Commentary: How Smart is SmartWay?

November 2013, - Feature

by Rolf Lockwood, Executive Contributing Editor

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Can we depend on the fuel-saving numbers provided by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s SmartWay program?

Frankly, I’m not so sure.

I’ve long feared what I saw as inevitable: that SmartWay, which bills itself as a public/private collaboration between the EPA and the freight transportation industry that helps improve fuel efficiency, would become the default specifier of on-highway sleeper trucks and van trailers in North America.

And it’s happened. If the truck or the tire or the gizmo of whatever sort isn’t SmartWay-approved, the broad perception is that it simply isn’t good enough. There are shippers that demand to see the SmartWay logo on the rigs that haul their goods, and I’ve heard tales of carriers gluing that logo on trucks that never saw the benefit of approval. Worse, it’s now effectively a fence barring entry to California – no SmartWay certification, no entry. The pressure on many fleet operators is huge.

There isn’t a trucking operation on the entire planet that doesn’t want to save fuel, so in theory buying a SmartWay-verified product makes perfect sense.

But again, can we believe in what SmartWay approves?

That question is prompted by the recent testing of trailer aerodynamic devices by the Performance Innovation Transport group, a not-for-profit engineering and research outfit that works out of the Transport Canada test track in Blainville, Quebec. I believe it’s above reproach.

I won’t repeat all the details here, but it comes down to this: PIT recently announced the results of its evaluations on trailers equipped with three undercarriage aerodynamic devices, often called “undertrays.” They consumed just 1.43% less fuel on average than the same trucks without them, in a range from 0% to 2.2%. (PIT doesn’t divulge the results of individual products, except to members.)

With those results, none of the three undertray deflectors could achieve SmartWay verification, which demands a minimum 5% improvement. Yet two of them already had it before the PIT testing was done. And there’s the rub.

How can separate on-track tests done to the strict regime imposed by the SAE/TMC J1321 standard yield such different results? Are such tests not comparable if done at different tracks? And if not, then what does SmartWay verification really mean?

Equipment Editor Jim Park and I have been talking to all and sundry about this, including some of the manufacturers involved in the testing and fleets who have years of experience with trailer aerodynamics. But we still don’t have satisfactory answers.

SmartWay does none of its own testing, a key point here, relying on manufacturers to present test results from approved test facilities. But if those facilities don’t agree, what are we left with?

Many fleets say it doesn’t matter, because they don’t believe the numbers anyway. Some say when evaluating products and specs, they routinely cut fuel-saving percentage claims in half no matter what the source. Many say they spec SmartWay-approved products only in order to get into California.

One of the manufacturers involved in all this told me that SmartWay just provides a suggestion as to what works and what doesn’t, a spec’ing direction.

Not good enough, I say, certainly not if SmartWay is the default arbiter of what’s acceptable and what isn’t.

Incidentally, the third undertray-maker in the recent PIT testing, and I know it’s the one that scored 2.2%, is the only one of the three that can’t claim SmartWay certification. It has results from another test track showing a 5% gain in fuel economy – and guarantees it to buyers – but that track isn’t on SmartWay’s list of acceptable facilities so it won’t grant verification.

All of which shows that these waters are as about as muddy as water gets. And if you weren’t cynical before, you might be now. Just like me.


Rolf Lockwood is vice president, editorial, at Newcom Business Media, which publishes Today’s Trucking. He writes for HDT each month on the making, maintaining and using of trucks.


  1. 1. BeenThere [ November 12, 2013 @ 05:48AM ]

    How do brokers, 3PL's and logistic companies qualify? They dont spend a penny to upgrade or purchase new equipment to meet these guidelines. Not a one of them can give exact details on what types of products or procedures were done to gain the increased efficencies. The only thing that they ask of the carrier is to provide a copy of SmartWay certificate. I feel that it is wrong that non-carriers are able to meet these requirements. The carriers are the ones footing the bill. We don't need a Federal certificate to tell us to save fuel. It doesnt take a rocket scientist to show that fuel savings equate to a better bottom line! It just puts another feather in the caps of those in our government trying to justify their job.

