By on March 3, 2014

Full disclosure: your humble author is a Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT) shareholder. Seriously, I think I have, like, ten shares. So you should view the above headline and video with suspicion and the proverbial shaker of salt.

The folks at GreenCarReports have the details on the WAVE concept truck. The fifty-three-foot trailer breaks new ground in carbon-fiber large assemblies; extensive use of that material makes the WAVE two full tons lighter than conventional tractor-trailers.

No fuel-economy estimates are provided, but even seemingly minor fuel-economy improvements in America’s truck fleet would make a bigger difference than virtually anything that private drivers could do. Just improving mileage to, say, 12MPG for tractor-trailers would be the equivalent of raising America’s private vehicles to an average of 40MPG or more.

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61 Comments on “Carbon-Fiber Tractor-Trailer Is Just The Latest In Wal-Mart’s Many Contributions To American Life...”


  • avatar

    Afterall…the lot lizards deserve the finer things in life!

    EastBound and Down!

  • avatar
    Noble713

    Can someone in the TTAC B&B elaborate on why tech improvements to commercial trucking seem to come so slowly? Are the up-front manufacturing/acquisition costs so prohibitively expensive that lifetime efficiency gains don’t make up the difference? Or is it just a case of senseless conservatism?

    • 0 avatar
      Toad

      I’m in the trucking business and worked for three of the largest OEM’s for more than a decade, so let me take a run at this:

      Most trucks are owned by small to mid sized businesses running on thin margins, or manufacturers/distributors that have trucks as a “necessary evil” component of their business (such as a supermarket chain) that contribute few if any profits. Trucks are expensive (about $120-140k each) and require lots of supporting personnel (mechanics, drivers, office staff) as well as infrastructure (trailers, warehouses, terminals, etc). So there are lots of expenses in the business.

      New technologies that don’t work well will cause minor inconveniences (lower fuel economy, repair costs, downtime, missed shipping deadlines)that erase profits, and technological failures can cause insolvency (too many trucks down leads to loss of business, cash flow problems, bankruptcy). New technologies need to work well over the 1 million+ mile life of a class 8 commercial truck (1st and second owners); that is a high risk proposition.

      For example, Caterpillar came out with their Acert heavy truck engines in 2004, and they had horrible reliability right out of the box. A trucking company owner I knew owned 40 trucks, and 20 of them had the Acert engines; for the first two years he owned them at any given time 10 of the Acert trucks were in the shop for a wide variety of failures. That means 25% of his cash flow stopped in a business with single digit margins. That is not a formula for staying in business. Of course, the bank still wants their monthly truck payment whether the truck is rolling or not, and you hope your driver(s) don’t quit while waiting for repairs.

      Currently International (Navistar) used truck lots are loaded with hundreds of off lease/traded in trucks with MaxxForce engines that used a EGR technology to reduce emissions to meet EPA 2010 regulations. The MaxxForce technology did not work well, caused lots of downtime, warranty claims, and 10’s of millions of dollars in losses for Navistar customers. Now Navistar is saddled with thousands of traded in tractors that it will have to resell at huge losses (if they can even find buyers). The CEO was fired, as were many of his minions; the company is still in a huge financial hole.

      So…truck manufacturers and fleet buyers are very wary of new technologies that can potentially paralyze their fleet, stop their cash flow, and blow up their companies.

      That was a long answer, but I hope it was helpful.

      • 0 avatar
        thats one fast cat

        Thanks for that; one of the more comprehensive and informative pieces from the B&B in a long time. That makes a lot of sense and sure does explain why the technology hasn’t moved more rapidly.

      • 0 avatar
        photog02

        Only thing to add to this is that most of the larger fleets don’t have all that better margin. So technology has to demonstrate a very quick ROI in order to be worthwhile. Over the road trucks operate 80-120K miles/year, larger fleets will keep a vehicle only so long before selling it, so that gives the technology only a few years to show a benefit.

        Automated manual transmissions are the one thing that comes to mind as a quick ROI. Most Class-A CDL drivers are pretty bad (in terms of wear and tear, but more importantly fuel economy) at shifting a non-synchronized manual transmission. The higher upfront cost of an automated manual is quickly amortized thanks to greater fuel economy. Super-single tires are another example, but the distribution network is holding that one back.

