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Designing the Semi-Truck of the Future

Chris Ito
By Chris Ito Director, Industrial Design, Navistar

An emerging design revolution is profoundly affecting the look and feel of one of the most iconic manufactured products on the American scene – the semi-truck.

Few products have more economic importance than commercial trucks, which carry approximately 70 percent of the goods delivered in the United States. Yet until recently, few products have evolved as slowly – in both technology and design.

For generations, Americans’ image of a premium semi-truck is that of a large, square, upright vehicle with polished, exposed fuel tanks and chrome-plated exhaust stacks. But that traditional approach is about to change. Both the inside and outside of commercial trucks are rapidly evolving.

One major reason is that disruptive technologies, including automation, connectivity and electrification, are offering new opportunities to increase trucks’ uptime, improve fuel efficiency and reduce the total cost of ownership. Also driving change are advances in computational fluid dynamics and other tools for improving vehicles’ aerodynamics and fuel efficiency. Finally, truck users are constantly pursuing new “driver-centric” approaches that make driving easier and optimize drivers’ safety and productivity.

All these factors can pose challenges for truck designers who are seeking to incorporate technology advances while also maintaining a distinct visual identity – sometimes called “styling” – that supports the truck maker’s brand. Truck designers believe that a vehicle’s shape should convey a consistent message about the brand, while being appropriate for a given market segment. For example, a long-haul truck may be shaped like a bullet or aircraft in order to convey the impression of technology leadership and aerodynamics. A school bus, on the other hand, may express a more “neighborhood friendly” feel.

At Navistar Innovation & Design, we reconcile these needs through an approach that can be termed “functional aesthetics.” For example, one of the key “design language” features of most of our International trucks is a prominent “sight line” that incorporates the International diamond logo blended into the hood. This sight line is not only a distinct brand feature, but also helps the driver maintain clear awareness of the location of the front of the hood and fender to assist maneuverability.

Advanced technologies can affect the proportion and shape of the truck as well. For example, as engines become more efficient, the truck’s cooling module can be reduced in size, enabling the hood’s shape to be lowered for improved aerodynamics and visibility. With the advent of electric trucks, when the grille is no longer needed for air input to cool the engine, there will be an opportunity to develop a new “design language” specific to this technology.

Advanced technologies such as radar, lidar and digital cameras, which provide additional safety for the driver and the vehicle, will likewise affect the truck’s exterior shape and can also impact aerodynamics. Each of these technologies will also require some type of display that will influence the interior packaging.

Many technologies can deliver both improved economics and improved driver comfort. For example, automated manual transmissions can improve fuel economy while also enhancing driver legroom by removing the manual transmission shift lever between the seats.

Future interior changes will take place as the driver-centric focus continues to advance. This will include designing a comfortable environment with high-efficiency lighting, easy-to-read displays and intuitive, easy-to-reach control layouts. The cab environment will evolve to accommodate the changing job functions required of a mobile office. This will accelerate as improved truck automation transforms “truck drivers” into “logistics professionals.”

In summary, all the emerging technologies mentioned above, and future technologies yet to be determined, will continue to be integrated into the vehicle’s form and function as the Design Revolution of Semi-Trucks continues to advance.

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