Lowering fuel consumption is a major concern for fleet operators of Class 8 trucks (tractor-trailers). One current solution is adding trailer skirts, wheel caps, nose cones, vortex generators or TrailerTails® to their trucks – all products designed to reduce aerodynamic drag.
Actasys, a New York startup, has developed a new product that promises to be a game-changer; it can improve the aerodynamic performance of a truck virtually, without changing its actual shape.
The product – a modular active flow control (AFC) device – is based on a technology developed by Boeing and Dr. Michael Amitay, professor of Aerospace Engineering and director of the Center for Flow Physics and Control at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy, N.Y.
Amitay co-founded Actasys along with Dr. David Menicovich and Dr. Daniele Gallardo, both former RPI students.
“I first came across this amazing technology while doing my Ph.D.,” says Gallardo, who now serves as Actasys’ vice president for business development. “I met Professor Amitay because my advisor was part of a team that studied the application of active flow control on wind turbines.”
“Soon after this, I met the third cofounder, Dr. David Menicovich,” continues Gallardo. “At the time, David was developing methods to use Dr. Amitay’s technology in buildings, and I was working with him to create mathematical models for understanding the interactions between tall buildings and wind.”
Focus on Reducing Fleet Fuel Costs
After attending a conference on smart buildings, the team switched gears and came up with the idea of using the technology on ground vehicles instead of buildings.
“Active flow control had been around for a while, but we were looking for an application that would significantly boost its commercialization,” says Gallardo. “After looking at different possible applications, we came across the fuel expenditure of a typical fleet operator and we knew we were on to something.”
As Gallardo explains, the key component of the technology is a set of modules composed of piezoelectric discs that oscillate back and forth. Depending on the specific frequency of the electronic signal given, the modules can create very powerful jets of air with an extremely small amount of energy. These air jets can bend incoming airflow to improve aerodynamic performance on tractor-trailers.
After building a 1:14 scaled model of a Class 8 truck and equipping it with the AFC device in several locations, the team conducted wind tunnel experiments which revealed that fuel savings between 6 percent and 18 percent were possible by using the device.
Funding and Future Plans
Early in 2014, the team received a $500,000 grant from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) and secured the exclusive use of the technology for ground vehicles through a license agreement with RPI.
“That gave us enough credibility and resources to found the company and move forward with the development,” says Gallardo. “Before we knew it, several fleet operators expressed a lot of interest in it and they are currently partnering with us for early-stage road testing.”
In addition to the NYSERDA grant, Actasys also received $500,000 from private investors for an 18-month, two-phase program. The company is currently ahead of schedule in phase one, which consists of constructing a full-scale prototype and demonstrating its functionality in a laboratory setting.
In the second phase of the program, the company will install the prototype on a tractor-trailer for extended road testing in partnership with grocery chain Price Chopper. When the testing is complete, Actasys expects to receive EPA SmartWay certification, which will verify the product’s fuel savings claims.
An additional trial program is also planned that will involve installing the product on early adopters’ tractor-trailers in mid-2015.
“After speaking with many fleet operators, it became evident that trials are a fundamental step to get to sales,” says Gallardo. “No matter how many certifications and laboratory tests you have, fleet operators always want to see the results on their own fleet.”
To find funding for the $250,000 trial program, Actasys is currently in contact with several local groups of angels and private investors. They would like to close a round in the beginning of 2015. Once the trial program is complete, the startup hopes to get to a pilot production of 500 units in 2016.
Actasys also has plans to move from a retrofit product solution to an integrated version.
“We are currently in contact with major international tractor manufacturers that expressed interest in the technology,” says Gallardo. “The goal will be to integrate the technology in the design of new vehicles, with unprecedented aerodynamic performances.”