  • avatar
    RRocket

    So if you own shares in Walmart, aren’t you essentially supporting Chinese products?

    • 0 avatar
      Hank

      If you are an American, you’re essentially supporting Chinese products.

    • 0 avatar

      Most of the money made at Walmart stays with Walmart shareholders which probably aren’t chinese. The producers in china (or elsewhere) get a few peanuts thrown their just as their employees who still have to rely on welfare to get by.

    • 0 avatar
      mkirk

      Assume this post was made from an American made computer? Must be hard to get parts for a DEC these days.

    • 0 avatar
      racer-esq.

      Because the investor that Jack bought the shares from used the proceeds to buy Chinese products?

      I doubt Jack directly participated in an offering.

    • 0 avatar
      BuzzDog

      I literally live and work in the shadow of Walmart’s headquarters, and I also go out of my way to buy goods that are made in the USA…that is, when I can (fairly impossible for electronics and small kitchen appliances). As an example, last week I decided to buy a new hose and nozzle; the hose is US-made and easily found at Sam’s Club, but I had to order the US-made Dramm nozzle with Walmart’s no-cost “Site to Store” option — and I couldn’t find a US-made nozzle at either Lowe’s or Home Depot.

      No, Walmart isn’t perfect, but the consumer bears at least some of the blame. Not many shoppers go to the lengths I do to source US-made goods, and many (if not most) simply want the least expensive item, period.

      As a side note, recently I was surprised to learn from a mainstream media source (NBC News) that Walmart actually sources over two-thirds of its merchandise from the US. However, keep in mind that this percentage includes grocery items, which is a segment which the US still dominates.

      • 0 avatar

        > No, Walmart isn’t perfect, but the consumer bears at least some of the blame.

        You can’t necessarily expect unorganized independent consumers to successfully push against the rising tide of free trade and such. There are much larger forces at work than individual will to power which is why such efforts almost always win.

        • 0 avatar
          BuzzDog

          I don’t, which is why I didn’t write “all of the blame.”

          Having some experience with running a small retail business, I can tell you that many consumers will initially buy from the Devil himself for a lower price, regardless of country of origin — or the quality — or an item. However, over time the free market tends to address this low-price bias, which is why you’re probably not logged onto AOL to read this post on a Packard Bell computer.

          • 0 avatar

            > However, over time the free market tends to address this low-price bias, which is why you’re probably not logged onto AOL to read this post on a Packard Bell computer.

            It’s not really about price per se, but factors hidden by the price along. People buy Thinkpads over Packard Bells because of quality concerns, but they don’t necessarily buy one Thinkpad over another (presumably cheaper one) because it’s made in the USA.

        • 0 avatar
          sportyaccordy

          I think you overstate the average customer’s concern for how and where the cheap crap they buy is made.

          Not to mention, you look at the food industry, there are plenty of examples of the market responding to customers’ concerns. There are whole industries built around this. So I will go as far as to put the bulk of the blame on customers. If customers were willing to pay more to have things made in the US, Walmart would be more aggressive in forcing its suppliers to insource. American consumers for the most part don’t care so Walmart has no reason to jump.

          • 0 avatar

            > So I will go as far as to put the bulk of the blame on customers. If customers were willing to pay more to have things made in the US, Walmart would be more aggressive in forcing its suppliers to insource.

            Again, you can’t blame people for not being individually charitable to a cause when others can get a free ride. The “free market” you imply here is absolutely terrible at solving this sort of problem.

            People generally don’t understand the conceptual difference between charity and taxation, and why one works while the other is pretty lackluster.

  • avatar
    Hillman

    Another benefit is you can ship 5 % more cargo with this truck because it weighs 2 tons less.
    Edit, realized I could just google my question.

  • avatar
    Tosh

    Anything, anything to avoid taking the train.

  • avatar
    raresleeper

    Behold!

    The “Great Value Edition” Peterbilt.

  • avatar
    Dean Trombetta

    Careful! As Mike Rowe just found out, if you say anything good about Walmart, you will get bombarded with angry comments from labor organizations.

    • 0 avatar
      brn

      Never been a fan of labor organizations, but that doesn’t mean Wal-Mart doesn’t deserve criticism. I had Wal-Mart as a corporate client. They are about as detrimental as a large enterprise can be.

