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Transform Your Truck Into a Fuel-Saving Transformer

Learn how Truck Wings, an intelligent tractor-mounted active aerodynamic device is helping fleets save fuel.

Episode 272: What if you could lower your fleet’s total cost of operation while also meeting sustainability commitments? Get ready to discover the innovative product revolutionizing the trucking industry in our conversation with Andrew Kelly, VP of Products at Truck Labs.

Together, we tackle the challenges fleets face in 2023 as they strive to balance their bottom line with eco-friendly practices, all while navigating the complexities of diesel prices and politically driven mandates.

Andrew Kelly is VP of Products at TruckLabs. In this episode, learn how Truck Wings, an intelligent tractor-mounted active aerodynamic device is helping fleets turn into a fuel-saving transformer.


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Transcript of Episode

Jamie Irvine:

You are listening to The Heavy Duty Parts Report. I’m your host, Jamie Irvine, and this is the place where we have conversations that empower heavy-duty people

When it comes to lowering total cost of operation, nothing goes faster to the bottom line than reducing fuel consumption for commercial fleets. In today’s episode, we’re going to talk about a innovative new product that’s on the market that is going to have a significant impact on fleet’s total cost of operation, and is going to help them to reduce their fuel consumption.

My guest today is Andrew Kelly, VP of Products at Truck Labs. Now at Truck Labs, they are bringing connected hardware to the trucking industry, and Andrew was a former body and aerodynamics design engineer at Honda, and he is a fellow who has way too many cars in his garage for his own good.

He’s got too many projects on the go, and he was formally educated getting a Bachelor’s of Science and a Master’s of Science in mechanical engineering from the Johns Hopkins University. So he is a man that I am very interested in talking to find out what Truck Labs is up to and how they are lowering the total cost of operation. Andrew, welcome to The Heavy Duty Parts Report. So glad to have you here.

Andrew Kelly:

Thank you so much, Jamie.

Jamie Irvine:

All right, so first of all, let’s start our conversation. It’s 2023. We’re recording today, it’s just the beginning of June. By the time this airs will probably be about a month from now, but what are the trends in 2023 and how are they impacting trucking fleets in America?

Andrew Kelly:

Absolutely. Well, I think given the rollercoaster ride of diesel prices and prices of everything truly in the past year, year and a half, I think fleets are really looking towards areas they can build resilience to these trends and how do you protect that? Bottom line I think is always the number one goal for many of the fleets that we work with. But there are competing interests now as well in the political climate, mainly focused on climate initiatives and sustainability.

That’s a large conversation that we weren’t really having with fleets three, four years ago. So now as we work our product in the market, we’re really seeing fleets struggling to balance how do they make this commitment to sustainability while managing that bottom line and total cost of ownership. And that’s probably most relevant in electrification and that is really taking a lot of the air out of the room in fleet equipment conversations. Rightfully so.

It’s a major transition here in the industry and here at Truck Labs we’re really looking at ways to help bolster that transition. There’s not going to be a one size fits all for the equipment of tomorrow. So we’re really looking at ways from data side connected hardware to drive efficiency in the market or improve that bottom line and drive efficiency in the equipment that they already own.

Jamie Irvine:

There’s a lot there to unpack. Let’s just talk about inflation for a minute. People don’t always understand the connection between inflationary pressure at the trucking level and how that impacts prices. So for example, last night I went down to the grocery store, I brought home one bag with three items, it was $28. Now that is directly, and I guess it’s an indirect, but it’s a direct impact to every person’s bottom line. When the cost of operating a fleet goes up, the delivery costs go up, therefore the people who resell the product have to sell it at a higher rate. And it just is this vicious cycle that impacts everybody.

Andrew Kelly:

And I think our fleets, fleets are definitely feeling that when you get caught in the middle of those economic pressures and fluctuations, it’s impossible to react immediately. Resetting prices, if you’re a competitor, is just a little bit later on adjusting their rates up, you may lose that business. So it’s really difficult for fleets to time these swings appropriately.

And I’ve found that a lot of them are looking to make investments that again, help them mitigate some of that exposure so that they could cut a rate, allows ’em to maintain that business, but due to efficiencies with their own organization and their own operations, they don’t have to play that squeeze every single time.

