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Who is looking to reinvent the 18-wheeler?

Luigi Colani and the 18-wheeler of the Future
A pair of Colani-designed Mercedes semis. The designer was able to reduce fuel consumption aboard these trucks by 30 percent.
A pair of Colani-designed Mercedes semis. The designer was able to reduce fuel consumption aboard these trucks by 30 percent.
Photo courtesy Colani

The last time gas prices were as high as in 2008 was the early 1970s. The OPEC Oil Embargo caused gas prices to skyrocket in the United States. It was then that German designer Luigi Colani first considered making a more streamlined truck that uses less gas. When gas prices soared again in 2008, Colani's ideas began to look attractive once more. Fortunately, he'd been tinkering with his designs, improving them in the course of the nearly 40 years that passed.

Colani creates what he calls biodynamic concepts [source: BusinessWeek]. He borrows heavily from the contours and rounded angles found in nature for everything from chairs to showers. He considers himself a "three-dimensional philosopher of the future," and he's created the concepts to back up such a claim [source: New York Times]. This includes his concepts for 18-wheelers.

In the face of high gas prices and the resulting driving bans, Colani turned his attention toward creating more fuel-efficient trucks. His first versions reduced fuel consumption by 25 percent [source: BusinessWeek]. 

How does one take something as lumbering as a semi and make it green? For starters, Colani applied his organic-minded designs to the exterior, making his semis more aerodynamic. With their wide, flat grilles and boxy shapes, semis are among the least aerodynamic vehicles on the road. Once a truck reaches a speed of 50 mph, aerodynamic drag -- the pressure exerted on the vehicle as it moves through air -- there's an increased need for power to keep the truck moving at a steady pace [source: Cummins]. Colani added sweeping contours and lines to his semi designs, giving them a futuristic look and reducing wind-resistance.

He also got under the hood to tinker with the engine. He improved upon a 2005 Mercedes-Benz semi by adding a direct-injection, turbo-charged diesel engine to the vehicle. The result? It had almost 150 more horsepower than the original engine and consumed 30 percent less fuel [source: Discovery].

Still, he remained unsatisfied. In 2007, Colani and Siemens collaborated on a new truck. This semi is perhaps more appropriately referred to as a cockpit: The enclosed space is raised above the semi's frame and holds one person. What's more, the truck lacks a steering wheel -- it's driven entirely with a single joystick. The whole semi resembles the head and beak of a predatory bird in flight. With this incarnation, Colani's design managed to reduce fuel consumption by 50 percent [source: Discovery]. That reduction comes exclusively from exterior aerodynamic changes, without any modifications to the engine.

So why don't we see Colani's designs in use by truckers on roads around the globe? Perhaps the biggest obstacle is cost. Colani's Siemens concept truck cost $1 million to construct. Mass-produced trucks are slightly less expensive. For example, a new 2007 International 9900 semi sells for around $100,000 [source: Commercial Truck Trader]. Getting that cost down to a marketable price will require a major semi manufacturer to mass-produce the truck. While Colani is an independent designer, this wouldn't be the first time one of his concepts was embraced by a car company. His designs have been built by the likes of Ferrari and Dodge. Perhaps with fuel prices getting higher and truckers striking, a name like Peterbilt or Mack will be added to that list in the future.

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