Ken Damon stands in front of a semi truck
Hot Wheels
Ken Damon '81 works on fighter jets and SuperTruck program
Sunday, February 1, 2015

Ken Damon '81 is always ready to talk about Trinity’s engineering department, and with good reason. He’s justifiably proud of the department’s track record of successful pass rate on the Professional Engineering License Exam (PE) even years after graduation—in his case, eleven years after he graduated from Trinity in 1981 with a bachelor’s degree in engineering science.

“It’ s nice to have P.E. after your name,” he says modestly. Much too modestly for someone who is helping to change another kind of track record—that of “miles per gallon” through his project manager work at Peterbilt Motors Engineering. Peterbilt is home to a long-haul truck demonstration model known as the Peterbilt-Cummins SuperTruck that’s generating major buzz in the trucking industry.

Coming from a family of engineers, Damon’s road was almost inevitable. Born and raised in Alton, Illinois, “it seemed we were all engineers,” he muses. His older brother Phil ’79 attended Trinity, as did his sister Gail ’84. Damon’s choice of Trinity was fueled by a love of Southern rock music and a fascination with a state that “seemed somewhat exotic. I wanted to see what this Texas place was all about.”

After graduation he held a field engineering position at Halliburton Services in Alice and Laredo—where, ironically, he learned to drive heavy-duty trucks—but his path took to the skies when he decided he “wanted to get into more of a design field. I wanted to design airplanes.” In 1985 he joined General Dynamics in Fort Worth as a structural engineer in the F-16 fighter jet program.

The next nine years were a whirlwind of stimulating projects, which included memorable trips to Israel in 1991 and Pakistan a year later. “We had stopped selling [planes] to Pakistan as punishment for their nuclear research, but they already had a bunch of F-16s,” he says. When one crash landed, “we told them to send it to our repair depot in Utah. They refused, afraid they wouldn’t get their airplane back.” So Damon, then 32, was part of a small assessment team that traveled to Pakistan. “In fact, I was the only engineer,” Damon says.

With the Cold War winding down, fast-paced excitement transitioned into massive layoffs (“5,000 in one day,” he recalls) and Damon learned that Peterbilt Motors was moving their California Bay Area engineering to Denton. There was a hiring boom “to replace the 75 percent of the engineering staff who didn’t want to move to Texas. So I said, ‘I’m going to go design trucks.’”

He did much more than that, and by 2009 Damon was appointed project manager for the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE)-sponsored SuperTruck program—a $39 million grant matched by Peterbilt and partners Cummins and Eaton Corporation—that focused on improving fuel economy of heavy duty trucks by 50 percent. “We greatly exceeded that,” Damon says, “demonstrating 76 percent improvement in fuel economy.” The SuperTruck “is a one-of-a-kind showcase of advanced aerodynamics, powertrain, lightweighting, and technologies that assist the driver. We’re now in the process of taking its best features and putting them into production to make them available to the general public.”

In February of 2013, the SuperTruck served as a backdrop for President Obama’s announcement on higher MPG standards. The next day it was in front of the DOE building with the energy secretary and assistant secretary sitting in the cab.

Now manager of the Vehicle Performance and Engineering Analysis team, Damon’s team constantly researches new ways to enhance efficiency “to help our customers get the most performance out of their trucks.”

Damon recalls a long-ago class with John E. Plapp, then-associate professor of engineering science at Trinity. “Every year for one of his classes, he would give an hour-long talk on waste, about how if you use energy wastefully or inefficiently you can never get more work out of that energy. That always stuck with me: energy that is no longer available for useful work,” Damon says. “That is exactly what the SuperTruck program is about. Right now engines are about 42 percent efficient. That means that 58 percent of the fuel goes out the tailpipe as heat. It doesn’t help drive your truck or your car. This program has a chance to increase that useful energy capability by a significant amount, and that makes me feel really good.”

See Ken Damon on Today’s Trucking test-driving the SuperTruck at www.todaystrucking.com

Julie Catalano helped tell Trinity's story as a contributor for the University communications team.

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