Jamie Irvine:

And you talk about politically driven mandates for the trucking industry, and the way I see it is in some respects we have progressives really pushing for a better future that is more sustainable, that will provide us with an environment where humans can be better integrated into our own environment and do things in a way that doesn’t cause adverse effects to humankind.

On the flip side, more pragmatic, realistic people say, while the ideal of what you’re putting forward sounds really good on the surface, there are harsh realities to technology, there’s limits to technology, there is certain things like you have to be able to go certain distances and pull certain weights and do so safely. And not every solution being pushed on the more progressive side of the political spectrum is really that technology isn’t developed to a point where it’s practical yet. So one of the biggest things I hear fleets say is, yes, we love to go there but we physically can’t.

Like there’s just limitations to the technology today that prevent us. And so these mandates are kind of tricky because you push too hard and you could have a economic collapse that could actually create more devastation. And of course we know when economic times turn bad, the very poor people that usually the progressives are trying to protect and trying to raise up are the ones who are affected the most adversely first.

So when I look at that whole thing, it is such a minefield and it it’s filled and it’s so charged, like it’s not just politically charged, but it’s emotionally charged for people. When you talk to fleets, you mentioned that they’re looking at these issues and they’re trying to find solutions. What’s been the general tone of the conversation with those fleets as you’ve talked to them?

Andrew Kelly:

Yeah, I think to talk about this as a charged topic is absolutely true. We’ve been to some trade shows recently, and I mean it is standing room only in the electrification sessions. I’ve never seen that before about any topic. So the passion is absolutely there because I think it strikes so many core beliefs really in the conversation. As an engineer and a person in product, I love sitting in the middle of both of those sides.

There are absolutely truths to each argument. And as an engineer, we’re here to bridge that gap and connect those two sides through those practical and bite-sized improvements that we can do. In terms of electrification and fleets. I’ll give a shout out to the North American Council for Freight Efficiency. NACFE, they are doing a great job right now on part of their run on Less campaign, which they’ve been doing for many years now focused on electrification, and they’re doing a series, I think it’s 10 or so webinars, walking through fleets on these very specific topics.

And I think the best thing that fleets can be doing right now is understand that kind of bite size adoption. Looking at your regional haul, looking at those runs less than 300 miles, which NACFE would say today about 50% of regional haul routes could be electrified with today’s first generation technology. And if we had no adopters of that technology, and I know this as someone that’s made our product better through feedback, we won’t get to that point where full adoption, that progressive push can be achievable. We need the learnings, we need the development.

We need the R&D time and money behind the R&D to make those realities possible. So I think fleets definitely need to be in a learning stage right now and recognizing that maybe it doesn’t have to be an all or nothing and they can start scaling and adopting that technology, listening to the experts that are really working for the fleets to make that possible in the near term.

Jamie Irvine:

Yeah, I never thought I’d live in a time when just putting forth common sense arguments somehow threw you out of both political camps. Crazy.

Andrew Kelly:

It’s a scary place to live.

Jamie Irvine:

Yeah. And it’s just an interesting thing. I like the point that you made about approaching this in a modular fashion, approaching this by vocation, common sense, application of technology, and also the deployment of technology in a responsible way so that we can mitigate unintended consequences because that is something that I am actually more worried about than anything.

It’s like if we pull out all the stops to electrify the entire global fleet, the unintended consequences on the environment on places like Africa and the mines where the precious metals come from, places like South America, we might be able to accomplish something here in North America, but at what cost elsewhere in the world. And so there’s unintended consequences attached to electrification that have to be addressed. There’s also the things that we can’t see yet that they’re going to maybe potentially positively impact the industry on one side, but negatively impact it on the other.

So these are things that are happening right now. These are conversations. I agree with you when I’ve been at the trade shows too, it is incredible to see the engagement. And one of the sentiments that I’ve heard regularly in the last, let’s say three months, is yes, we need a big focus on this, but we can’t abandon the operation of our ICE vehicles and we still have needs with them. So after the break, we’re going to get back, we’re going to talk about some of the things that your company is doing to help fleets today. I look forward to having that conversation. We’ll hear from our sponsors. We’ll be right back.

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Jamie Irvine:

We’re back from our break and before the break, Andrew, I really appreciate you having an open, honest and candid conversation. I think you and I are probably very aligned in our thinking where we’re trying to find that common sense middle ground when it comes to the adoption of new technology in the trucking industry. Could you tell our audience a little more about what Truck Labs actually does and what product are you here to talk about today?

