© 2023 Innovation Trail

Clarkson University engineers help truckers reduce fuel costs

Ryan Morden
These are scale models of a device that truck drivers can add to the rear of the trailer to reduce drag and improve fuel economy.


When you ask Gene Phrampus about the cost of operating his truck, he lets out a long depressed sigh, and then lays out his financial difficulties. Specifically, his fuel costs, which range from $45,000-$50,000 a year.

That’s as much as the median household income in the United States. After all the expenses of running his truck, what’s left for him isn’t much.

“Somebody at McDonald’s [who] gets a little check every week sometimes makes more than I do,” says Phrampus.

There are generally two types of truck drivers. One group own and operate their own rigs. The other drives for a company and doesn’t need to worry about the operating cost of the rig. Phrampus is in the former group.

From Texas, he’s taking a break at a gas station near where I-81 and the Thruway intersect, just outside Syracuse. He’s been at this for nearly 30 years, and says if he could do it all over again, he'd work for a company, rather than for himself.

“You have no responsibilities. You drive the truck, you take care of the truck. You drive it from point ‘A’ to point ‘B,’” says Phrampus. “They pay for the fuel, they pay for everything else.”

Rising fuel costs

Phrampus’ rig is just one of approximately 2 million registered in the United States. All those trucks combined burn more than 132 billion gallons of gas every year. 

Enter an engineering team from Clarkson University, which developed a device to improve fuel economy for semi truck drivers.

Associate professor Ken Visser heads up the team.  He says the boxy trailers on trucks creates drag, and contributes to that fuel consumption.

“If you look at a semi-truck trailer driving down the road," he says, "it’s probably the worst aerodynamic thing that could cross your mind."

Improving air flow around the truck would make it easier for the vehicle to cut through air resistance on the highway. The end result, after a decade of research, looks like the flaps on a Chinese food take-out box, tipped on its side.

Testing the idea

Once Visser's team had conceptualized the device, they had to test it. Using giant wind tunnels, Clarkson engineers blasted scale models of semi-trucks with wind, and tested miniature versions of the device.

Once they came up with the measurements that best reduced drag on a model, the team went to Lavalley Transport, a local trucking company, who agreed to do a real world test using their prototype.

”So we built a prototype, and we put it on one of their rigs, and they drove it back and forth across the country and it showed a marked improvement in fuel mileage,” says Visser.

From lab to highway

Visser says after figuring out that the concept works, the Clarkson team found a firm to help commercialize and market the device, the California company ATDynamics. And they gave it a name: the Trailer Tail.

So far, the Trailer Tail is a hit.  ATDynamics says it's gotten an order from New Mexico for 3,500 of the devices, and says that's likely to be just the beginning. With demands for fuel efficiency rising along with oil prices, Visser estimates that truckers can save $1,500 a year on fuel costs using a Trailer Tail.

“If you charged $1,500 dollars for one of these things," Visser says, "you’d make your return on your investment in a year. Anybody would go for that. If you charged $3,000, you’d make the investment in two years, anybody would go [for] that."

Next steps

There are limitations to the device, however.  Just like there are two types of truckers, there are two types of trucks: those with doors that open like French doors, and those that open like garage doors.  The Trailer Tail only works with French door trucks.

Garage door trucks will get the Trailer Tail treatment next - the Clarkson team has gotten a second round of cash from the New York State Energy and Research Development Authority to develop that prototype.

Right now, all of the work is just for the sake of energy efficiency. No one at Clarkson is making any money on the product.  But if a couple of patents get approved, Visser and the school might be able to pick up a little cash from licensing fees.

Innovation Trail alumnus Ryan Morden is originally from Seattle. He graduated from the University of Washington with a bachelor's in journalism, minoring in political science and Scandinavian studies. Morden was Morning Edition producer and reporter at WRVO before moving over to the Innovation Trail project. Before landing at WRVO, Morden covered the Washington State legislature as a correspondent for Northwest News Network (N3), a group of nine NPR affiliates in the northwest.
Related Content