whose one-bird workshop was constantly turning out flying car, time travel machines and (our favorite) a spaghetti fork with automatic scissors that snipped off dangling noodles for a tidy mouthful.
Gyro Gearloose was more than just a cartoonist’s funny conceit, he was the comic embodiment of the archetypical American inventor, who thrived not on fame or money but the sheer pleasure of creating things that ought to be, even if they weren’t. Gearhead is obviously cut from the same cloth.
Big Deal – Right Away
We end with a personal plea to Secretary Chu. Dear Mr. Secretary, a savings of a hundred million galleons of gas a day may be a Big Deal to you, but why aim low? We urge you to get in touch with Gearhead, wherever he may be. Fund him with some government spare change: a couple mil ought to be enough. Who knows? By this time next year, he may have Class 8s running on bottled water.
This article is provided as a service for truckers and everyone in the trucking industry by Advance Business Capital. ABC is the first and only factoring service designed by truckers for truckers. We provide innovative financial solutions exclusively to For-Hire truckers and Freight Brokers and are proud to be the first factoring company to receive the P3 (Preferred Platinum Provider) endorsement from the Transportation Intermediaries Association.
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