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April 5, 2013

Slate's What's That Thing: Truck Fins

Our latest effort to dispel the mysteries of the modern visual landscape takes us back onto the great American road.

Do you like driving on highways crowded with big trucks? I'm guessing not. Maybe you've seen Steven Spielberg's "Duel" (tagline: "Fear is the Driving Force") or Stephen King's "Maximum Overdrive" ("Evil's Wheels") one too many times. Whatever the reason, just know that the feeling is mutual.

But still, in a country that worships movement, there's more than a little romance to the grueling lifestyle of America's long-distance truckers. Many truckers are owner-operators, each driving his own (97 percent are male) small, independent business. Just listen to the Modest Mouse song "Trucker's Atlas." Or consider the hardworking, honest heroism of Optimus Prime, the robotic truck who leads the Transformers. (Motto: "No sacrifice is too great in the service of freedom.")

Lately, trucks have been undergoing their own transformation. On a recent drive on I-40 between Memphis and Little Rock, Ark., Nathan Hamilton, a resident of North Little Rock, saw a truck with some funky panels on the side and back, and sent What's That Thing an email.

What are these panels called, and what's their purpose?

The panels under the body of the truck are called aerodynamic panel skirts, side panels, or side skirts. The panels that hang off the back are often called rear tail fairings, trailer tails, or sometimes boat tails. Whatever you call them, their purpose is to reduce drag and save fuel.

According to Susan King, a spokesperson for the American Trucking Associations, side panels "reduce drag on the undercarriage and wheels of the rig, thereby improving fuel efficiency," while tail fairings reduce drag around the rear of the vehicle. How much fuel do they save? Between 5 percent and 15 percent, with 10 the average, according to King.

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