by Wallace Wyss –
Hey Elon Musk, I welcome the news that you will be unveiling your electric tractor-trailer truck this September. But I wanted to call your attention to some serious work that’s been done in truck aerodynamics, work that I would say, fits your description of your project, in being “seriously next level.”
First of all, let me explain my interest in this subject, piqued by a TV documentary. There is some TV series, something about “How they are made” which goes to various automakers and shows you how they are made. And it is endlessly fascinating, particularly (to the son of a UAW worker) how much robots have taken over the game.
One time I caught part of one of their shows on Peterbilt– one of the great names in trucking. But I was shocked that they showed customers specing out what they wanted on the truck cabs they had custom ordered and it seemed to be that uniformly they wanted:
-A long hood
-A flat straight up radiator
-A straight up near vertical windscreen
Now I don’t know if these truck drivers were bent on paying homage to their dads, who might have also been over the road truckers, but you don’t see that mindset in other fields of transportation. I mean do airlines ordering planes ask airplane manufacturers to “make the plane look like the one that Dad flew”.
No, in the airline biz, they are constantly striving to make each generation of aircraft more fuel efficient, more aerodynamic and interested in whatever new materials are available to advance that cause.
Now I hear that you, Elon Musk, are talking about making semis and I think this is the chance, the golden opportunity, for the trucking field to make a great leap forward not only in powerplants but in aerodynamics.
Think of the gain in saving fuel nationally if the fuel needs of over-the-road truckers were cut dramatically. That alone could mean the end of the necessity to import Mideast oil.
LUIGI COLANI HAD A SOLUTION
Now I am writing to ask you to go back and look at what Luigi Colani wrought. I admit, I once had my doubts about Luigi Colani, an eccentric German industrial designer, born in 1928, whose career goes back to the 1950s, when he reportedly designed cars for companies such as Fiat, Alfa Romeo, Lancia, Volkswagen, and BMW. In the 1960s, he began designing furniture, and as of the 1970s, his designs ranged from a grand piano to fountain pens.
My doubts about Luigi Colani are perhaps unfairly based on when he took some Ferraris to Bonneville, cars he had rebodied, and I don’t recall them setting any records. Or even running. That’s like taking an Indy car to Indy and never running it (like Shelby did with his gas turbine car).
And yet Colani has made many an interesting design, some of which were produced, so I give him credit for continually trying to advance the state of the art, no matter what the product he is designing.
He began to think about fuel usage in trucks in 2007, the second time Arab oil skyrocketed in price.
He had already been a designer for more than 40 years by 2008 and had already designed many shapes, which he likes to call “biodynamic concepts” in which he borrows from the contours and rounded angles already found in nature. First of all it’s pleasing to the eye but he considers nature the ultimate designer.
And the beauty of it was, he was not raised in America, thus felt no obligation to make a new truck design look like an old one.
He made the cabs look like helicopter bodywork, and put the engine compartment separately housed.
Of course that was done with conventional engines. With the Tesla approach, there is no need for a huge radiator, so there is no need for a grille.
Once he got the cabs low drag, he could work on the coupling between the trailer and the cab, and fill in that area in between that causes a lot of drag.
He found a sponsor for his concept in 2007 with Siemens, a big European commercial truck builder. The design for them had the two box approach the upper one an aerodynamic fuselage cockpit similar to a helicopter poised above the semi frame and only holding one person (that might have to change…)
It also lacked a steering wheel steered with a single joystick. One reporter described the design as having a “head and beak of a predatory bird in flight.”
That design reduced fuel consumption by 50 percent over a conventional cab. That reduction comes exclusively from exterior aerodynamic changes, without any modifications to the engine.
Why didn’t his designs get adopted? Well, that first prototype cost so much ($1 million) that it scared off truck makers.
Back when his design was rolled out, a new 2007 International 9900 semi sold for around $100,000. Which means whoever mass produces an aero design will have to have lots of orders in hand to get the cost down. So far no American truck maker has wanted to take that chance.
And then there will be stiff resistance–those truckers I saw in the documentary, stubbornly demanding features (even chrome air horns on the hood!) that their fathers had 40 years before.
Those stick-in-the-mud traditionalists have to be gotten around. And I think you, with the same bravado you showed in the Tesla Model S, are the man to do it.
If the ecology crowd can be enlisted to exert pressure on companies like FEDEX and Walmart to use aerodynamic Tesla Semis, then the rest of the American truck makers, with their ancient diesel- belching trucks, will be shamed into following and the whole nation will benefit.
Let us know what you think in the Comments.
THE AUTHOR: Wallace Wyss is the author of the Incredible Barn Finds series which can be ordered straight from the publisher by calling (715)381 9755.
Below are photos of the Colani Bizzarrini GT 5300 sent in by Mike Clarke and his comment.
He turned the 5300 Strada into a sewer drain.