Jet plane-inspired aerodynamics

From the September 2011 issue.

The trailer industry is about to change with the application of the type of aerodynamic equipment more common in the aviation sector. It was designed to reduce turbulence and drag and thus cutting back on fuel consumption.

In the face of severe regulations and the endless drive to improve fuel consumption and cut carbon emissions, the commercial road transport industry is placing increased emphasis on innovative technology. As opposed to a prime mover, though, a trailer can only improve the industry’s carbon footprint by indirectly reducing fuel usage – by applying improved aerodynamics, for example.

Electronics, material science, tyre technology and weight reduction all play a role in conserving fuel, but jet plane-inspired re-designing is the dernier cri on a global scale. Researchers working on reducing the drag at the rear of a semi- trailer have come up with promising results, using a tapered tail at the rear of the trailer to reduce fuel consumption. Designed with attention to the dynamics of the passing wind, the tail is able to reshape the vortex left behind on the highway, thus minimising it.

Focusing on the rear of a trailer is a new trend. Many aerodynamic features that affected the road transport industry in the past have concentrated on the front of a combination, making the airflow slip quickly and easily over the front surfaces of truck and trailer. Other aerodynamic devices, such as side skirts, manage the flow as it travels down the side of the trailer.

Yet, little attention has been paid to the rear. It has remained rectangular and flat although studies have shown that air flowing down the side, top and bottom of the trailer at highway speed spins off to form a vortex behind the rear door. Scientists describe the airflow as “detached” as it creates a large volume of low air pressure just behind the trailer. This vacuum produces a suction drag, holding the trailer back and forcing the engine to use more fuel to pull the trailer against a wall of air.

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