Plastics Deliver Massive Weight Savings for UPS

United Parcel Service (UPS) is redesigning its familiar brown delivery trucks with plastics to save up to 40 percent in fuel costs compared to the standard aluminum-body vehicle. The company expects to achieve this goal by replacing metal truck bodies with composites and other plastics, which will lighten their weight by 900 pounds. It plans to buy 150 new trucks with the plastic bodies, with delivery slated for the fourth quarter of this year.

UPS has been testing the concept during a year-long pilot program that let the company try out the structural strength, durability, and repair qualities of the new truck design's materials. The tests involved using the program's five CV-23 prototype package cars from specialty truck maker Utilimaster in difficult settings. The trucks' composite plastic bodies proved to be durable and easily repaired or replaced since components are modular and don't require body work. The vehicles worked well in a variety of climates, which is especially important in areas where corrosion from road salt is an issue. Tests were conducted on rough back roads in Lincoln, Neb., winter conditions in Albany, NY, desert heat in Tucson, Ariz., high mileage in Acworth, Ga., and a long urban route in Flint, Mich.

UPS said the fuel savings of 40 percent rivals the amount of fuel that could be saved by using alternative fuel vehicles, but without the challenges that accompany a shift to those vehicles. These include fueling infrastructure issues and threats of technology obsolescence, as well as production challenges.

Composites used in the test trucks' hoods and roofs are reportedly fiberglass-reinforced plastic. Other plastic components include lower body panels, front fenders, front bumper cover, and dashboards made of injection-molded polyurethane. The instrument panel and interior cabin trim are made of thermoplastic olefin, as well as some structural components made of polyethylene sheet-molding compound.

In the past, UPS had experimented with a limited amount of composites use in vehicles. The current delivery truck design extends the materials across the entire vehicle, except for the floor. Although test trucks had a composite floor, metal floor structures will continue to be used to provide enough strength for supporting the weight of the truck's contents. The new truck is also somewhat smaller than the previous aluminum versions at 630 cubic feet, which is about 70 cubic feet less of interior cargo space than the standard P70 aluminum truck.

The company's next step is to test the same materials in larger, heavier vehicles to determine how well they work. UPS is working with several vehicle manufacturers in an attempt to cut vehicle weight, improve miles per gallon, and increase fuel efficiency by a number of different methods, including structural and operational approaches. Other design changes to existing vehicles include prototype hoods to improve aerodynamics, perforated mud flaps on tractor-trailers for reducing wind resistance, and using telematics to help reduce miles traveled to deliver packages. UPS also has more than 2,500 alternative fuel and advanced technology vehicles in service.

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