While the industry is filled with drivers from numerous previous walks of life, some bring something special with them when they jump into the driver’s seat. When Michael Niss decided to walk away from a well-rooted career as a design engineer, engineering supervisor and head of his own firm, he was looking for a new challenge. It began as an over-the-road driver for Roehl Transport, Marshfield, Wis., Soon he became one of Long Haul Trucking’s top grossing company drivers and, a short time later, a Class 8 fuel-saving aficionado.
“With my first truck, a 2013 Peterbilt 386 with a 53-foot Benson trailer, I did a number of things, both off-the-shelf and custom, to try to improve fuel mileage,” says Niss, who is also president of Breaking 11, a project to surpass 11 mpg in his current tractor, a 2015 Kenworth T660 glider with an 86-foot AeroCab Aerodyne Sleeper.
Creating a ‘secret sauce’
When Niss started his first project truck, he looked at what was available to help him lower fuel costs, which were draining $72,000 a year out of his budget.
“That’s just a hard number to get your hands around,” he says.
The 6.1 mpg he was getting equaled roughly $10,000 more in annual fuel expenses and $10,000 less in his back pocket. This sparked Niss’ passion and began his relentless quest toward becoming more fuel efficient.
Over the next two years, using available fuel-saving technologies and experimenting with multiple custom aerodynamic features, Niss was able to improve his fuel economy from 6.1 mpg to 8.4 mpg, an increase of nearly 38%.
He’s doing the same in his newest endeavor and the creation of what Niss calls his “secret sauce.” The recipe started with swapping out his eight brand-new drive tires for Michelin X One Energy tires, giving him an immediate 0.4 to 0.5 mpg improvement. That success inspired him to continue.
“There are some things you could do that are extremely costly, but with my new program, I’m going to get an 18-month return on my investment,” predicts Niss, who has enlisted the help of a team of advisors that have been “extremely helpful” in getting the Breaking 11 project moving forward.
The new project truck will incorporate some 20 different fuel-saving technologies and a handful of custom aerodynamic features, including Eco mudflaps, wheel covers, a roof extension, an airflow deflector, and an air control bumper, and a FASS fuel system — a fuel air separation system that combines a diesel fuel lift pump and a fuel filtration system to improve fuel mileage and engine performance — as well as a pre-emission Detroit Diesel 12.7-liter Series 60 engine powering it.
Downtime and lower maintenance are just as important as the fuel savings and lowering emissions, according to Niss. He is taking a different approach to putting together a tractor-trailer in an age in which the EPA is developing an entirely new level of requirements for exhaust.
“I’m confident that some of the technology that’s available will help me achieve those emission rates that EPA want us to target,” he says.
Moving to the next step
When it comes to footing the bill, everything has come out of Niss’ own pockets, giving him more control on not only spec’ing a truck, which he points out is “spec’ed by a truck driver for truck drivers,” but also hammering down a timeline.
“I’m going to be out and moving freight in this rig. The truck and trailer will be ready to haul freight this August,” Niss says. “It’s going to be very operable, very easy to maintain. You don’t have to remove skirts to get at tires or what have you. It’s just going to be a whole different approach to a concept truck, and on top of that, I’m going to get close to or meet the mileage that these very expensive concept trucks are claiming to give. So it’s going to be interesting.”
After putting the new combo on the road, Niss plans on running monthly dyno tests to gauge the horsepower, as well as measuring monthly fuel results and performing monthly emissions testing.
Once data has been carefully recorded by an unbiased third party, Niss will share the results with the trucking community. He hopes to gain some momentum soon after, and with the right sponsorship, he plans to increase the project to run four trucks — two control and two that are modified — under the same road conditions, at the same speeds, with the same loads, and with the same space between them.
“We’re going to be doing blogging, both video blogs and written blogs, and we’re going to have a Facebook presence. So the end game, initially, is information-share,” explains Niss. “And we’re already looking at what our next truck is going to be and what different elements we might put on that, and maybe we’ll continue to test different products and come up with the best of the best, eventually.”
While the final goals are yet to be proven, Niss is convinced, based on the success he’s had with his first truck, that he can achieve 11 mpg.
“This is for a working truck that will drive 100,000 miles from its inception first thing on a road within the first year of its operation,” says Niss. “We are going to show that if a person puts together a few of these technologies, the fuel results are incredible.”