Stepping ahead:

Ar­gosy with the Cum­mins-Ea­ton com­bi­na­tion

Owner Driver - - Front Page - Steve Brooks re­ports

FROM THE mo­ment it ar­rived on Aus­tralian soil in the late ’90s, Ar­gosy had the po­ten­tial to blow Ken­worth’s K-se­ries out of the water as the lead­ing US cab-over.

Ob­vi­ously it didn’t, and all in­di­ca­tors sug­gest it never will.

That, how­ever, does not change the fact Ar­gosy was a huge burst of fresh think­ing in Amer­i­can cab-over de­sign, sport­ing so much more than a K-se­ries that, back then, had be­come out­dated in both form and func­tion. In ef­fect, old and awk­ward!

With Ar­gosy came ad­vances in driver com­fort, con­ve­nience and style, which al­most overnight made Ken­worth’s long-serv­ing cab-over ar­chaic in com­par­i­son. It would, in fact, take Ken­worth well over a decade to catch up with the stun­ningly sur­pris­ing and, equally, sur­pris­ingly stun­ning K200.

From the out­set, Ar­gosy was mod­ern, ex­cit­ing, even in­spir­ing, and cer­tainly the big­gest thing to hit the heavy-duty cab-over class in decades. Sud­denly, Freight­liner had am­ple cause to boast its her­itage as the cre­ator of Amer­ica’s first cab-over model way back in the 1940s.

Sure, by the late ’90s it was ob­vi­ous the North Amer­i­can mar­ket’s de­mand for cab-overs was on a down­hill run, but not so in our neck of the woods, where the tim­ing of Ar­gosy’s ar­rival could not have been bet­ter.

The B-dou­ble busi­ness was build­ing to a boom and, with Ar­gosy’s emer­gence, it was quickly ap­par­ent (per­haps much to Ken­worth’s sur­prise) that a large part of the truck­ing com­mu­nity was more than ready, even anx­ious, to con­sider a mod­ern US-pow­ered and de­signed al­ter­na­tive to K-se­ries.

There had, of course, been a cou­ple of in­aus­pi­cious and largely in­ef­fec­tive at­tempts by var­i­ous brands to tackle Ken­worth and cash in on B-dou­ble de­mand by slot­ting a North Amer­i­can power train un­der a Euro­pean shed.

Freight­liner, too, had an ear­lier, short-lived lunge at the B-dou­ble busi­ness with its ob­so­lete FLB model but ac­cep­tance was mar­ginal, at best.

Strangely per­haps, these ef­forts in­ad­ver­tently had the ef­fect of fur­ther ce­ment­ing the pro­found dom­i­na­tion of K-se­ries in the US cab-over class.

ButB t thenth came A Ar­gosy, and d while­hil many Ken­worth in­sid­ers were openly ar­ro­gant in their dis­missal of the threat posed by Freight­liner’s classy chal­lenger, the quiet word within the Ken­worth king­dom was one of ner­vous anx­i­ety as Ar­gosy promptly started to ap­pear in com­pa­nies long con­sid­ered exclusive KW strongholds.

For good rea­son, Ar­gosy was on a roll and, for sim­i­larly good rea­son, Ken­worth was con­cerned … whether they liked to ad­mit it or not.

Yet nei­ther Freight­liner’s eupho­ria nor Ken­worth’s con­cerns lasted too long. Within a year or two of Ar­gosy’s high-hype ar­rival, cracks started to ap­pear both lit­er­ally and phys­i­cally as a litany of squeaks, rat­tles and dura­bil­ity dilem­mas

“The model to­day is … a far cry from its pre­de­ces­sors”

chis­elled away at the early ex­cite­ment. Mean­while, within Ken­worth ranks you could sense the relief as a steady trickle of Ar­gosy’s early adopters started re­turn­ing to ‘Brand K’. But not every­one made the re­turn trip.

De­spite the dilem­mas, there re­mained no ques­tion that Ar­gosy had plenty of po­ten­tial and many sig­nif­i­cant de­sign as­sets over K-se­ries. For all the model’s in­her­ent fea­tures, though, Aus­tralia’s tough de­mands pro­gres­sively re­vealed the lack of a cou­ple of crit­i­cal fun­da­men­tals in Freight­liner’s chal­lenger. Two in par­tic­u­lar – re­li­a­bil­ity and re­sponse. Sim­ply put, Freight­liner had made the naïve and colos­sally costly mis­take of bring­ing Ar­gosy to this coun­try with an ab­so­lute min­i­mum of lo­cal test­ing be­fore ex­pos­ing it to the fast-paced, un­com­pro­mis­ing de­mands of top­weight line-haul work.

Of course, all new mod­els have teething is­sues. But in Freight­liner’s case, with no lo­cal en­gi­neer­ing fa­cil­ity there was to­tal re­liance on the re­sponse of US en­gi­neers to not only pro­vide the nec­es­sary ‘fix’, but then slide the amended de­sign into the pro­duc­tion process.