  • avatar

    Seems like a giant leap that won’t be built. I think the real reason you don’t see much change in trucks is fleet durability the same factors that drove police to keep panthers forever. The aero mods you see on trucks an trailers the last few years were developed 20 years ago and are just now being used in large numbers. Also I take issue with the largest carbon fiber panel thing I know some race boat builders who have made much larger carbon fiber structures.

  • avatar
    Toad

    Ford built a similar looking truck back in 1964 with a turbine engine:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/brimen/sets/72157624976630504/comments/

    Cool then, cool now.

  • avatar
    JaySeis

    2 tons of freight is real money as is oh…say a few 1/10ths (or more) of a percent in fuel savings. Tractor/trailer rigs have been using high strength alloy steel, aluminum, fiberglass, etc for decades. Most likely to happen with fleet sales though the real game changer (say 3? decades) will be robotic trucks. It’d be hilarious to see end-grain balsa wood panels (I can just hear the truck stop chatter “Aw shucks fellas, why my great grand daddy’s truck was built out of wood”)

  • avatar
    matador

    I drove an old Mack tractor on a farm for one harvest shuttling grain. My experience in semi trucks is less than 20 miles total, but I think it’s safe to say that I’d have a hard time adopting to that center seating position.

  • avatar

    > Just improving mileage to, say, 12MPG for tractor-trailers would be the equivalent of raising America’s private vehicles to an average of 40MPG or more.

    If that’s the case, improving cargo carrying efficiency many-fold by using a rail network would be the equivalent of raising America’s private vehicles to an average of over 9000 mpg. That’s how they made that sekrit gubmint carburetor.

    • 0 avatar
      Toad

      Rail lines won’t bring groceries to your local supermarket, lumber to your local Lowes, a copy machine to your local office, beer to you local bar, parcels to your house, cars to your local car dealer…

      Rail is good at moving big things long distance, but trucks do the final distribution of just about everything. That probably won’t change.

      • 0 avatar
        mkirk

        This. If you follow this logic then wouldn’t moving everything via cargo ship be the most efficient?

      • 0 avatar

        Your general point is correct, but the insufficiency of the US rail network means that a lot of extra cargo gets hauled over highways. In addition to the obvious inefficiencies it puts a lot wear & slow traffic on roads better used for light vehicles. The fuel tax subsidy only spirals into lackluster infrastructure upkeep, etc.

        It’s a cluster all around.

      • 0 avatar
        krhodes1

        Thing is, the last few miles are where trucks make sense. It does not make a lot of sense to be sending trucks across country. But at this point, for the most part our railroads are not competitive for any sort of time-sensitive delivery. Coal or oil or bulk grain? Sure. But not the small stuff in most cases. Yet there was a time when they very much were competitive for this sort of thing. Of course the difference being that the railroads have to pay for their own “roads” (and pay taxes on them), while the trucking industry gets a nearly free ride on the public highways.

        • 0 avatar
          Toad

          It’s a little more complicated than that. Yes, the railroads built their own roads, but they did it on free land from the government and paid for it with monopoly pricing to their captive customers. Fast forward 100+ years and the railroads are posting record setting profits again because they are much more nimble and efficient than they were after WWII. Good for them.

          Regarding taxes, believe me when I tell you that the trucking industry does NOT get a nearly free ride. Each of my trucks will annually pay about $9500 in fuel taxes, $500 in property taxes, $1300 for license plates, $550 for federal road use tax, plus tolls and federal excise tax on tires; that is at least $12,000 per truck per year. Not to mention that any new truck has a 12% FET tax at time of sale (this does not include state and local sales taxes).

          Sorry to pop anybody’s bubble, but there is no “free ride” for trucks. If you can find the free ride, please please please let me know how to get on board :)

          • 0 avatar
            krhodes1

            What happened 150 years ago is utterly irrelevant to today. Get back to me when your company has to individually construct, maintain, and pay taxes on the roads that your trucks drive on. As well as fuel taxes, sales taxes, etc. The trucking industry does get a gigantic public subsidy. The railroads can do pay their own way and still be profitable because rail is an incredibly efficient way to move goods.

