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Move over Tesla, Walmart unveils concept vehicle

Walmart had heads turning this week at the Mid-America Trucking Show where it unveiled a futuristic concept vehicle unlike anything on the road today.

The retailer has introduced engine and body modifications to its private fleet over the years in keeping with a push to conserve fuel and reduce its carbon footprint. However, the concept vehicle showcased at the truck show in Louisville, Ky., is the most dramatic undertaking yet. Dubbed the “Walmart Advanced Vehicle Experience,” the tractor-trailer combination features leading edge aerodynamics, an advanced turbine-powered range extending series hybrid powertrain, electrified auxiliary components and sophisticated control systems.

“Walmart is continually looking for innovative ways to increase our efficiencies and reduce our fleet’s emissions,” said Tracy Rosser, SVP of transportation at Walmart. “The Walmart Advanced Vehicle Experience is a bold step in transportation technologies that, although not on the road in its current form, will serve as a learning platform for the future that will accelerate our progress toward our goals.”

As tends to be the case with concept vehicle automotive manufactures unveil at car shows, elements of the futuristic designs eventually find their way to the road. That will be true in Walmart’s case as well as the company set a goal in 2005 to double its fleet efficiency by next year. As of last year, the company said it had achieved an 84% improvement in fleet efficiency over its 2005 baseline.

The company’s new truck prototype is the result of collaboration between Walmart and vendors such as Peterbilt, ROUSH, Great Dane, Capstone Turbine and many others.

“Peterbilt’s goals of producing the most fuel-efficient, aerodynamic, and lightweight trucks in the industry mirror those of Walmart,” said Landon Sproull, chief engineer at Peterbilt. “Our combined efforts help build a business case for these technologies in the future, as well as support one of our best customers.”

For example, designers used extensive computational fluid dynamics (CFD) analysis to optimize the truck’s styling. The truck’s shape represents a 20% reduction in aerodynamic drag over Walmart’s current Peterbilt Model 386. By placing the cab over the engine, the truck’s wheelbase is greatly shortened, resulting in reduced weight and better maneuverability. Walmart relied on product development supplier ROUSH to carry out the vehicle’s construction with these detailed design specifications.

“We work every day with customers from the automotive and aerospace industries, all of whom have a laser focus on maximizing efficiencies through improved aerodynamics,” said Tom Topper, ROUSH’s executive director of prototype services. “This design is revolutionary and truly world class.”

Other changes involved drive train components. The truck feature a range extending series hybrid engine that is a cross between an electric truck and a hybrid. The design redign reduces the energy storage size required for trucks to run on batteries alone. With Walmart distribution centers now located closer to metropolitan areas, transport vehicles have shorter transit times to their delivery destinations. These shorter trips reduce the vehicles’ average trip speed and create more opportunities to recover energy through regenerative braking. The generator and energy storage on the truck are scalable based on the range desired, according to the company.

The truck also features a microturbine range extender generator developed by Capstone Turbine Corporation. The company also engineered the truck’s integrated hybrid drivetrain solution. The use of a hybrid powertrain allows the turbine to remain at optimum operating revolutions per minute while the electric motor and energy storage systems handle acceleration and deceleration. A longer-range version of this powertrain would feature a larger turbine and smaller energy storage system, according to the company.

“We developed this microturbine hybrid electric drive system by assembling the best team of technology leaders in the industry,” said Steve Gillette, director of business development for Capstone. “We look forward to the day when these energy-saving features are standard offers for the market.”

The vehicle’s trailer, manufactured by Great Dane, offers fuel-saving features. The trailer body is built almost exclusively with carbon fiber, including one-piece carbon fiber panels for the roof and sidewalls, saving nearly 4,000 pounds when compared to traditional designs. The trailer’s convex nose also enhances aerodynamics while maintaining storage space inside the trailer. Other special features of the trailer include special low-amperage LED lighting strips, composite trailer skirts, aerodynamic disc wheel coverings, a Posi-lift suspension, and a one-piece, fiberglass-reinforced floor panel with a 16,000 pound forklift rating.

“This road-ready prototype trailer is a bold step in transportation technologies,” said Adam Hill, vp of product and sales engineering at Great Dane. “We look forward to further collaboration with Walmart to create more fuel-efficient vehicles of this type in the future.”

Other vendors involved in the creation of the vehicle included Qualnetics Corporation, Allison Transmission, Transpower, New Eagle, Fiber-Tech Industries, Grote Industries, Inc., Laydon Composites Ltd., Isringhauser Seats, Graykon, LLC, Dometic Corp, RealWheels Corp, Corvus Energy, Parker Hannifin, Accuride, Milliken Chemical, SAF-HOLLAND USA, Inc. and Whiting.

“The creation of this showcase vehicle was only made possible through strong collaboration with our partners, and we thank each of them for their valuable contribution,” said Rosser. “It’s important that we continue to work collectively on future innovations and challenge ourselves to look boldly at fleet efficiency in new and different ways.”