It all took time, and all too of­ten it seemed a boom­ing North Amer­i­can mar­ket with lit­tle re­quire­ment for cab-overs sim­ply swamped or per­haps ig­nored the im­pas­sioned pleas and small vol­umes of Aus­tralia.

Con­se­quently, de­lays in de­sign­ing, test­ing and im­ple­ment­ing a new com­po­nent meant prob­lems re­mained prob­lem­atic for far too long.

Mak­ing mat­ters worse, no sooner was one is­sue close to con­clu­sion then an­other would raise its head, and so it went.

THEN AND NOW

For­tu­nately, things have im­proved dra­mat­i­cally in the 20 years or so since Ar­gosy’s first ap­pear­ance on the Aus­tralian mar­ket and the model to­day is, in ev­ery sense, a far cry from its pre­de­ces­sors. En­gi­neer­ing evo­lu­tion may have moved at glacial pace but it has, in most in­stances, made the truck im­mea­sur­ably stronger, re­li­able and more re­silient, to the point where the cur­rent model, launched back in 2011, has slowly clawed its way to at least some sem­blance of the re­spectabil­ity and ac­cep­tance al­ways promised but so of­ten de­nied.

What’s more, Ar­gosy’s in­flu­ence and im­por­tance within the Freight­liner fold in this coun­try are ar­guably greater to­day than ever.

Ad­mit­tedly, the brand’s over­all sales vol­umes over the past few years are lack­lus­tre to say the least, yet Ar­gosy’s con­tri­bu­tion is nonethe­less crit­i­cal, with the model cur­rently ac­count­ing for a tad more than 30 per cent of all Freight­liner sales.

It’s worth not­ing that K200 also ac­counts for about 30 per cent of all Ken­worth sales, and while over­all vol­umes be­tween the mar­ket leader and its Freight­liner foe are poles apart, the sim­i­lar per­cent­ages at least re­flect each model’s con­tri­bu­tion to the pre­mium cab-over class where B-dou­bles dom­i­nate.

Yet over the past few years, the play­ing field has changed. Big time! The bor­ders of the heavy- duty mar­ket that were once sharply de­fined be­tween US and con­ti­nen­tal contenders are now por­ous and con­stantly mov­ing.

In fact, Euro­pean brands led by an ag­gres­sive Volvo armed with a strong and highly ad­vanced FH range con­tinue to take a sig­nif­i­cant slice of the B-dou­ble sec­tor, carv­ing ever deeper into op­er­a­tions which not so long ago were largely the do­main of K-se­ries and Ar­gosy.

More re­cently, a re­ju­ve­nated Mercedes-Benz has hit the ground run­ning with an ex­cep­tion­ally tal­ented troupe of all-new mod­els.

The thing is, though, Ar­gosy op­er­a­tors ap­pear to be among the main tar­gets for the new Benz, which, from the out­side look­ing in, sug­gests a case of rob­bing Peter to pay Paul. Freight­liner and Benz are, af­ter all,

dis­ci­ples of the same Daim­ler em­pire. Go fig­ure!

Any­way, bol­ster­ing the Euro­pean ef­fort is the fact that en­gines with SCR (AdBlue) emis­sions sys­tems are the foun­da­tion of the con­ti­nen­tal brands. On the other hand, K200 and Ar­gosy were, un­til rel­a­tively re­cently, locked into ex­haust gas re­cir­cu­la­tion (EGR) sys­tems from Cum­mins and, in Ar­gosy’s case, Cum­mins and Detroit.

It’s no se­cret the Cum­mins EGR sys­tem was par­tic­u­larly prob­lem­atic, and the ‘about-face’ to SCR tech­nol­ogy with its ISXe5 and now X15 en­gines is at least restor­ing con­fi­dence in the brand.

Ken­worth, of course, is es­pe­cially pleased with the shift to SCR af­ter tak­ing a ma­jor hit on re­sale val­ues of mod­els pow­ered by a Cum­mins EGR en­gine.

For now, Detroit’s DD15 con­tin­ues to use EGR for cur­rent emis­sions com­pli­ance but, grate­fully, has not had the is­sues of its Cum­mins ri­val. Still, there’s lit­tle doubt the idea of forc­ing hot ex­haust gas into the com­bus­tion cham­ber of a mod­ern heavy-duty diesel en­gine has be­come in­creas­ingly dis­taste­ful to the ma­jor­ity of truck op­er­a­tors.

Even so, as Freight­liner prin­ci­pals ea­gerly point out, Ar­gosy is the only pre­mium cab-over to at least of­fer the choice of two en­gine brands – Cum­mins and Detroit’s DD15.

Mean­time, au­to­mated trans­mis­sions con­tinue to win favour across a broad sec­tion of the truck­ing com­mu­nity, right up to the heav­i­est jobs in the busi­ness.

