Mercedes Aero: lllusion and reality

When Mercedes-Benz unveiled a spectacular design study at the Trailer 2011 trade show in Belgium, the vehicle’s sleek curves got the industry talking. Is the industry juggernaut giving us a peek into the future of trailer design? Is the box-shaped van history?

Flowing lines and aesthetically-sculpted surfaces define Mercedes-Benz’ new design concept where the classic box is given a modern rendition, creating an unseen, almost coupé-like piece of transport equipment. Nicknamed Aero, the concept is a holistic approach to modern industrial design, recognising the combination of truck and trailer as one single system. But is it all new?

Automotive giant Mercedes-Benz has been embracing the idea of holistic design since the 1980s, when development engineers carried out in-depth investigations into the aerodynamics of entire vehicle combinations. While times may have changed, the fundamental knowledge gained back then still applies today and forms the basis for the current research and development conducted by the German brand.

Fast forward to 2011, where Mercedes-Benz’s latest concept design study – unveiled in November at the Trailer 2011 show in Belgium – saw the focus shift from saving fuel for economic reasons to protecting the environment and conservation of resources. The result? An aerodynamic trailer designed to cut both wind resistance and fuel consumption, according to Mercedes-Benz. And, it is the first study to translate up-to-date automotive design into commercial road transport equipment.

“It is obvious that the concept was made in the design department and not in an engineering office,” says Richard Wood, President of US trucking equipment company SOLUS. “From an operational and aerodynamic point of view – and not from an aesthetic point of view – the designers have taken established aero engineering concepts and made them look cool. As a result, the aero benefit is minimised or lost and even created new negative operational impacts.”

Mercedes-Benz’ flamboyant Aero concept features a front air dam and flowing side trim panels ending in a bulky rear diffuser. The tapered rear design is supposed to result in 18 per cent reduction in wind resistance when paired with the company’s newly launched, heavy-weight tractor unit, the Actros.

The rear end taper, measuring slightly more than 400 mm in length, forms a crucial part of the trailers aerodynamic concept. It features folding elements to facilitate access to the load compartment and improves wind resistance by a further seven per cent, according to official data. Mercedes-Benz projects that a truck averaging 150,000km per year will save 2000 litres of diesel while releasing five fewer tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

The Aero forms the first stage of the company’s new “Truck and Trailer 7plus” initiative, which was implemented to utilise the principles of holistic product design to cut fuel consumption and CO2 emissions of both truck and trailer – just like holistic medicine attempts to treat both the mind and the body. The initiative follows the launch of the Actros, a truck built to consume seven per cent less fuel than its predecessor, which itself was recognised as frugal. As a result, extensive wind tunnel tests have been conducted to increase the overall aerodynamics of the truck/trailer unit.

“It’s great that Mercedes-Benz is bringing additional attention to the substantial fuel savings made possible through simple improvements to the shape of today’s trailers,” says Jeff Grossmann, VP of Engineering at ATDynamics, a US company specialised in aerodynamic equipment for the commercial road transport industry. “What is even more newsworthy is that the key areas showcased in the design concept – trailer nose fairing, side skirts, and rear end fairings – are already commercially available and quickly becoming commonplace across US highways.”

According to Grossman, Mercedes-Benz’ eye-catching study has not broken new ground. Since 2008, ATDynamics has been supplying aerodynamic trailers to fleets around the globe, retrofitting trailers with side skirts and so-called Trailer Tails. These two devices – a set of panels underneath the trailer and a collapsible rear fairing – deliver approximately 10 per cent fuel savings when used together and are already saving the trucking industry approximately USD150 million (€ 114 million) per year – a number that should top $1 billion in annual diesel fuel reduction by 2016, predicts Grossmann.

Whether Mercedes-Benz’s concept translates from the page to the real world is yet to be seen. For now, the design is just an impressive piece of artwork that cannot be used on Europe’s public roads. The length exceeds the regulations by 500mm – the size of the tapered overhang – and in the US, it’s much the same story according to Woods, who says the Aero trailer would need some important readjustments. “The concept as it is would not work in daily operation in the US or any other location,” he says. “The aerodynamic benefit is negligible with the current design. There are far too many operational limitations and problem areas as well as safety concerns with the lack of access to critical components that require regular inspection.”

John Hernandez, General Manager of US trailer specialist, Solares Trailers, remains optimistic about the design. “It would be interesting to see this type of design in a smaller scale, maybe for a lightweight holiday vehicle,” he says. “I think that this would create something unseen unheard for the smaller profile market, and set a new trend.”

At the very least, one of the world’s most influential and prestigious automotive brands has entered the trailer market and given manufacturers food for thought on how to move beyond the standard trailer design – and experts agree that this can only be a good thing.

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