The birth of a concept truck: Designing outside the box

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Updated Jul 25, 2014

When it comes to concept trucks, Peterbilt’s Walmart Advanced Vehicle Experience (WAVE) truck is in a class by itself. Unlike Navistar’s Horizon and Freightliner’s Revolution, which at least had the skeletal structure of a heavy-duty production truck, Peterbilt’s WAVE is a concept in every definition of the word.

Designed and built in collaboration with the world’s largest retailer and trailer manufacturer Great Dane, WAVE features an aggressive teardrop design, and is powered by a fuel-neutral turbine engine that can run on diesel, gasoline, natural gas, DME, hydrogen and other biofuels.

The truck won’t be track tested until the summer, so fuel economy data hasn’t been produced yet. However, the truck and trailer were designed to improve aerodynamics by 20 percent over conventional models.

Bill Kahn, manager of advanced concepts with Peterbilt, says the WAVE truck was the company’s attempt to find significant efficiency gains in an area where the low hanging fruit has long-since been harvested. Realizing that significant gains weren’t going to come from simple tweaks in aero-design, Kahn’s team set out to design a new model from the ground up.

“We really wanted to come out and see what it would take to get a double-digit gain in fuel efficiency,” he says, “and what would that look like?”

Walmart and Peterbilt wanted an advanced powertrain but concluded, efficiency-wise, a standard diesel engine had been pushed about as far as it could go.

Finding an alternative power source also came with unanticipated benefits, which allowed Peterbilt designers to completely reinvent the look of the tractor.

“We looked at things like turbines, two-stroke diesels…” he says of their search for an engine. “One of the first things you see when you use a turbine engine is that you don’t need a radiator anymore…you don’t need coolant. That allowed us to drastically change the shape of the vehicle.”

Walmart is traditionally uses single drivers versus teams, which relegates the passenger seat to a storage area. That presented Kahn’s team with another opportunity.

“We just said let’s take that out, save that weight and move the driver into the middle,” he says. “By aligning those two entities (a center-mounted driver seat and eliminating the radiator) we were able to come up with a pretty aggressive shape on the front of the vehicle.”

Elizabeth Fretheim, director of business strategy sustainability in Walmart’s logistics unit, says the WAVE project began taking shape about four years ago. The truck was rendered full-size in clay and Styrofoam – a process that took upwards of three months – and those efforts gave birth to a trailer body made almost entirely of carbon fiber, cutting the weight by about 4,000 pounds.

The truck’s cab was also placed over the engine, shortening its wheelbase and further reducing weight. However, a truck shape that no one had ever seen before coupled with a powertrain no one had ever used before presented a challenge for Kahn’s team. 

“We had come up with an exponentially challenging truck to build,” he says of the three-year design and development program.

“When you go to a powertrain that doesn’t have a front engine takeoff to power things like power steering, air brakes and the air conditioning compressor, you have to develop electrified versions of those units.”

Peterbilt unveiled WAVE at the Mid-America Trucking Show in Louisville, Ky., this year to mostly positive reviews.

“You’d get the hardcore Peterbilt drivers who would say, ‘I’d never drive it.’ And I’d say, ‘Yeah, but your grandkids would,” Kahn says.

Other truck drivers who could appreciate the innovative nature of the look and ideas behind it told Kahn the truck could also be a powerful recruitment tool for Walmart.

“(Some said) ‘I’d like to work for Walmart if I could drive that truck.’”