And it was, of course, the Euro­peans who broke the ice in our mar­ket’s ac­cep­tance of au­to­mated shifters, due in large part to the re­mark­ably in­tu­itive, extremely smooth and driver-friendly per­for­mance of trans­mis­sions that are nowa­days fit­ted as stan­dard equip­ment in the ma­jor­ity of Euro mod­els.

Like­wise, Mack is to­day a big user of au­to­mated boxes with its M-drive de­riv­a­tive of Volvo’s slick I-shift.

That’s not to say, of course, that man­ual shifters are dead. In both Freight­liner and Ken­worth, Ea­ton man­ual trans­mis­sions still dom­i­nate to a large ex­tent but, as sources at both brands have ac­knowl­edged, Ea­ton’s au­to­mated Ul­trashift-Plus op­tion is slowly inch­ing to greater up­take.

There are, how­ever, two ma­jor dif­fer­ences be­tween the au­to­mated of­fer­ings of Euro­pean and US brands in this coun­try. One, Ea­ton’s au­to­mated box is a size­able ex­tra­cost op­tion, whereas an au­to­mated shifter is stan­dard among Euro­pean makes. And two, Euro­pean au­to­mated boxes are gen­er­ally smoother and more in­tu­itive be­cause the en­gine and trans­mis­sion pack­age is de­vel­oped as a sin­gle in­te­grated unit, whereas Ea­ton’s de­vel­op­ment has, by ne­ces­sity, been bound by the in­di­vid­ual traits of sev­eral en­gine brands.

But again, times are chang­ing, and when it comes to the in­te­gra­tion of en­gine and au­to­mated trans­mis­sion tech­nol­ogy in US equip­ment, Cum­mins and Ea­ton have joined forces in a bold bid to close the op­er­a­tional and tech­no­log­i­cal gap.

The ex­tent of that bid was made bla­tantly clear just a few months ago with an an­nounce­ment from Cum­mins in the US that it would spend US$600 mil­lion to take a 50 per cent stake in a newly formed joint ven­ture called Ea­ton Cum­mins Au­to­mated Trans­mis­sion Tech­nolo­gies.

As Cum­mins stated: “The global joint ven­ture will pro­vide cus­tomers with in­dus­try-lead­ing trans­mis­sion tech­nolo­gies and so­lu­tions that de­liver best-in-class fuel ef­fi­ciency, per­for­mance and up­time while lever­ag­ing both Cum­mins’ and Ea­ton’s global ser­vice and sup­port net­works.

“The joint ven­ture will de­sign, as­sem­ble, sell and sup­port all fu­ture medium-duty and heavy-duty au­to­mated trans­mis­sions for the com­mer­cial ve­hi­cle mar­ket.”

While it’ll prob­a­bly be some time yet be­fore the Aus­tralian mar­ket sees any­thing sub­stan­tial from the joint ven­ture, the X15 en­gine has al­ready laid the op­er­a­tional plat­form for a smarter, smoother re­la­tion­ship be­tween Cum­mins and Ea­ton.

De­scribed as an evo­lu­tion­ary de­vel­op­ment of the 15-litre ISXe5 en­gine, the X15 con­tains a suite of ad­vanced electronic fea­tures col­lec­tively mar­keted as ADEPT (Ad­vanced Dy­namic Ef­fi­cient Pow­er­train Tech­nol­ogy), de­signed to de­liver greater ef­fi­ciency through im­proved power train in­te­gra­tion.

As Cum­mins ex­plains it, ADEPT utilises load, speed and grade-sens­ing tech­nol­ogy to ini­ti­ate ad­just­ments to en­gine power, torque and trans­mis­sion gear se­lec­tion to take ad­van­tage of ve­hi­cle mo­men­tum for bet­ter fuel econ­omy.

Here’s the pinch, though: ADEPT is only ap­pli­ca­ble when the en­gine stirs through an Ul­trashift-Plus trans­mis­sion. With a man­ual ’box, noth­ing much changes.

With ei­ther a man­ual or au­to­mated shifter, the 15-litre en­gine’s out­puts still range from 485hp (362kW) to 600hp (447kW) and up to 2050ft-lb of torque.

For its part, Freight­liner re­acted quickly to the en­gine’s avail­abil­ity in Ar­gosy, is­su­ing a press state­ment which said: “The new Cum­mins X15 en­gine is now avail­able with the Freight­liner Ar­gosy in ad­di­tion to the Detroit DD15.”

Yet even be­fore that an­nounce­ment, at least one loyal Ar­gosy fleet was putting the X15 and Ul­trashift-Plus com­bi­na­tion through its paces, with early signs point­ing to no­table im­prove­ment in both per­for­mance and fuel re­turns.

The thing about this in­stal­la­tion, though, was that the en­gine ac­tu­ally started life as an ISXe5 and mor­phed into X15 guise fol­low­ing the rel­a­tively sim­ple in­stal­la­tion of ADEPT soft­ware.