Andrew Kelly:

Absolutely. So Truck Labs is a R&D focused company based in Phoenix and found in 2015 by our founder Daniel Burrows. Daniel was really focused primarily on this one problem, this one inefficiency in North American trucking. That is really the last area of aerodynamic focus to really be picked apart in class A trucking. And that is the tractor trailer gap.

Now Daniel is British and maybe it took someone growing up with lorries and cab overs to come to the US and realize, wait a minute, this gap, this gap doesn’t make sense. And it is really a unique challenge to the way that our tractor trailer class eight have progressed over the years. So in the US we’ve estimated that that gap alone is costing fleets nearly $3 billion in wasted fuel and on the emissions front, 5.6 million metric tons of CO2 emissions. And that’s just due to the aerodynamic inefficiencies of over the road trucking and coming from the tractor trailer gap.

So we know that gap has to exist in the US with our very generous length limits. Tractor lengths have grown and grown OEMs have done what they can to make their cab extenders longer. That’s been built into the styling, but it’s also introduced to compromise. So that compromise is making those side extenders longer means they’re more expensive, means you’ve reduced your clearance to the trailer in every condition.

So around town, around the yard. And that’s really driven up cost of ownership for fleets. When you turn in into a yard and have that trailer contact, now the truck is down, you’re waiting on parts, body shop, just a whole host of problems because the OEMs are trying to make that compromised solution.

Jamie Irvine:

So for those that are watching, they’ll be able to see visuals of your product. But for those that are just listening right now, describe how the product works. What does it look like? How does it operate on the vehicle?

Andrew Kelly:

Absolutely. So our product Truck Wings is a intelligent tractor mounted active aerodynamic device. So this means our system bolts up to the back of a tractor’s cab or in alternative fuel systems onto the CNG fuel system itself. And what our system does is automatically opens two side panels and a top panel assembly kind of folds out like a origami shape and at highway speeds, that system will deploy above 52 miles an hour and automatically close that gap.

And it’s really critical from a aerodynamic standpoint to close both the sides and the top. So at this point we’ve streamlined the tractor to trailer transition, we can get within about four inches of the trailer itself. So we’re extending that back of cab by 48 inches to the trailing edge of the truck wings. And that’s nearly double even the longest side extenders in the market today.

So when we fully close out that system at all speeds above 52 miles an hour, we talk a little bit more about day cabs and sleepers and the effects on each, but on average about 3 to 5% fuel savings from 7 to 8% drag reduction. And that’s based on just normal on-road operation.

Jamie Irvine:

Yeah, one of the issues with the aerodynamics that are static is like if you have an application where you’re on the highway all the time, it’s great, but if you’re doing a bunch of different things with this work truck, then you don’t necessarily are able to get the benefit of it. So I love the idea that when it’s applicable and it actually will work, it deploys and when it doesn’t, it’s retracted. Now obviously, like you said, operating in a yard, operating at lower speeds, this retracted device then doesn’t compromise or reduce the maneuverability of the truck. I got that right?

Andrew Kelly:

Exactly. It’s packaged, it folds completely flat right up against the back of cab. So you’re within the protected envelope of that trailer sweep. And I should also mention, of course that it is, it’s fully automatic. So we have that smart hardware cloud connected telematics device that’s plugged into the vehicles through the standard RP 1226 connection. So very much plug and play on that side. And then we also have a sensor that reads the position to the trailer.

So it makes sure that you have adequate clearance behind the cab and that you’re not bobtailing so that we are always in the right mode and that takes the driver out of the equation completely. And that’s an area where a lot of dynamic aerodynamic devices in the past have kind of failed the market because it wasn’t fully automated.

They may have presented great aerodynamic benefit, but since that was not in the drivers’ day-to-day jobs, a lot of those aerodynamic devices just weren’t fully utilized. So it was really critical from day one for us to make sure that this was an automated device. So you you’d be maximizing your investment without depending on the driver.

Jamie Irvine:

Now is this something that you only can spec new or can you retrofit older vehicles? And if yes to the retrofit, how far back can you go?

