A tractor unit pulling a semi-trailer
A truck pulling a semitrailer using a trailer dolly

A semi-trailer is a trailer without a front axle. The combination of a semi-trailer and a tractor truck is called a semi-trailer truck (also known simply as a "semi-trailer", "tractor trailer", or "semi" in the United States).[1]

A large proportion of a semi-trailer's weight is supported by a tractor unit, or a detachable front-axle assembly known as a dolly, or the tail of another trailer. The semi-trailer's weight is semi-supported (half-supported) by its own wheels, at the rear of the semi-trailer.[2][3][4][5] A semi-trailer is normally equipped with landing gear (legs which can be lowered) to support it when it is uncoupled. Many semi-trailers have wheels that are capable of being totally dismounted and are also relocatable[6] (repositionable) to better distribute load to bearing wheel weight factors.[7] Semi-trailers are more popular for transport than full trailers, which have both front and rear axles. Ease of backing is cited as one of the semi's chief advantages. A road tractor coupled to a semi-trailer is often called a semi-trailer truck or "semi" in North America and Australia, and an articulated lorry or "artic" in the UK.

Semi-trailers with two trailer units are called B-doubles (Australian English) or tandem tractor-trailers,[8] tandem rigs, or doubles (American English). Other terms used are "B-train" or (when there are three or more trailers) "road train". A double-trailer combination is possible with the use of a dolly, or "converter dolly" (Australian and American English), essentially one to three additional axles placed under the front of a second semi-trailer. The first semi-trailer is connected to the power unit using the tractor's fifth wheel coupling while the converter dolly, already attached to the second semi-trailer, is connected to the first semi-trailer with a drawbar. In Australian English, the tractor unit is called a "prime-mover", and the combination of a prime-mover and trailer is known as a "semi-trailer", "semi" or single. Some popular manufacturers are Kenworth, Iveco, Freightliner, MAN, Scania, Mercedes-Benz, DAF, Renault Trucks, Volvo, Peterbilt, and Mack.


A 1920 advertisement for semi-trailers

Semi-trailers were invented by August Fruehauf in 1914.

Road tractors and semi-trailers are responsible for carrying a large proportion of cargo. With 1,170,117 million tonne-kilometers transported this way in the European Union, including the UK, road tractors and semi-trailers are 77.6% of the total tonne-kilometers transported in 2015, according to Eurostat.[9]

In road haulage, semi-trailers predominate over full trailers because of their flexibility. The trailers can be coupled and uncoupled quickly, allowing them to be shunted for loading and to be trucked between depots. If a power unit fails, another tractor can replace it without disturbing the cargo.

Compared with a full trailer, a semi-trailer attached to a tractor unit is easier to reverse, since it has only one turning point (the coupling), whereas a full trailer has two turning points (the coupling and the drawbar attachment). Special tractors are known as shunt trucks or shuttle trucks can easily maneuver semi-trailers at a depot or loading and unloading ferries. These tractors may lift the coupling so the trailer legs clear the ground.

A rigid truck and full trailer are articulated inside the cargo area length, so a semi-trailer can have a longer continuous cargo area. Because of this, a semi-trailer can haul longer objects, (logs, pipe, beams, railway track). This depends on the legislation; in some European countries, a full trailer can be as long as a semi-trailer. However, since a rigid truck is longer than a semi-tractor, this increases the overall length of the combination, making it less maneuverable.

For heavy haulage or for increased manoeuvrability, some semi-trailers are fitted with rear-wheel steering, controlled electro-hydraulically. The wheels on all or some of the rear axles may be turned through different angles to enable tighter cornering, or through the same angle (so-called 'crab' steering) to move the rear of the trailer laterally.


The two types of couplings are fifth-wheel coupling and automatic. In some applications, no separable coupling is fitted, and the trailer is bolted to the tractor unit, using a bearing, and rocker feet as are used under a fifth wheel skid plate.

Fifth-wheel coupling

The towing vehicle has a wide coupling plate known as a fifth-wheel coupling bolted onto its chassis, on which the semi-trailer rests and pivots. As the tractor reverses under the trailer, a kingpin under the front of the trailer slides into a slot in the skid plate, and the jaws of the fifth wheel close onto it. The driver has to raise the trailer legs manually and couple the airbrake lines and electrical cables. Some low-set trailers such as lowboys/low-loaders and car transporters have electrically powered landing gear due to the necessarily low clearance prohibiting conventional landing gear.


Different types of semi-trailers are designed to haul different cargoes.

Common widths are 8 ft (2.44 m),[10] and 2.6 metres (102.36 in).[11] Generally speaking, most North American type trailers use two axles with dual-tire hubs totaling 8 wheels, while most European type trailers use three axles with single-tire hubs totaling 6 wheels, with one of the axles being able to be lifted for lighter loads and saving on tire, brake, and axle wear. Nearly all sufficiently tall modern trailers are equipped with a rear underride guard to prevent cars from passing beyond the rear edge of the trailer, and most also have side underride guards for the same reason. There are also other smaller differences with regards to kingpin depth, lighting, door locks, et cetera, though most purpose-built tractor trucks can carry most types of trailer regardless of which continent it was built on and the differences therein.

Grain hopper trailer

Tank trailer

A tank trailer is a semi-trailer specifically designed to carry liquids, fluids and gases.[13]


See also


  1. ^ "Definition of SEMITRAILER". www.merriam-webster.com.
  2. ^ "Etymology - Why is it called a semi-truck? Doesn't "semi" mean "part"?".
  3. ^ "10 Things You Never Knew About Semitrucks". 6 November 2018.
  4. ^ "What is a Semi Truck?". 27 August 2019.
  5. ^ "Why are they called Semi-Trucks anyway?". 25 February 2015.
  6. ^ "Know how to slide your Tandems". www.bigtruckride.com.
  7. ^ "Positioning The Trailer Tandems - High Road Online CDL Training". www.truckingtruth.com.
  8. ^ "TRANSPORT & MACHINERY :: ROAD TRANSPORT :: TRUCKING :: TANDEM TRACTOR TRAILER image - Visual Dictionary Online". visual.merriam-webster.com.
  9. ^ Eurostat (PDF)
  10. ^ "Any transport transportations from the Tandem-Trans ??? recheck the link". Tandem-Trans. Retrieved 2011-01-01.
  11. ^ a b "Federal Size Regulations for Commercial Motor Vehicles". US Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration. Retrieved 2011-01-01.
  12. ^ FAYMONVILLE FloatMAX – the inloader for glass transport. Archived from the original on 2021-12-17.
  13. ^ Tank trailer