The point is that if your cur­rent ISXe5 en­gine stirs through an Ul­trashift-Plus trans­mis­sion, then up­grad­ing to X15 sta­tus is ap­par­ently as straight­for­ward as a soft­ware change.

“Shifts are re­mark­ably smooth”

WADLEY WORK

Brian Wadley’s pref­er­ence for the Cum­mins-pow­ered Ar­gosy is both long and strong, but it is by no means blind.

Sur­viv­ing the un­com­pro­mis­ing com­pet­i­tive­ness of line-haul gen­eral freight since 1976, Wadley’s In­ter­state Trans­port has not en­dured for so long through com­mer­cial naivety or

a blink­ered pas­sion for one brand or an­other. In Wadley’s world, ser­vice is what keeps the busi­ness strong and keeps one brand ahead of an­other. Sim­ple!

To­day there are 42 trucks in the Syd­ney-based fleet. The ma­jor­ity are B-dou­ble com­bi­na­tions and 32 are hauled by Ar­gosy.

Cum­mins pow­ers the bulk of them, and other than three man­u­als in ear­lier mod­els, Ea­ton’s au­to­mated trans­mis­sion has, over the past decade, be­come the norm for the sim­ple rea­son that it makes life far less stress­ful for driver and driv­e­line alike, ac­cord­ing to Wadley.

The fleet, he ex­plains, has evolved that way since around 2003, when the first Ar­gosy ar­rived fol­low­ing the demise of the Ster­ling brand and, be­fore that, Ford.

Over the years, there have been Ken­worth cab-overs in the op­er­a­tion but he de­clines to com­ment on past events other than re­flect on the dif­fer­ing es­ti­ma­tions of buy­ers and sell­ers.

Still, he ad­mits to keep­ing an open mind and open lines of com­mu­ni­ca­tion with all other brands but has so far found lit­tle rea­son to take his busi­ness else­where.

First Ford, then Ster­ling and now Ar­gosy, the con­duit in all cases is ser­vice through the Still­well’s deal­er­ship at Milperra in Syd­ney’s south-west, and an adamant Wadley in­sists it would take some­thing ex­treme to force a change.

Be­sides, he says driv­ers gen­er­ally like the space, con­ve­nience and sleep­ing quar­ters of the Ar­gosy cab while older driv­ers are es­pe­cially re­cep­tive to the easy ac­cess pro­vided by the swing-out stair­case.

For­tu­nately, the re­li­a­bil­ity is­sues which once made Ar­gosy’s rad­i­cal step de­sign more an em­bar­rass­ment than an as­set have largely be­come a thing of the past.

Wadley doesn’t deny that, af­ter al­most 15 years, he has cer­tainly ex­pe­ri­enced the good, bad and in­dif­fer­ent of Ar­gosy but again cites the ser­vice fac­tor from both Still­well’s and Freight­liner na­tion­ally as the de­cid­ing fac­tor in main­tain­ing the re­la­tion­ship.

More­over, with re­li­a­bil­ity now high on the list of likes, it’s a def­i­nite Wadley who la­bels the cur­rent Ar­gosy eas­ily the best in the model’s his­tory.

Cum­mins, too, has had its is­sues at times, not least with EGR en­gines, but he em­pha­sises the Cum­mins ex­pe­ri­ences were noth­ing in com­par­i­son to the dra­mas suf­fered with Detroit’s Se­ries 60 EGR en­gines. For­tu­nately, a hand­ful of DD15 en­gines have been largely prob­lem­free but Wadley says Cum­mins’ move to SCR with the ISXe5, and a sub­se­quent im­prove­ment in fuel ef­fi­ciency, have re­in­forced the red en­gine’s stand­ing as the pre­ferred power choice.

And on fuel ef­fi­ciency, Wadley gen­eral man­ager Ed Slade is in­creas­ingly op­ti­mistic the X15 and Ul­trashift-Plus com­bi­na­tion will fur­ther en­hance fuel re­turns. The rea­son for the con­fi­dence is an Ar­gosy demon­stra­tor which, for sev­eral months, hauled B-dou­bles on the east coast, punched by an X15 rated at 600hp feed­ing into Ea­ton’s au­to­mated over­drive box and Mer­i­tor diffs run­ning a 4.3:1 rear-axle ra­tio.

Ar­riv­ing at Wadley’s with around 180,000km un­der its belt, the en­gine ac­tu­ally started life as an ISXe5 rated at 550hp but, with ADEPT soft­ware be­com­ing avail­able af­ter more than a year of Aus­tralian test­ing, the e5 was up­graded to X15 sta­tus and re­booted to 600hp. Since then, the truck had notched a fur­ther 20,000km.

Com­pared to the 1.84km/litre (in­clud­ing AdBlue) av­er­age of the com­pany’s lat­est Ar­gosy run­ning an ISXe5 at 550hp into 4.1 diffs, the demon­stra­tor is re­turn­ing 1.92km/ litre, again in­clud­ing AdBlue con­sump­tion. How­ever, Slade pre­dicts fuel con­sump­tion will im­prove even fur­ther with the X15 rated back to the com­pany stan­dard of 550hp.