  2. 2. Richard Wood [ November 12, 2013 @ 07:53AM ]

    Rolf and Jim - No, is the answer to your lead in question! This article is long overdue. However, it barely scratches the surface of a process and system that may be causing more harm than good. Thanks to Jim Park and Rolf. The harm begins with the confusing and misleading claimed purpose of Smartway. It continues with the demonstrated inability of the program to differentiate between a valid fuel saving device and a claim that violates basic physics. The harm culminates with their partnership with CARB that is penalizing some of the hardest working people in the US. While lacking the knowledge and experience to verify or validate a technology, CARB teamed up with Smartway under the false assumption that two negatives can produce a positive. The Smartway defense is to hide behind the "partnership claim" while sitting on the shoulder of the Federal Gov. (trust them they work for the gov). The CARB defense is that if Smartway verifies it, it must be right. Smartway does not dispute the CARB claim and CARB does not acknowledge the lack of credibility at Smartway. Thus the perfect government partnership is born. No one is responsible but everyone can celebrate success. I know that the industry is awash in misleading claims and there are those that believe Smartway is better than having nothing at all. This may be true if and only if Smartway had the experience and knowledge required to evaluate test data and the supporting detailed test information to make a valid judgment of a products performance. Quality data can only be obtained from an accurate use of the current J1321 process. This is not done. Understanding the product and data requires expert knowledge of the governing physics and the test process. This they cannot do. Failing on any of these elements does not even allow for a determination of “what works and what doesn’t”. Unfortunately good intentions do not make for good policy and does not make for good science.

  3. 3. Myron Lind [ November 12, 2013 @ 11:55AM ]

    I have a degree in physics and mathematics. I own and have studied most of the definitive works on heavy vehicle aerodynamics. Much of this study dates back to the University of Maryland/Trailmobile partnered study in the 1950s and a few bits and pieces here and there from several NASA studies, some of which may have led to the Peterbuilt 372 aero cabover design. There are two extremely important concepts that the industry needs to understand. The first is that the sum of two independent improvements in aerodynamics is not cumulative. For example, if you add tank fairings and get a 0.2 mpg improvement and then take them off, add trailer skirting and get a 0.3 mpg improvement, you will NOT (necessarily) see a 0.5 mpg improvement if you add them both back on. Second, and related, is the fact that as you improve poor aerodynamic areas of the vehicle, other areas that were not a problem or a minimal problem can suddenly become very important in terms of aerodynamics. A totally untested though valid concern of this concept might be as follows. A trailer without skirting has such dirty air flow (poor aerodynamics) around the tandems that they (the tandems) are not even an issue--until you add skirting. Now, since the air is possibly being "managed" at this area of the truck, suddenly the spinning motion combined with the highly undesirable aerodynamic characteristics of recessed wheels becomes a noticeable and/or significant issue. Combine this with moving the tandems for/aft for weight/legal issues and the "measured" benefits become even more elusive. The fact that we cannot get repeatability here means one of two things. Either one or both testing methods is flawed, or the devices work in vary different ways in situations that at first glance seem identical.

  4. 4. Big yellower [ November 13, 2013 @ 04:30AM ]

    The ironic thing is that a crack head came up with the skirts of death and dumbass tail skits . Why does transportation industry use a product design by an drug addict whom has none creditability in the transportation industry . And also is just a criminal.
    Studies back in 08-09 stated that tractor aerodynamics where the primary way to get fuel economy up and was not trailers . 5% for vertical fairings, 5% for full horizontal fairings ..

  5. 5. Cliff Downing [ November 13, 2013 @ 06:33AM ]

    Whenever the government is involved in the collaboration, there is bound to be a point where the government assumes full control and dictates the standards. I saw this result from a long way off when the Smartway program began. And one doe have to wonder, especially since it is government controlled, at what point the drivers will have to be certified as Smartway drivers. After all, a driver can make up to 1/3 the variable in fuel economy. That judging criteria will be interesting. Sounds far fetched doesn't it?, But "far fetched" is not a viable concept when it comes to government.

  6. 6. Kathy Rose [ November 14, 2013 @ 11:47AM ]

    Thank you Richard Wood. I concur, this article is long overdue. We, meaning you, Nose Cone, and the rest of the scientific community, have been arguing the inaccuracy of the J1321 test since the program began. If you can't test an aerodynamic device in a crosswind then you know nothing of what that device will do over the long run. Cynical Rolf? Nose Cone is not in the 5% bracket because SmartWay does not acknowledge that day cabs and mid roofs exist. The test protocol designates the tractor design and it does not include day cabs or mid roofs. The claim is the majority are high roof sleepers, and those that are not are an inconvenient casualty of the program. So when you see a flat roof day cab, with no air deflector and a trailer with no Nose Cone, but the trailer has a skirt, to me it screams, "this is what you get when the government spec's your equipment."

  7. 7. Steve [ November 30, 2013 @ 05:03PM ]

    I vote for hair controlled substance testing for all public employees!

  8. 8. Brian [ February 08, 2014 @ 09:50AM ]

    Can anyone point me to a list of Smartway approved test facilities that do J1321 testing?


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