Who is looking to reinvent the 18-wheeler?

Truckers in the Netherlands protest high fuel prices by generating traffic congestion in June 2008. See more truck pictures.
Koen Syuk/AFP/­Getty Images

Ah, the life of a long-haul trucker -- there's nothing like it. It's just you and the open road: The occasional crackle of the radio cuts through the quiet hum of the highway as it passes beneath your wheels. It's a life of freedom; truckers get to dine out every day and see the world from its scenic byways.

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Truckers may live a free life, but they're also part of a major industry -- and a vital one at that. Transportation is linked to every aspect of the global economy. Everything from the clothes you're wearing to the food in your refrigerator likely spent some time aboard a semi between the time the item was made and the time it was purchased.


Since trucking's a business, truck line owners have to keep their profits high and their overhead low. And perhaps no other factor in the trucking business takes as big a bite out of truckers' profits as gas prices: When fuel costs rise, trucking profits decrease. In Europe in May 2008, diesel fuel topped $11 per gallon, 40 percent more than the previous year [source: Time]. Independent truckers and small outfits were in danger of bankruptcy from the high prices, and as a result, truckers across Spain, Portugal and other parts of Europe staged strikes.

These strikes had a ripple effect throughout the economies of the interdependent Western European nations. Auto manufacturers closed plants since they had no parts with which to build cars. Grocery store shelves ran dry as food supplies dwindled [source: AP]. Truckers showed how integral their role is in keeping economies thriving by effectively crippling the economies for a five-day period in the spring of 2008.

While governments are seeking ways to lower the cost of gas, there's at least one person looking at the problem from a different angle. Instead of attempting to decrease fuel prices, why not just make semis that consume less fuel?

So who's looking to reinvent the 18-wheeler? Find out on the next page.



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.
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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  • Crumley, Bruce. "Think gas is high? Try Europe." Time. May 28, 2008. http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1809900,00.html
  • Filipponio, Frank. "Radical semis by Luigi Colani." Autoblog. January 2, 2007. http://www.autoblog.com/2007/01/02/radical-semis-by-luigi-colani/
  • Patterson, Brett. "Luigi Colani: Translating Nature." BusinessWeek. June 15, 2007. http://www.businessweek.com/innovate/content/jun2007/id20070615_093998.htm
  • Patton, Phil. "Colani's concepts make concept cars look tame." New York Times. March 4, 2007. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/03/04/automobiles/04COLANI.html
  • "Cummins reveals secrets to great mpg." Cummins.
  • "Future Car: The Extremes." Discovery Channel. February 7, 2007.
  • "Merchants say Spain returning to normal on 5th day of truckers' strike." Associated Press. June 13, 2008. http://www.iht.com/articles/ap/2008/06/13/europe/EU-GEN-Spain-Fuel-Protest.php