“We’re up on our weights most of the time but it has been no­tice­ably bet­ter on fuel right from the start,” Slade says of the X15. “And the driver tells us the shifts are a lot smoother and gear se­lec­tion is much smarter. The new soft­ware just makes it bet­ter on fuel and a smarter sys­tem all-round, es­pe­cially in cruise con­trol.”

SHORT ‘N’ SWEET

Along with ad­vanced di­ag­nos­tic and en­gine pro­gram­ming func­tions, key el­e­ments of the X15’s ADEPT soft­ware are what Cum­mins calls ‘SmartCoast’ and ‘SmartTorque’.

‘SmartCoast’ is es­sen­tially a roll mode. As Cum­mins ex­plains: “SmartCoast op­er­ates when the ve­hi­cle is on a mod­er­ate down­hill grade by dis­en­gag­ing the front box of the trans­mis­sion and re­turn­ing the en­gine to idle to re­duce drag, main­tain mo­men­tum, and ul­ti­mately im­prove fuel econ­omy.”

Mean­time, ‘SmartTorque’ is ex­plained as “torque man­age­ment in­tel­li­gence to help elim­i­nate un­nec­es­sary down­shifts and keep the en­gine op­er­at­ing in the most fuel-ef­fi­cient ‘sweet spot’. Torque is var­ied across all gears de­pend­ing on torque re­quire­ment”.

A few hours be­hind the wheel for a 200km re­turn run from Wadley’s yard to the NSW south­ern high­lands wasn’t enough for a de­fin­i­tive ap­praisal, but, with the B-dou­ble gross­ing around 50 tonnes, the run along the Hume at least pro­vided an in­sight into this lat­est de­vel­op­ment be­tween Cum­mins and Ea­ton.

For starters, shifts are re­mark­ably smooth and, with seem­ingly more pa­tience to let the Cum­mins dig deep into its torque re­serves, it’s a sys­tem no­tice­ably less in­clined to make short-lived hops be­tween gears, es­pe­cially in tee­ter­ing traf­fic flows.

It was much the same on the south­bound Scenic climb near Mit­tagong, where the sys­tem’s ap­par­ent abil­ity to ‘sense’ the grade and al­low the en­gine to dig deep and sub­se­quently main­tain a gear rather than opt for a split-shift was en­tirely im­pres­sive. Def­i­nitely smarter! Still south­bound on the drop down the Mit­tagong dip­per, ADEPT’s ca­pac­ity to en­force a down­shift and work in con­junc­tion with the en­gine brake to main­tain a set de­scent speed of 90km/h was yet an­other thumbs up for the sys­tem.

Then, on the re­turn run with cruise con­trol set just a tick be­low 100km/h, ‘SmartCoast’ made its pres­ence felt many times on the long gen­tle de­scent of Scenic Hill, dis­en­gag­ing the trans­mis­sion and al­low­ing mass to main­tain mo­men­tum while the en­gine sipped along at idle. It can ini­tially be a dis­con­cert­ing sen­sa­tion if you’re un­ac­cus­tomed to roll mode but, as Slade re­marks, it surely plays a part in min­imis­ing fuel con­sump­tion.

How­ever, one quirky as­pect on the run down Scenic was the con­stant ap­pli­ca­tion of the en­gine brake for just a sec­ond or two as mo­men­tum pushed the com­bi­na­tion frac­tion­ally be­yond set speed. A few sec­onds on un­til speed dropped back to the set limit, then a few sec­onds off, then back on again as speed rolled up, and so on and so forth. Like I said, quirky! And just a tad an­noy­ing.

Other than that, though, there’s no ques­tion the X15 and Ul­trashift-Plus

“The new soft­ware makes it bet­ter on fuel”

com­bi­na­tion takes US au­to­mated per­for­mance to lev­els of tech­ni­cal co­he­sion and op­er­a­tional ca­pa­bil­ity which, to date, has been the pre­serve of Euro­pean brands.

In ef­fect, the case for au­to­mated shifters in US trucks has gone up a notch. A big notch, and it will surely go even higher if the cost of the au­to­mated op­tion is made more com­pet­i­tive.

But this ar­ti­cle started with Ar­gosy and so shall it end there. The demo truck had more than 200,000km on the clock at the end of the run, and while there were a few mi­nor squeaks and squawks from parts of the cab at var­i­ous times, the over­all qual­ity of the cur­rent model is sim­ply light years ahead of past ex­am­ples.

That’s not to say there isn’t room for on­go­ing im­prove­ment. Pro­duc­tion qual­ity can still be tweaked to a higher stan­dard but, over­all, the com­fort, con­ve­nience and style of the orig­i­nal de­sign that made Ar­gosy such a bold ad­vance in cab-overs of the time were no less ev­i­dent in the 101-inch midroof model do­ing demo du­ties in the Wadley op­er­a­tion.

