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The Aerodynamics of Freight Shipping Blog Feature
Kevin Baxter

By: Kevin Baxter on May 20th, 2022

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The Aerodynamics of Freight Shipping

Logistics & Supply Chain

Those involved in the freight shipping and logistics process have a need for speed - not just any speed, but efficient speed as fuel usage comes under stricter scrutiny. One way carriers are working to achieve this is to emphasize aerodynamics advances in their freight shipping modes. While it may seem as if semi trucks and railroad cars haven't changed much in their design over the years, that's not entirely true. But most of those fancy, futuristic-looking concepts have yet to reach the road. Still, with fuel accounting for the second largest cost center for trucking companies, and a significant one for railroads as well, maximizing fuel efficiency through aerodynamics is a growing area of focus in freight shipping. And often, the best way to get there is by making incremental tweaks to vehicles and containers already in operation.

How can semi-trucks be more aerodynamic?

Short of a hefty investment in a new aerodynamically optimized fleet, carriers have some options to make their existing semi-trucks more aerodynamic. Just making some tweaks to setup and accessories can have a positive impact on drag reduction, thus increasing fuel efficiency. A few of the most recommended modifications are:

Covering the gap between the cab and trailer - The open-air area - especially when it's 18 inches-plus can be a haven for air resistance. Devices are available to narrow the gap - saving roughly 2% on fuel - or even cover it altogether, reducing aerodynamic drag by 6%.

Using side skirts - Side skirts reduce the air underneath trailers, with manufacturers of these devices reporting 4-7% fuel savings.

Growing a tail - Well, not literally. But a device called a boat tail may save 6% or more on fuel for trucks going more than 65 miles per hour.

Mud flaps - Though this benefit seems less substantial on the drag reduction front, some mud flaps are designed with aerodynamic benefits.

Making these adjustments to a fleet can add up to fuel savings, and especially when gas prices are high, the investment is probably worth it. As noted above, there are also new truck designs - and electric options in development - that save even more substantially on gas. But there is a greater up front cost associated with these.

Freight train aerodynamics

Freight trains are more efficient than trucks already, with the oft-shared figure that they're able to move a ton of freight 450 miles on one gallon of fuel. And aerodynamics do play a part. Carriers like Union Pacific have dedicated departments to test and suggest adjustments that can reduce drag and enhance fuel economy.  Labs at universities and governments also dedicate effort to optimizing freight train aerodynamics. Similar factors go into play, like reducing gaps that can obstruct air flow, determining optimal speeds, tweaking container and car designs to remove unnecessary elements, and more. And just like trucks, there are new technologies not widely implemented just yet that could lead to further improvements.

If you're in the market for a new fleet, or you've already made improvements, or you're a shipper or freight broker working with more efficient transport, check out SmartWay certification. You can either get certified yourselves - like us - or find vehicles and partners that are. Want help with efficient freight movement? Tell us a bit about yourself and we'll follow up to talk solutions tailor-made for your business. 

Learn more about freight and logistics - and what we do at InTek - in our Learning Center. Or you can start with a few of the links below: 

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