Andrew Kelly:

Absolutely. So operating in the aftermarket, we knew that we had to have a design that was cross compatible from a Peterbilt 579 day cab to a Cascadia sleeper. And about 90% of our system is actually common between all of the makes and models on the market today. All we’re doing is going to adapt our kind of core system with cab bracket geometry that’s custom designed for each of those cab types. And we’re available today on all the major manufacturers and models with their most aerodynamic kind of configuration.

In terms of installation, install time is about two hours per system. It comes fully preassembled, so it’s all just a matter of mounting and lifting it to the back of cab. We do offer installation from new at all of the major modification centers, so many feet fleets like to take delivery with truck wings already installed. We do offer retrofits. That’s when we’re typically approaching a fleet to do a pilot and a small limited rollout.

We’ll go right to the site and install those in their yard. And in terms of retrofits, we’re mostly compatible I would say back to depending on the model and when they’ve done minor model changes. 2018, 2017 models typically are still relevant today, but we focus on as new models come out, we’re always updating our cab geometry to be fully compatible.

Jamie Irvine:

And what about maintenance and repair and service after the fact? So what kind of support do you offer your customers?

Andrew Kelly:

Absolutely. So service and cost of ownership is absolutely paramount here. We actually moved the service and installation team under my purview and product as a way to really tie in what the customers were saying directly into the products design. Sometimes you’ll find someone in the shop or driver may be more comfortable kind of sharing the good, bad and the ugly with our technicians and installers than maybe at the sales level.

So it was always really critical that we had that direct line of communication. So our service program has been built out to fully support this here in the aftermarket. We have a customer success team that is working to introduce fleets with all of our literature troubleshooting and repair guides, parts catalogs, recommended on hand inventory, parts, pricing and lead times. So we’re really putting everything into the hands of the fleets from day one.

In terms of PMI, we are looking at a roughly annual bushing maintenance. There’s some small engineered bushings that go into the main hinge points, and that’s really the only kind of main wear item on the system. Other than that, we’ve worked on this unit, we’ve put it through a million mile shaker test, and that was really to make sure that we had no critical safety concerns over the lifetime plus of that vehicle.

And in that we were able to identify only those concerns being things that are easily addressed in a PMI type of schedule. And this of course is on the back of 650 million road miles that our product has seen with real customers, and we do about 5 million miles a week. And you can imagine that’s quite a bit of learning that we’ve gotten and been able to put back into the system.

Jamie Irvine:

How are fleets able to mitigate the different weather conditions? So let’s say in the wintertime, snow, ice build up, things like that. Is that just keeping the truck washed and clean or did you run into any issues there?

Andrew Kelly:

We have a handful of trucks up in Canada that are pretty much running coast to coast. There was a lot of great information there and they’ve been performing great. I think they’re entering their third, yeah, they finished their third winter up there. The sensor suite for example, is all IP hardened, so that’s a very standard rating for water and dust intrusion. So all of that sensor suite is hardened. The position to the trailer is unaffected by different kinds of weather conditions and low temperatures as well.

All of our hinges we’ve done like ice break free tests where we will freeze all of the hinges, spray water on them, freeze them, and demonstrate that the actuators also working at that low temperature are able to still force open and close the system. So we’ve really put from a lab standpoint, but also of course, onroad testing and validation to ensure that you really have the resiliency as far north and as far west as we can go.

Jamie Irvine:

Yeah. When we talk about fleets, that’s a very all-encompassing word. Tell me who your ideal customer is and tell us a story of one of your real customers that have had success. What kind of an economic impact did it have on their operations?

Andrew Kelly:

Absolutely. So yeah, I think I’d always like to say more fleets probably than they realize can benefit from aerodynamics. Many conversations start with, oh, my average speed is 47 miles an hour. So more than half the time these truck wings won’t deploy. And what we’ll typically do is say, okay, we hear you take one of our telematics and run for a few weeks and we’re going to look at kind of a histogram plot of your actual miles and fuel consumed above 50.

And it’s kind of a misconception when you hear that average speed, but when we break out miles spent above 50 miles an hour, fuel consumed above 50 miles an hour, you still could have 70, 80, even 90% applicable deployable miles where that average still pencils out to 47 miles an hour.

So it’s a math game there that we can really then first we get over that hurdle with fleets to say, actually, based on your operations, you know, may be doing some deliveries, but you got to get to those deliveries. So that is still a big area, a misconception hurdle to get over with fleets, but once we demonstrate the applicable miles and the percent of their fuel bill that Truck Wings could help attack, we get really good traction there.