On-road man­ners were extremely good, with ride and handling leav­ing noth­ing to be de­sired.

Back on the in­side, the colum­n­mounted pad­dle shift trans­mis­sion con­trol wand re­mains eas­ily the best in the busi­ness.

As for ru­mour and in­nu­endo that Ar­gosy is head­ing for ex­tinc­tion as con­ven­tion­als con­tinue to rule the North Amer­i­can heavy-duty mar­ket, Freight­liner’s lo­cal lead­ers in­sist it’s noth­ing more than com­pet­i­tive scut­tle­butt.

As they’re quick to em­pha­sise, the US has been favour­ing con­ven­tion­als for the best part of two decades, yet Freight­liner Inc. con­tin­ues to pro­duce and pro­gres­sively im­prove its right­hand drive cab-over, al­beit oc­ca­sion­ally at the speed of a som­no­lent snail.

In short, and de­spite all its is­sues over the years, Ar­gosy has, from the out­set, been a dom­i­nant fac­tor in Freight­liner’s for­tunes and, with the cur­rent model do­ing much to di­min­ish ex­pe­ri­ences of the past, it’s a fac­tor un­likely to change any­time soon. Bluntly, Ar­gosy ain’t what it used to be, and no mat­ter how you look at it, that’s an en­tirely good thing.

TO HIS con­sid­er­able credit, Volvo Group Aus­tralia (VGA) boss Peter Voorho­eve is a man who likes to ini­ti­ate and in­no­vate. To look out­side the square. To do some­thing more than just over­see the pro­duc­tion and prof­itabil­ity of a ma­jor truck builder.

Take, for ex­am­ple, the launch of the VGA Driver Academy, aimed squarely at en­hanc­ing the char­ac­ter, skills and im­age of Aus­tralia’s truck driver class – male and fe­male. An­nounced at a me­dia con­fer­ence the day be­fore the open­ing of this year’s Bris­bane Truck Show, it’s a highly com­mend­able ini­tia­tive com­ing on the back of an on­go­ing Volvo cam­paign which cham­pi­ons the fact that ‘with­out truck driv­ers Aus­tralia stops’.

Se­ri­ously good stuff. Yet as sure as the sun sets, it’ll be writ­ten off by some neg­a­tive in­ter­ests as lit­tle more than soap­box mar­ket­ing.

Whinge all they want, though, it re­mains a far greater ini­tia­tive than any­thing prof­fered by Voorho­eve’s com­pet­i­tive peers.

Be­sides, VGA has a strong track record for at­tach­ing ini­tia­tives to events like the Bris­bane Truck Show, and this year was no ex­cep­tion. Bris­bane is, af­ter all, home turf for the group and, among a num­ber of no­table en­deav­ours ad­di­tional to the driver academy an­nounce­ment, VGA flew in high-level spe­cial­ists from the over­seas head­quar­ters of its three brands – Mack, UD and Volvo – to dis­cuss a wide range of cur­rent and fu­ture de­vel­op­ment trends dur­ing the show.

One of those was a gen­tle­man named Hay­der Wokil from Volvo HQ in Swe­den. There was, how­ever, more than a tad of irony in his at­ten­dance, es­pe­cially given Voorho­eve’s ‘Driver Academy’ ini­tia­tive.

Wokil is, you see, both a Mas­ter of Sci­ence and Volvo’s direc­tor of mo­bil­ity and au­to­ma­tion, and that means he is in­trin­si­cally in­volved in tech­nol­ogy which has the ul­ti­mate po­ten­tial to make truck driv­ing, as we know it to­day, at least a par­tially re­dun­dant oc­cu­pa­tion.

The in­ten­tion of that state­ment is not to be alarmist or sug­gest that truck driv­ers should start look­ing for work in an­other in­dus­try. Ab­so­lutely not, be­cause noth­ing will hap­pen overnight. That said, though, no one should be in any doubt that within the de­vel­op­ment pro­grams of some of the world’s lead­ing com­mer­cial ve­hi­cle pro­duc­ers, vast re­sources are be­ing thrown at fur­ther­ing the tech­nol­ogy that will bring the au­tonomous – driver­less – truck ever closer to com­mer­cial and so­cial re­al­ity.

So what ex­actly is au­tonomous driv­ing? Sim­ply ex­plained, it’s where a ve­hi­cle’s highly ad­vanced elec­tron­ics, Wi-Fi and radar tech­nol­ogy take over the func­tions of ac­tu­ally driv­ing and steer­ing a truck, par­tic­u­larly over long high­way stretches. At its sim­plest, it leaves the

“Aus­tralia is at the top of Volvo’s list for test­ing”

driver to just sit back and take it easy but al­ways able to as­sume phys­i­cal con­trol when re­quired.

