This article appeared in the February 2012 issue with the headline, "Breaking the dependence."

Fuel efficiency has always been a watchword among government fleets, but thanks to a massive research program launched by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) nearly two years ago, fuel economy for light, medium and heavy-duty trucks should increase significantly in the very near future. And it better, because light trucks face new federal fuel economy improvement mandates starting in 2016 that roll on through 2025, while commercial vehicles must comply with similar regulations beginning in 2014 on into 2018.

Energy Secretary Steven Chu says manufacturers are on the cusp of big breakthroughs in vehicle technologies. That is why the DOE is stepping up research and development partnership efforts like SuperTruck, a program that is helping fund nine projects with $187 million in federal grants to improve fuel efficiency for heavy-duty trucks and passenger vehicles.

Most funding aims at heavy duty

Chu unveiled the “SuperTruck” program two years ago, and three of the nine SuperTruck projects — accounting for $115 million of the $187 million in grants — will focus on increasing Class 8 long-haul tractor fuel efficiency by at least 50 percent by 2015.

The four main manufacturers joining with DOE — Warrenville, Ill.-based Navistar; Denton, Texas-based Peterbilt Motors; Columbus, Ill.-based Cummins Inc.; and Portland, Ore.-based Daimler Trucks North America (DTNA) — are experimenting with advanced aerodynamics, engine idling reduction technologies, a waste heat recovery system to increase engine efficiency, advanced combustion techniques and powertrain hybridization. 

For example:

  • Cummins will receive more than $38.8 million to work with Peterbilt to combine a more efficient diesel engine, advanced waste heat recovery system, and fuel cell auxiliary power unit to reduce engine idling with an aerodynamic tractor and trailer combination.
  • DTNA will get $39.5 million to focus on engine downsizing, electrification of auxiliary systems such as oil and water pumps, waste heat recovery, and improved vehicle aerodynamics and hybridization.
  • Navistar will receive $37.3 million to improve truck and trailer aerodynamics, combustion efficiency, waste heat recovery, hybridization, idle reduction and reduced rolling resistance tires.

DOE officials noted that the total contract value for the SuperTruck effort is approximately $270 million, which includes DOE grants alongside what its industry partners are spending. DOE expects 40 percent of the freight fuel efficiency improvements from the SuperTruck research to come from engine efficiency improvements, with the remaining 60 percent to come from other vehicle system design changes, such as aerodynamics, use of more light weight components and materials, drivetrain friction reduction, and wider use of hybrid powertrain systems, where smaller diesel engines are combined with electric motors and batteries. The department expects that some of the new technologies will begin to enter the market in about four years.