Jamie Irvine:

So do you have the ability to take that telematics data and then put it through a regression analysis and with the AI be able to project based on the data set that you’re building on those 5 million miles a week so that you can then project out what their gains would be? Is it kind of something along those lines?

Andrew Kelly:

Absolutely. Pilots are very expensive. They’re time consuming. They take their distraction to the fleet from their day-to-day operations. And we’ve done so many pilots, we have so much kind of on-road data that that’s exactly what we do. So let’s say we’re looking at a LTL or parcel fleet, we’ve also had a lot of success with private truckload and leasing companies that serve them. We’ll come in, we’ll say, okay, you’re look at your equipment profile, you are day cabs, tandem axle, we’re going to be looking at the 4% Truck Wings fuel savings value there.

Then whether it’s telematics we have in their devices or taking it from their existing telematics, we can look at their annual mile adjustment and help build that profile even with average fuel economy and average diesel cost. And we’ll do a full projection with them. So we’re utilizing the data we have, we take their data, and very early on in the sales process, we’re walking through what that impact could mean for them.

Jamie Irvine:

And do you come back six months later and say, look, this is what we projected and now based on what your telematics are currently saying, here’s the like, is it, it’s 99.4% accurate to the projection? How does that part after the sale happen?

Andrew Kelly:

Yeah, telemetry has been, we really primarily use it for two things. One is to ensure uptime. So when we have an opportunity where the truck wings could be open and they’re not open, that’s something we can share directly with the fleet.

But it’s also for those quarterly business reviews where we’re doing exactly that, it’s showing the value. It’s a very unique product, especially on for those looking for that sustainability edge and investment where we can show your true return based on the utilization of your Wings on your equipment. So we demonstrate, we show total dollars saved total fuel, saved total CO2 saved based on actual road miles.

If the Truck Wings are not deployed for whatever reason, maintenance a driver overrides the system that is reported as well. So this isn’t a guesstimate, it’s really tied to the actual on-road data. And then in terms of what that savings amount is that’s built up on either their own pilot data or that kind of data science profile that we’ve built based on their equipment, their routes, etc.

Jamie Irvine:

So a large section of our audience is salespeople that sell parts, they sell service, they’re out on the road, so they’re listening to the show while they’re got that windshield time. If they are wanting to introduce your product to the fleets that they service every day, how is it best for them to introduce your company and get that initial conversation going and how are you going to create a mutually beneficial business arrangement with that scenario?

Andrew Kelly:

I would say we’re always looking to expand the market of Truck Wings and working with dealer networks and sales networks is no mystery to us. It’s very important to be able to have that reach to those corners of the market that our salespeople don’t see every day. Our system of onboarding and making sure we’re specing the right product is really well refined with pretty much a glance of a customer spec sheet.

We can give you a part number and a kind of plan of attack for that Truck Wing system. As I mentioned, we do offer retrofits. So if this is a customer that has equipment today, we’d love to get a feel for the system, understand how it’s going to work within their maintenance profile. That’s something that we can spool up very quickly and then moving to a larger order, we can always work directly with the modification centers and the sales folks on that arrangement.

I mean, some of these deals are involve six, seven parties. It’s quite complicated, but we’re very good at working within that kind of chaos to get these orders out. And then in terms of options for affiliates, definitely something that we have offered in the past. Working with one leasing company in particular, we have that kind of sales network set up to make sure that it’s beneficial for everybody and for the customer.

Particularly in equipment like this, they’ll be ahead from day one. So for a leasing companies where that’s built into the price of the tractor and into those lease payments from the customer, their fuel savings will outpace that payment on the Truck Wings almost immediately. So it’s really beneficial to work that kind of model with these leasing and logistics companies to benefit everyone down the line.

Jamie Irvine:

My name is Jamie Irvine. You’ve been listening to The Heavy Duty Parts Report. I’ve been talking with Andrew Kelly, VP of Products at Truck Labs. To learn more about this innovative product, go to trucklabs.com. Links will be in the show notes. Andrew, thank you so much for taking time today to talk to us at The Heavy Duty Parts Report. We are very excited about getting the word out about what Truck Labs is doing and anything that saves fleet’s money is something worth a little bit of time and attention. So thanks for being on the show.

Andrew Kelly:

For sure. Thank you so much.

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