At its most com­plex, it has the po­ten­tial to make the driver fully re­dun­dant on spe­cially con­fig­ured routes where the truck is vir­tu­ally ‘con­nected’ to the road.

As for the closely as­so­ci­ated tech­nol­ogy of pla­toon­ing, Euro­pean sources de­scribe it as the use of au­tonomous driv­ing tech­nolo­gies for two or more trucks to com­mu­ni­cate wire­lessly and fol­low in close suc­ces­sion, ef­fec­tively draft­ing be­hind each other to en­hance both aero­dy­namic and fuel ef­fi­ciency. But again, there’s no doubt the idea of a com­pletely driver­less truck run­ning along a ‘con­nected high­way’ in ei­ther sin­gle or pla­toon form is the ul­ti­mate goal for the sys­tem’s true be­liev­ers.

Doubters of the tech­nol­ogy and its even­tual im­pact need look no fur­ther than the suc­cess of tri­als in Europe early last year, where the con­ti­nent’s top truck mak­ers (DAF, Iveco, MAN, Mercedes-Benz, Sca­nia and Volvo) took part in the world’s first Truck Pla­toon­ing Chal­lenge.

With the pla­toon­ing com­bi­na­tions run­ning trou­ble-free across na­tional bor­ders from their home coun­tries to a cen­tral point in the Nether­lands, the stated goal of the ex­er­cise was to be a spring­board for the har­mon­i­sa­tion of pla­toon­ing rules and au­tonomous driv­ing tech­nol­ogy across Europe. Com­mer­cially, how­ever, the ex­er­cise was a ma­jor first step in show­cas­ing the eco­nomic vi­a­bil­ity of au­tonomous truck­ing.

As Dr Wolf­gang Bern­hard, the global head of Daim­ler Trucks, com­ments in strong sup­port of au­tonomous tech­nol­ogy: “Driv­ing in a con­voy is one of nu­mer­ous ex­am­ples to raise the per­for­mance of goods trans­port ex­ten­sively with con­nected trucks. We are con­se­quently push­ing this de­vel­op­ment.”

HERE AND BE­YOND

On the sur­face, au­tonomous trucks are touted by pro­po­nents as a sig­nif­i­cant ad­vance in safety and ef­fi­ciency but, ob­vi­ously enough, it is tech­nol­ogy which also has the keen at­ten­tion of scores of ma­jor freight com­pa­nies and their le­gions of blue-chip cus­tomers, all ex­cited by the pos­si­bil­ity of cheaper trans­port costs. Af­ter all, take the driver – or at least some of the driv­ers – out of the pic­ture and gone also is a ma­jor cost in freight move­ments.

Sure, the road to wide­spread au­tonomous truck­ing is long and mired in dif­fi­cul­ties of many de­scrip­tions – some al­ready ev­i­dent, oth­ers still to be dis­cov­ered, and all with mas­sive reg­u­la­tory hur­dles to over­come. Be as­sured, though, the jour­ney has started, and from all ap­pear­ances there will be no turn­ing back.

Typ­i­cally, Aus­tralia’s rel­a­tive iso­la­tion and unique op­er­at­ing con­di­tions can eas­ily pro­voke the be­lief that it can’t or won’t hap­pen here. Wrong! Nei­ther our iso­la­tion nor our op­er­at­ing con­di­tions are as unique as they once were.

Tech­nol­ogy has shrunk the world to a dot of its for­mer form and, some­what sur­pris­ingly, Hay­der Wokil was quick to cite Aus­tralia as a sig­nif­i­cant con­trib­u­tor to de­vel­op­ment of the au­tonomous truck due to its value as a vi­tal test bed for all Volvo Group prod­ucts.

That’s not to sug­gest that we’ll be see­ing au­tonomous trucks any­time soon in sin­gle or pla­toon form be­ing tri­alled across the Nullar­bor or up and down the Hume. What Wokil does fore­cast, how­ever, is that the sys­tems, sen­sors and plethora of pieces crit­i­cal to the safe, ef­fi­cient and re­li­able op­er­a­tion of au­tonomous trucks will need to be tested to ex­tra­or­di­nary ex­tremes. For Volvo, Aus­tralia is the ideal place for op­er­a­tional ex­tremes.

“Aus­tralia is at the top of Volvo’s list for test­ing but it’s not just about test­ing pow­er­trains or chas­sis,” he com­ments. “It’s just as im­por­tant for com­po­nent test­ing and that will cer­tainly be the case for au­tonomous trucks.”

How­ever, when asked if Aus­tralia had the po­ten­tial to be a test bed for a com­plete au­tonomous truck on, say, the Ade­laide to Perth route, a thought­ful Hay­der an­swers: “I wouldn’t dis­miss the idea. It’s not out of the ques­tion but it won’t hap­pen soon. So much still needs to be done in Europe.”

