Concept trucks are shaping the future of trucking

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Updated Apr 8, 2015

Freightliner stole the spotlight the Mid-America Trucking Show last week the moment they pulled the cover off the company’s SuperTruck concept vehicle. Aggressive aero features and unconventional styling left many jaws agape.

But concept vehicles aren’t all together new in trucking. Many major OEs have either recently wrapped up a project or are currently testing one, and the designs and data that come from the development process are literally shaping the future of the Class 8 tractor.

 Like their light truck counterparts, commercial truck makers such as Freightliner use concept trucks as a function test for ideas “that weren’t quite ready for prime time,” says TJ Reed, director of product strategy for Daimler Trucks North America. Reed adds Freightliner used its Revolution concept truck to test features that were later moved into the Cascadia Evolution.

Not coincidentally, many of the body forms created for Freightliner’s earlier-generation concept – the Innovation truck – were rolled forward into the development of Revolution, including an internal antenna and utilizing cameras as mirrors.

The list of SuperTruck’s accomplishments is impressive: a 115 percent boost in vehicle freight efficiency, compared to conventional tractors on the market today. Other enhancements include a 50.2 percent increase in engine brake, a 54 percent reduction in overall aerodynamic drag and a sustained 12.2 miles per gallon logged at 65 miles per hour on a stretch of I-35 between San Antonio and Dallas, Texas. And Freightliner has already began integrating several features, likeaerodynamic upgrades and the smart transmission, into current units.

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In 2013, Navistar debuted its Project Horizon – a truck Chris Ito, director of innovation and design for Navistar, says was designed to make an “aerodynamic statement.” Ito says Navistar used journalist and driver feedback to gauge which cosmetic concepts were working and which were falling flat.

Navistar’s Project Horizon was designed to make an “aerodynamic statement.”Navistar’s Project Horizon was designed to make an “aerodynamic statement.”

“It’s a litmus test as ‘this is our vision,’” he says. “And it kind of validates if we’re going in the right direction or not.”

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“There is a lot of value in customer feedback,” Ito adds. “We have a lot of smart people here at Navistar but we need to make sure that we validate with people who will actually use the product.”

Ito says Project Horizon, even though it was based on an International ProStar, was created to showcase some of the emerging technologies at Navistar’s disposal.

“Project Horizon wasn’t just a styling exercise,” Ito says. “It was created as a vehicle that would showcase technologies. It was a full overall technology showcase. There are some elements on the vehicle that may or may not go into production, but could influence future shapes of the product.”

Among the most striking features on the ultra-aero International ProStar are chassis skirts that fully cover the drag wheels.

“Actually (that) is functionally efficient, but we understand in production there are some practical aspects that have some shortcomings,” Ito says. “There are some major shapes on (the Horizon truck) that could shape some future vehicles.”

Exercises in truck design can be labor intensive, often spanning several years. But the timeframe can be adjusted depending on the company’s intentions for the vehicle.

Ito says concepts that are not tied to production models are often much easier to pull together since artists have more freedom to color outside the lines.

“If you start from scratch, it actually is easier because you don’t have any parameters,” Ito says of Navistar’s Project Horizon ProStar that updated everything from the production model with the exception of the sleeper sidewalls and the roof. “But, we’re going to have parameters no matter what. It would be quicker if we work around a ProStar or DuraStar or whatever, because we already have the knowns…from the overall big picture, to go to concept to production is much faster.”

The process of going from an artist rendering of Freightliner’s Revolution truck to having a tangible product took a year and a half, but Maik Ziegler, Daimler Trucks’ director of advanced engineering, NAFTA, says that timeframe can vary from project to project.

“With SuperTruck, we have a target of 50 percent improvement of freight efficiency (over 2007 baselines),” he says. “Fifty percent is a big number, so the government gave us five years.”

