Seeing past chrome and shiny paint

If you think gas is expensive, be thankful you're not a trucker. Filling up an 18-wheel, 80,000-pound leviathan can top $1,300 these days.

Because of short supply, the price of diesel has risen more than twice as much as gasoline in the past year, on Tuesday reaching an all time high of $4.54 a gallon. With little hope of a near-term decline – oil closed at a record $129.07 a barrel Tuesday – the run-up is causing panic and prompting radical cultural and technological shifts in the struggling trucking industry.

Instead of obsessing over chrome trim or the latest cab amenities to ease life on the road, truck owners and operators fed up with getting 5 miles per gallon are delving into long-ignored subjects like aerodynamics, slower cruising speeds and more efficient tires.

Engineers and manufacturers furiously are developing new fuel-friendly technology. And commercial fleets are using high-tech software to calculate every aspect of their drivers' routes, down to where they should fill up and where they should stop for the night.

Bill Rethwisch, an independent long-haul trucker, recently traded in his Peterbilt 379 for a new Kenworth T660 rig. Although he prefers the traditional looks of the Peterbilt, with its boxy hood, flat, chromed grill and towering exhaust pipes, he knows it was aerodynamically flawed.

The $119,000 Kenworth, marketed as the company's most aerodynamic truck ever, has a streamlined wedge shape and eliminates projections like the smokestacks. The result, said Rethwisch, is an increase from 4.5 mpg in the Peterbilt to 6.5 mpg in the Kenworth, which saves him upward of $2,000 a month at the pump.

“The Peterbilt is the classiest and coolest looking truck around,” said Rethwisch, who hauls dairy products from Wisconsin to California and returns loaded with produce. “But cool only goes so far when fuel prices are so high.”

The shift reflects what's happening with passenger cars, where drivers are abandoning gasoline-thirsty SUVs and pickups in favor of zippy subcompacts. But with U.S. trucks burning more than 20 billion gallons of diesel per year and trucking industry bankruptcies soaring, shifting to more efficient vehicles can be a matter of business survival.

“There has long been an aversion to new technology and new approaches in heavy trucking,” said Peter Nesvold, a transportation analyst at Bear Stearns. “But as costs of fuel rise higher, that's changing.”

This autumn, in an attempt to appease the conflicting desires of truckers for classic-looking vehicles and good fuel economy, Navistar's International brand will start selling the LoneStar, a aerodynamic truck that slathers chrome liberally over bumpers and grille while getting 5 percent to 15 percent better fuel economy than square-nosed trucks.

Bob Weber, chief engineer for International, expects the company's new ProStar to be its best seller. It lacks bling but offers the best mileage in the business: According to Weber, the truck gets as many as 7.5 miles per gallon – practically Prius-like in the truck world.

“Aerodynamics is huge,” said Weber, who explained that wind resistance can account for more than half of a truck's fuel consumption at highway speeds.

Another factor is velocity. In general, the faster a truck goes, the more fuel it uses per mile. Although many drivers are resistant, some fleets have begun using electronic regulators that cap speed, often well below legal limits. Last week, the American Trucking Association proposed setting a nationwide top speed for trucks at 65 mph.