        • 0 avatar
          jhefner

          Railroads make the most money with round robin unit freights hauling coal, oil, bulk grain, containers, etc. from one point to the other and back. Handling “less than trainloads” of freight involves making up and breaking up the trains at each end, then picking up and delivering the individual cars to the customer’s siding.

          They are less inclined now to handle these carloads (along with oversized loads, since they snarl things up); and have even banded the smaller railcars from interstate commerce.

          This is partly due to abandoning many of the lines that would have allowed double-tracking or alternate routes; but the overall network today is more cost efficient than ever before.

          • 0 avatar

            It’s hard to compete against something given a substantial larger taxpayer subsidy. These roads don’t build themselves.

          • 0 avatar
            jhefner

            “It’s hard to compete against something given a substantial larger taxpayer subsidy. These roads don’t build themselves.”

            Perhaps, but it is also hard to justify maintaining a shortline to a community that has one customer who only ships say a carload a month.

            Smart supply chain planners know that air, rail, road, and water each have their place in the supply chain, and use them in the relm where the economics work best. You don’t ship bulk raw materials by air, and you don’t ship time critical material by ship. Trains and trucks fit in the middle; and each have their “sweet spots” with very little overlap.

            Focusing on unit freights and large shipments have also made the railroads easier to run as well as more profitable. THEY don’t want to take all of the interstate commerce from trucks; it is not cost effective for them to maintain shortlines and sidings to every community and customer.

            The government DID fund the railroads in the form of transporting the U.S. Mail. (Yes, they also gave free land to railroads for their right-of-way.) It was mail cars in large part that kept the passenger trains in business; once they went away, so did the economic justification for passenger service. Otherwise, hauling passengers, like hauling livestock in cattle cars; was more trouble than it’s worth; and they are quite happy to let airlines and trucks handle all the cattle. Even Amtrak is a pain because humans take precedence over more profitable freight, and messes up their scheduling.

            Like so many things, you may think you know more about running a railroad than they do; but you do not.

          • 0 avatar

            > Perhaps, but it is also hard to justify maintaining a shortline to a community that has one customer who only ships say a carload a month.

            Maybe you should go argue this with someone who’s claiming the opposite.

            > THEY don’t want to take all of the interstate commerce from trucks; it is not cost effective for them to maintain shortlines and sidings to every community and customer.

            Again, of course it’s not cost effective to compete against far more subsidized competitors. Just as for example it’s hard to compete in retail against those propping up their employees with welfare. If the government paid for the trucks in addition to the fuel and roads it’d be harder still for rail.

            > Like so many things, you may think you know more about running a railroad than they do; but you do not.

            I understand basic math and logic quite well as do the railroad and trucking industry, while many apparently do not.

  • avatar
    brn

    Best I can tell from the video is that the tractor is made by Peterbilt, but the article seems focused on Wal-Mart. Why would that be?

    • 0 avatar
      Toad

      Wal-Mart has told truck makers that the first manufacturer to reliably, realistically hit 13mpg gets the vast majority of their business, and that is a big carrot. Say what you will about Wal-Mart, but they are driving innovation.

  • avatar
    dal20402

    Visibility looks like it would be awful. And visibility in large vehicles is literally a matter of life and death.

    Other than that, plow ahead… no one loses if we get more fuel-efficient heavy haulers.

  • avatar
    Slow_Joe_Crow

    It’s interesting that this design returns to a COE layout, and I see some strong Luigi Colani influence.
    Speaking of aero trucks, whatever happened to the Kenworth “anteater” of the 80s?

  • avatar

    Pfft. Trucks. Drivers. Dinosaurs. Drones are going to deliver ERRRRVRYTHING to your doorstep!

  • avatar
    PrincipalDan

    I’m surprised they didn’t take the path automakers are taking and just announce a new 300 speed transmission with a top gear that only engages once ludicrous speed is reached.