Freightliner received a $40 million government grant to build Supertruck, and that was matched by Daimler and used to develop the highly sophisticated and sleek vehicle. Powering the Freightliner SuperTruck is a prototype 10.7-liter engine, optimized to work with the truck’s hybrid and Waste Heat Recovery systems. Freightliner’s “most freight-efficient concept truck on the planet” is a spectacular showcase of engineering, innovation and imagination, but when it comes to concept trucks, Peterbilt’s Walmart Advanced Vehicle Experience (WAVE) truck is a concept in every definition of the word.

Peterbilt’s WAVE was designed and built in collaboration with Walmart and Great Dane.Peterbilt’s WAVE was designed and built in collaboration with Walmart and Great Dane.


Since Walmart traditionally uses single drivers versus teams, only one seat is inside the WAVE cab.Since Walmart traditionally uses single drivers versus teams, only one seat is inside the WAVE cab.

Designed and built in collaboration with the world’s largest retailer and trailer manufacturer Great Dane, WAVE features an aggressive teardrop design, and is powered by a fuel-neutral turbine engine that can run on diesel, gasoline, natural gas, DME, hydrogen and other biofuels. The truck and trailer were designed to improve aerodynamics by 20 percent over conventional models.

Bill Kahn, manager of advanced concepts with Peterbilt, says the WAVE truck was the company’s attempt to find significant efficiency gains in an area where the low hanging fruit has long-since been harvested. Realizing that significant gains weren’t going to come from simple tweaks in aero-design, Kahn’s team set out to design a new model from the ground up.

“We really wanted to come out and see what it would take to get a double-digit gain in fuel efficiency,” he says, “and what would that look like?”

Walmart and Peterbilt wanted an advanced powertrain but concluded, efficiency-wise, a standard diesel engine had been pushed about as far as it could go.

Finding an alternative power source also came with unanticipated benefits, which allowed Peterbilt designers to completely reinvent the look of the tractor.

“We looked at things like turbines, two-stroke diesels…” he says of their search for an engine. “One of the first things you see when you use a turbine engine is that you don’t need a radiator anymore…you don’t need coolant. That allowed us to drastically change the shape of the vehicle.”

Walmart traditionally uses single drivers versus teams, which relegates the passenger seat to a storage area. That presented Kahn’s team with another opportunity.

“We just said let’s take that out, save that weight and move the driver into the middle,” he says. “By aligning those two entities (a center-mounted driver seat and eliminating the radiator) we were able to come up with a pretty aggressive shape on the front of the vehicle.”

Elizabeth Fretheim, director of business strategy sustainability in Walmart’s logistics unit, says the WAVE project began taking shape about four years ago. The truck was rendered full-size in clay and Styrofoam – a process that took upwards of three months – and those efforts gave birth to a trailer body made almost entirely of carbon fiber, cutting the weight by about 4,000 pounds.

The truck’s cab was also placed over the engine, shortening its wheelbase and further reducing weight. However, a truck shape that no one had ever seen before coupled with a powertrain no one had ever used before presented a challenge for Kahn’s team.

“We had come up with an exponentially challenging truck to build,” he says of the three-year design and development program.

Practically every gap that was perceived as an aero-drag has been filled on Peterbilt’s WAVE truck.Practically every gap that was perceived as an aero-drag has been filled on Peterbilt’s WAVE truck.

“When you go to a powertrain that doesn’t have a front engine takeoff to power things like power steering, air brakes and the air conditioning compressor, you have to develop electrified versions of those units.”

Peterbilt’s WAVE has been met with mostly positive reviews.

“You’d get the hardcore Peterbilt drivers who would say, ‘I’d never drive it.’ And I’d say, ‘Yeah, but your grandkids would,” Kahn says.

Other truck drivers who could appreciate the innovative nature of the look and ideas behind it told Kahn the truck could also be a powerful recruitment tool for Walmart.

“(Some said) ‘I’d like to work for Walmart if I could drive that truck.’”

Jason Cannon has written about trucking and transportation for more than a decade and serves as Chief Editor of Commercial Carrier Journal. A Class A CDL holder, Jason is a graduate of the Porsche Sport Driving School, an honorary Duckmaster at The Peabody in Memphis, Tennessee, and a purple belt in Brazilian jiu jitsu. Reach him at [email protected]