Article

21st Century Truck Wheels

Wheels are now lighter and longer lasting, and soon they’ll be smarter than ever.

December 2016, TruckingInfo.com - Department

by Jack Roberts, Senior Editor - Also by this author

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With strict emissions and fuel-economy requirements of new GHG Phase 2 regulations just around the corner, look to aluminum and lightweight steel wheels to contribute to overall equipment compliance. Photo: Accuride
With strict emissions and fuel-economy requirements of new GHG Phase 2 regulations just around the corner, look to aluminum and lightweight steel wheels to contribute to overall equipment compliance. Photo: Accuride

The wheel is such a long-standing, fixed presence in our lives, that we rarely think about them. Until one fails, of course. In practice, wheels function quite well with only limited attention and maintenance. But that’s no excuse not to pay attention to them at regular intervals.

For many fleets, the entire thinking process behind truck wheels is to simply bolt them on and then never think about them again until the next tire change takes place, says Rafael Gonzalez, Accuride’s director of product management, wheels. ”That’s a concern for our industry, because, unfortunately, that’s a very common practice today. But the good news is that although wheels don’t require much maintenance, a little maintenance can make them last a very long time.”

Little maintenance, long lives

Fleets today have a choice between steel and aluminum wheels. Each has distinct advantages that can help fleets achieve their goals.

Steel wheels are less expensive to purchase, but require more maintenance and are generally heavier than aluminum wheels — although Craig Kessler, vice president of engineering, wheels, at Accuride, says ongoing research and development have cut the weight of both substantially.

“We’re down to 45 pounds per aluminum wheel today, and we used to be over 60 pounds,” Kessler says, with the help of new additives and changes to the base alloy. “We’ve taken out 15 pounds in unit weight for our steel wheels over a two-year period thanks to better machining methods and better manufacturing processes that give us more control over variables when forging and heat-treating the wheels.”

Merrick Murphy, president, Arconic Wheel and Transportation Products (formerly known as Alcoa), says wheel selection can lead to significant advantages for fleets of all types, with payoffs in freight efficiency, fuel economy, lower maintenance, safety and appearance all adding to the bottom line.

“Lightweight aluminum wheels produced by Arconic’s Alcoa Wheels division, like Alcoa Ultra One, can weigh as little as 40 pounds per wheel,” Murphy explains. “Lower weight wheels allow fleets to haul more with fewer loads, making them more profitable with lower operating costs and better overall fuel economy.”

Although steel wheels require more maintenance than aluminum ones, Gonzalez notes that in reality, it’s more about training your technicians to be aware of potential problems and how to deal with them when they arise.

Advances in manufacturing processes enable Accuride to continue to reduce steel-wheel weight, while corrosion-fighting coating advancements keep steel wheels on the road longer, delaying initial refinishing and lowering fleets’ maintenance costs. Photo: Maxion Wheels
Advances in manufacturing processes enable Accuride to continue to reduce steel-wheel weight, while corrosion-fighting coating advancements keep steel wheels on the road longer, delaying initial refinishing and lowering fleets’ maintenance costs. Photo: Maxion Wheels

“Mainly, you want to keep steel wheels clean and remove any excess dirt and debris, which is harmful to any bolted joint,” he says. “Another important — and often overlooked — point is to check and retorque the lug nuts after running the truck from 5 to 100 miles after installing new wheels. It’s equally important to check the torque later on at regular intervals, as well.”

Gonzalez notes that any rust, dirt or debris on any of the wheel’s mounting surfaces will impede a flush connection and give a false reading on the torque wrench. 

“But if you follow those procedures,” Kessler adds, “and get good contact between the wheel, the disc or drum and the brakes, and keep them clean going forward, steel wheels will easily last 20 years.”

Aluminum wheels lower maintenance costs simply because they are corrosion resistant and easy to keep clean, Murphy says. “Some manufacturers feature patented surface treatments to further resist corrosion and lower maintenance costs,” he notes. “The Alcoa Dura-Bright Evo Wheel, for example, can be easily cleaned with just mild soap and water and is 10 times more resistant to corrosion primarily caused by road salts and weather elements. It is also more resistant to chemicals found in the toughest truck cleaning agent, with no need to polish, paint, sandblast or retouching.”

And since it’s a surface treatment, Murphy adds, Dura-Bright penetrates the aluminum, forming a molecular bond that becomes an integral part of the wheel. “It prevents cracking, peeling and filiform corrosion often seen on coated wheels,” he says. “Which means the wheels stay looking newer, longer.”

Polished aluminum wheels are a common choice for weight- and image-conscious carriersPhoto: Arconic
Polished aluminum wheels are a common choice for weight- and image-conscious carriers. Photo: Arconic

Time to reinvent the wheel?

Today the wheel is poised to enter the Information Age, according to Joseph Wolf, manager of Maxion’s advanced engineering and innovation team and the project leader for the company’s MaxSmart sensor wheel technology.

According to Wolf, MaxSmart is a new sensor system designed to withstand the hellish environment inside a tire/wheel cavity while collecting vital operating data and transmitting it to drivers and fleet managers.

Wolf says MaxSmart is currently capable of tracking and transmitting a number of different operational factors, including static and dynamic load on a wheel, as well as the clamp force holding the wheel to the axle.

Next year, Maxion Wheels plans to launch its MaxSmart internal wheel sensors, which can wirelessly relay a host of tire and load information to both drivers and fleet managers. Photo: Maxion Wheels
Next year, Maxion Wheels plans to launch its MaxSmart internal wheel sensors, which can wirelessly relay a host of tire and load information to both drivers and fleet managers. Photo: Maxion Wheels

“Static and dynamic load is important because it allows the driver to monitor the load in real time,” Wolf explains. “If a load shifts from side to side, or front to rear while on the highway, the driver will be alerted at once.”

Monitoring clamping force allows drivers to avert a crash in the rare instances when a wheel comes off an axle, Wolf says, adding that the system can also monitor tire cavity temperature and tire pressure. “Wheel-based sensors have been monitoring tire pressure in passenger cars for over 10 years now,” he says. “And based on feedback we got showing MaxSmart at IAA [commercial vehicle show in Germany in September], we think this is a better approach to tire monitoring in commercial vehicles going forward.”

Wolf says MaxSmart will debut next year in conjunction with a new truck launch, and is being designed to last the life of the wheel. “We’re not designing this as a stand-alone product with a little separate data screen glued to the dash. We want this to be a fully integrated system in terms of the vehicle CAN bus and how the information is relayed to the driver and to a fleet.”

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