  • avatar
    badcoffee

    Dear god, what will it cost to repair/replace when someone damages one of those 53′ carbon fiber panels

  • avatar
    jeffzekas

    I work at Walmart. Many of the workers receive food stamps. Last night, one of my crewmembers had no lunch, because he didn’t have enough money to buy food. Workers at WM are treated like slaves. Walmart factories in China and Bangladesh spew mercury into the water and air. So, such “ecological” measures promoted by WM are merely window dressing- propaganda- to hide the deaths of 200 women and children in Walmart’s factory (which had the windows boarded up, so they died in a fire). Walmart is pure evil. Do not buy at Walmart. Shop at Costco, a store which is cheaper, has better quality, and treats workers with respect. And for those of you who say, “If you don’t like it, get another job” I say: there are no jobs here in Oregon. Unemployment here is 40%. Many towns in the PNW remind one of the movie Elysium. The Second Great Depression has returned, but the news isn’t talking about it. Welcome to double speak and the brave new world. Welcome to Elysium, where the one percent live in riches, whilst the rest struggle in the muck.

    • 0 avatar
      Drzhivago138

      Not to say that you’re wrong, but [citation needed].

      Also, how much of a reach does Costco have? The closest big city to me has 150,000+ people and two Wal-Marts (they tried to make a third, but the good citizenry shut them down, and I mean that with all sincerity and no sarcasm), but I can’t say I’ve ever been somewhere that has a Costco.

      • 0 avatar
        racer-esq.

        “I can’t say I’ve ever been somewhere that has a Costco.”

        That’s the saddest thing I’ve heard today.

        I do boycott Walmart on principle, but it’s not any kind of sacrifice since Walmarts are full of, well, “People of Walmart”, and the prices aren’t even that competitive.

        • 0 avatar
          brettc

          Maine has zero Costco stores. We have BJs and Sam’s Club, but no Costco. Closest one is Danvers, MA. I do minimal shopping at Walmart but I do get some things there (like TP, motor oil, car wash supplies, washer fluid). Even though Walmart is generally evil it’s good to see them driving innovation in OTR fuel efficiency.

          Walmart is a cheap company (despite the Waltons’ billions) so you know the executives are probably rubbing their hands in delight at the prospect of 13 MPG.

      • 0 avatar
        KixStart

        The Twin Cities metro area (pop about 3 million) has 6 Costcos. We like them. Awesome liquor prices. State-wide, there’s maybe 2 or 3 more. Most of their house brand stuff is good and we’re usually satisfied with the merchandise.

    • 0 avatar
      shaker

      I won’t deny that Costco’s direct employees are well-treated and well-compensated, but keep in mind that in order to compete with Wal-Mart, they have to select suppliers based on lowest absolute cost. This still leads to plenty of “off-shoring” for goods, and lower wages at any U.S. based suppliers – still a “race to the bottom”, so to speak. So, the Walton family could still be considered the primary driving force for lower wages/fewer jobs.

      That said, the article alludes to a simple fact; a fair chunk of the cost of goods gets diverted to transportation fuel costs; but if Wal-Mart wants to improve efficiency, then good on them — even better if it takes the savings to improve the plight of their workers instead of adding to the family’s already ludicrous wealth.

    • 0 avatar
      mcarr

      Ummm… You could always move out of Oregon?

    • 0 avatar
      50merc

      Surprising to hear there is unhappiness in Oregon, because the Pacific Northwest has always claimed to be paradise on earth. Unemployment could be eased if the timber industry wasn’t under the heel of the wackos at the EPA.

      Many if not most of the workers at a Costco are actually employed by a contractor. They don’t get Costco wages and benefits, so Costco can pay its own employees more.

      The workers in my nearby Wal-Mart are at least as cheerful and helpful, though not as youthful and good-looking, as the ones at my nearby Target. Maybe they haven’t been told they are slaves who can never leave.

      Ordinary shoppers like Wal-Mart, with its competitive prices and large selection. There would be many more W-M stores if shoppers had their way. Instead, their communities are run by and for the effete, the power elite and the union bosses.

      Snobbery accounts for much of the hostility toward Wal-Mart. The stores are utilitarian. Worse, everyone–the ordinary folks, the poor, the weird, the badly or hardly dressed, the tasteless, the ugly–all feel welcome at Wal-Mart. It’s all so very, very gauche.

  • avatar
    Big Al from Oz

    The additional cost of composites in commercial vehicles will pay itself off quicker than if used in private vehicles.

    That’s why aluminium has been very popular in trucks and trailers long before cars.

  • avatar
    WildcatMatt

    For an article of this type, it’d be helpful to know what a traditional semi and trailer weigh, to help contextualize the magnitude of savings.

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