Michael Gerdin admits he wasn't convinced right away.
But with diesel fuel selling for around $4 a gallon, Eastern Iowa trucking companies and their counterparts nationwide have been trying a variety of strategies to reduce fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.
America's 2.2 million freight trucks get about six miles per gallon on average hauling cargo. As truck manufacturers installed equipment to reduce air pollution in recent years, equipment prices rose and fuel mileage actually slipped lower.
That trend is slowly reversing as the industry works to boost fuel economy by improving the aerodynamics of its trucks and 53-foot trailers. And with the typical rig racking up 4,000 miles a week, incremental fuel savings adds up quickly.
Heartland Express in North Liberty has installed side skirts under all its trailer fleet to reduce aerodynamic drag caused by air hitting the rear axles. Aerodynamic drag can account for as much as 65 percent of the fuel consumed by a tractor trailer rig.
"I was really skeptical at first whether the skirts would help us save any money on fuel," said Gerdin, chairman and chief executive officer of Heartland Express. "We initially put them on our Phoenix fleet, which goes into California just about every day, to comply with the law in that state.
"The California Air Resources Board (CARB) requires any trailer coming into the state or traveling within California to have the side skirts or similar devices installed as well as using low rolling resistance tires. After having the side skirts on the trailers for a period of time and doing some tests, we determined they were saving us money on fuel."
As fuel costs rise, Gerdin said the time required to achieve payback on the purchase of the skirts is reduced. With $4 per gallon fuel, he said the payback time is about 18 months.
Gerdin said Heartland Express also has equipped its tractors with side skirts or fairings to improve aerodynamcs and reduce drag. He said the company also is testing some wheel covers to determine whether they will achieve enough fuel savings to justify cost.
"We're not yet in a buying mode because we like to test them for a good period of time," Gerdin said. "All of these things add to the cost of the truck, so you really have to judge your payback."
Cameron Holzer, president of CRST Expedited, said the Cedar Rapids company is restricting the speed of its trucks to a maximum of 65 miles per hour to reduce fuel costs.
CRST Expedited, which has equipped its trucks with side fairings that cover the fuel tank, also is installing either side skirts or SmartTruck UT-1 under tray systems on all its trailer fleet to improve aerodynamics.
Holzer said the smaller, lighter under tray system, which also is approved for CARB compliance, speeds the air up and deflects it under the rear axles.
"This gives us a 5.5 percent improvement in fuel economy because we're also reducing the vacuum or low pressure envelope that exists at the back of the trailer," Holzer said. "We have a deflector on the roof of the trailer that actually brings the air down.
"When you pull up behind a trailer on the highway, it feels like you don't have to drive as fast because there's a vacuum that's pulling you along. We are filling that void, stabilizing the trailer, making it safer for the driving public, and also reducing our carbon footprint by saving on fuel."
Holzer said CRST Expedited is testing 14 of Freightliner's 2014 Cascadia Evolution trucks as it prepares to replace its tractor fleet. The trucks, which will cost about $5,000 more than the previous Freightliner model, have been designed with a variety of aerodynamic-enhancing features.
"It starts at the front of the truck with a bumper filler that reduces high-velocity air entering the engine compartment and creating drag," Holzer said. "Sealing improvements channel the air around the windshield. The driver- and passenger-side main mirrors have an airfoil shape and profile that minimize drag.
"Twenty-inch side extender pieces reduce the space between the truck and the trailer as well as channeling the air around the trailer. If you stand in front of the truck, you can't see the trailer because of the outward curve of the extender pieces."
Holzer said the fuel economy with Freightliner Evolution is 5 percent better than the trucks CRST currently has in its fleet. That's been achieved with 3 percent from improved aerodynamics, including filling in gaps along the sides of the truck, and 2 percent from changes in engine design.
While improvements to truck design and aerodynamics are important, Gerdin said Heartland Express also has made changes involving the operation of its truck/trailer fleet to reduce fuel consumption.
"You don't see a lot of trucks speeding anymore because it's just too expansive for a company like us," Gerdin said. "We govern all our trucks at 64 miles per hour, so that's as fast as they can go.
"Even the independent owner-operators are reducing their speed because they just can't take the hit on fuel."
Holzer said CRST and other trucking companies are finally recovering some of the costs associated with purchasing equipment that has reduced greenhouse gases and air pollution.
"Since 2002, when the emission controls really started kicking in, we have seen the cost of tractors increase 40 percent," Holzer said. "That's a huge amount of capital investment. We've had to achieve some significant gains in fuel mileage to pay some of that back."
George Grask, owner and president of Cedar Rapids Truck Center, said the trucking industry eventually may move away from diesel engines to those fueled by compressed natural gas (CNG) or liquified natural gas (LNG).
"There is no infrastructure for either CNG or LNG at the present time, but the infrastructure will come," Grask said. "Once it starts, it will pick up more momentum as it moves forward.
"No one wants to be left at the starting gate."
Gerdin said existing CNG- and LNG-fueled engines are capable of hauling inner-city cargo such as beer and soft drinks, but they are unable to haul trailers loaded with 18,000 pounds of cargo over the mountains in western states.
"There's also the issue of how long it will take to fill up," Gerdin said. "It takes about 45 minutes to fill a tank with CNG, so if you're fourth or fifth in line, you could be sitting there most of the day."
Interactive: How to reduce fuel consumption