Ten years ago engineers at truck manufacturer Kenworth introduced to the market what was then a radical concept for the industry: the aerodynamic truck.
The sloping hood and rounded edges of the Kenworth T600A, a departure from the traditional sharp-edged, blunt-nosed tractor, was the result of eight years of sometimes halting research to produce a truck that tried to slip its way through air at highway speeds, instead of bulldozing a path.
There certainly seemed to be a call for a truck like this, following the rapid run-up in the price of fuel during the 1970s and increasing competition in the trucking industry.
So what was the market’s reaction to this innovative leap forward?
“Initial acceptance was appalling,” says Larry Orr, advanced product concepts manager for Kenworth’s parent, Paccar Inc.
But buyers soon learned to like the newfangled truck. By the end of 1985, the T600A was Kenworth’s best-selling model.
And time has ratified the company’s decision to build an aerodynamic truck.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recently presented an award to the Paccar engineering team - including Orr, Wayne Simons, Roy Meryman, Don Richardson, Rick Drollinger and Tim Kangas - for advancement of motor vehicle research and development; and a Department of Transportation panel picked Paccar out of 10 nominees for contributions to safety and energy savings.
The same then-quirky features that set the T600A apart have migrated to other truck manufacturers and models.
But the road to an aerodynamic truck more resembled a hairpin-turn-laden mountain road than a smooth interstate.
Development of the T-600 started in 1977, four years after the first oil shock that suddenly made fuel costs an issue. Fuel is the second biggest cost behind wages for trucking companies.
The Bellevue-based company’s engineers eventually came up with a truck, that, by Paccar’s calculations, reduces fuel consumption by 15 percent and also minimized the spray trucks throw up on wet roads, something appreciated by other motorists. Truck drivers get reduced wind noise and better visibility.
But the engineers had also designed a truck that truck buyers didn’t think looked like a truck.
“People in the business have an idea of how a truck should look,” Orr says. “In those days, if you changed styling, you were in trouble.”
In fact, the Paccar engineers at first tried to change the air resistance without changing the truck’s look. Orr says, “It turns out you can’t.”
Orr thinks that the design eventually “grows on you.”
Apparently it did on buyers - Kenworth says it has sold 70,000 aerodynamic trucks since 1986, and other manufacturers, including sister company Peterbilt and competitors Mack, Freightliner and Navistar, have sold an additional 237,000.
With fuel prices having moderated in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it might seem that the pressure to boost efficiency has eased. Orr says that’s not the case.
“Our customers’ operating margins are universally thin,” he says. “Everyone is looking for the opportunity to be more efficient.”