Volvo marks a quarter century of aerodynamic truck design

Sept. 1, 2008
The shape of things to come in the trucking industry was established 25 years ago in June 1983, when Volvo White Truck Corporation (now known as Volvo

The shape of things to come in the trucking industry was established 25 years ago in June 1983, when Volvo White Truck Corporation (now known as Volvo Trucks North America) introduced the first aerodynamically styled heavy-duty conventional trucks.

The trucks' design integrated a number of fuel-saving features that have become commonplace today, but which were boldly different from traditional trucks in an era when diesel cost around $1 a gallon.

Volvo's 1983 focus on aerodynamics included wind-defeating devices such as a bullet-shaped, full-length roof fairing (the first to be applied to a conventional truck) with cabside extenders, fairing extenders, and trim tabs. These devices were designed to shield the front of a standard 13'-6" van trailer from the wind and to move the airflow smoothly to the trailer from the cab. These features are state of the industry even today. A white paper on aerodynamics published that year by Volvo detailed the fuel-saving advantages of reducing aerodynamic drag.

At the time when the trucks were introduced, Volvo estimated the improved aerodynamics would reduce fuel consumption by 2,200 gallons per 100,000 miles of operations. Since the vast majority of Volvo's highway trucks since then have been equipped with aerodynamic devices, Volvo's leadership has saved customers an estimated 5.6 billion gallons of diesel in the past 25 years. This equals nearly 62 million tons of CO2 that has not been released into the environment.

The trucks Volvo introduced a quarter century ago also included the original Integral Sleeper model, the first modern conventional truck to have a unified cab and sleeper compartment. The trucks included a hood that was six inches narrower and six inches lower at the front than at the cowl, to minimize wind resistance. This tapered wedge shape — considered controversial at the time — displaced wind over and around the hood for smoother airflow.

These aerodynamic attributes remain central to today's modern truck design. In fact, the trucks Volvo introduced 25 years ago complied with most of the aerodynamic requirements of today's EPA-certified SmartWay tractors. Volvo has kept that focus on aerodynamics to the present day, as nearly two-thirds of Volvo VNL sleepers produced in 2007 complied with SmartWay aerodynamic requirements.

Such groundbreaking design did not pass unnoticed by the trucking media in 1983, with one leading editor calling the sloping hood and use of fairings “the two most notable design changes” in the industry that year. Journalists also noted the positive impact aerodynamics had on driving performance.

Volvo's focus on truck aerodynamics helped the company more than double its market share during its early years in North America, and preceded competitors' initial aerodynamic models by nearly two years.