Europe and the US, he em­pha­sises, will con­tinue to be the heart of au­tonomous de­vel­op­ment for the ob­vi­ous rea­sons that the world’s ma­jor truck pro­duc­ers are based on ei­ther side of the At­lantic and, im­por­tantly, can quickly ac­quire

“Driver­less truck­ing is no longer pie-in-the-sky think­ing”

first-hand feed­back from op­er­a­tors in­volved in field tests.

Still, even among the lead­ing in­sti­ga­tors of au­tonomous tech­nol­ogy, it seems opin­ions are var­ied on the ex­tent of driver­less trucks in years to come.

Take Freight­liner in the US, for ex­am­ple. This is Amer­ica’s top heavy-duty truck pro­ducer which has made plenty of mileage out of its au­tonomous tech­nol­ogy.

Yet, in a wide-rang­ing in­ter­view re­cently, Daim­ler Trucks North Amer­ica chief ex­ec­u­tive Roger Neilsen said can­didly: “We do not see a point in the near fu­ture where there will be driver­less trucks on the road.

“But the tech­nol­ogy that will be needed for fully au­tonomous trucks is the tech­nol­ogy needed for to­day’s trucks; ev­ery­thing from ac­tive brak­ing to lane con­trol to ac­tive cruise con­trol to driver at­ten­tive­ness mon­i­tor­ing.”

Hedg­ing his bets it seems, and some­what at odds with Daim­ler’s in­tense test­ing in Europe.

On the other hand, it’s an adamant Wokil who says au­tonomous trucks will even­tu­ally be­come a fact of life, but, in the next breath, he some­what re­servedly de­clines to give an in­di­ca­tion of when the tech­nol­ogy will be­come rel­a­tively com­mon­place in trans­port op­er­a­tions. The tech­nol­ogy, he as­serts, will come in waves, start­ing with the so-called ‘hype curve’ mark­ing the ex­cite­ment and in­vest­ment in ini­tial pro­grams. Then will come the in­evitable teething prob­lems with their as­so­ci­ated cyn­ics be­fore tech­nol­ogy and ne­go­ti­a­tion find an­swers, and, fi­nally, pro­duc­tion and op­er­a­tional suc­cess.

“How long that process will take, I wouldn’t guess,” he quips. “This tech­nol­ogy will not come fast. It will be evo­lu­tion more than revo­lu­tion.”

Thought­ful for a few mo­ments, Wokil re­marks: “This tech­nol­ogy is all about ad­dress­ing safety, ef­fi­ciency and the en­vi­ron­ment.”

But surely it’s also about the tech­nol­ogy’s mas­sive fu­ture im­pact on the jobs and liveli­hoods of truck driv­ers? It’s a ques­tion which draws a long pause from Wokil.

“The an­swer is that there has to be a bal­ance be­tween life and ef­fi­ciency,” he re­sponds. “Look how the agri­cul­tural in­dus­try has changed over the last cen­tury and more. Tech­nol­ogy has played its part but life still goes on.”

It’s a valid point, and one that only needs to imag­ine an agri­cul­tural

in­dus­try with­out the mech­a­ni­sa­tion that grew from the first use of trac­tors and har­vesters lit­tle more than a cen­tury ago. In­deed, agri­cul­tural his­tory and more re­cent min­ing in­no­va­tions have many peo­ple and or­gan­i­sa­tions draw­ing sim­i­lar par­al­lels with the ad­vance of au­tonomous tech­nol­ogy in trucks.

CLOSER TO HOME

It may seem a long way from road­go­ing trucks but talk of au­tonomous haulage is, for ex­am­ple, high on the agenda at the up­com­ing Beef­works Con­fer­ence held by the Aus­tralian Lot Feed­ers As­so­ci­a­tion near Toowoomba, Queens­land.

Keen to dig deep into the po­ten­tial of driver­less tech­nol­ogy, the as­so­ci­a­tion has en­listed the ex­pe­ri­ence of Cater­pil­lar Global Min­ing and its man­ager for tech­nol­ogy, Damien Wil­liams, as guest speaker.

“Cater­pil­lar en­gi­neers have taken our au­tonomous haulage sys­tem to new lev­els of pro­duc­tiv­ity,” says Wil­liams, who fur­ther sug­gests “au­tonomous and semi-au­tonomous tech­nolo­gies are be­com­ing main­stream faster than any­one had ever an­tic­i­pated”.

“This tech­nol­ogy will be used within other in­dus­tries, in­clud­ing the feed­lot in­dus­try, within only a few years. In­dus­tries are be­ing asked to pro­duce more, with fewer re­sources. Au­tonomous trucks are one ex­am­ple of pro­vid­ing so­lu­tions to this prob­lem.”

Still some way from the world of road-go­ing trucks but cer­tainly in­dica­tive of the tech­nol­ogy’s steady ad­vance in our neck of the woods, a con­sor­tium of com­mer­cial and tech­ni­cal part­ners has an­nounced it will con­duct a trial of an au­tonomous ve­hi­cle in Vic­to­ria to ex­plore the use of driver­less shut­tles in mov­ing stu­dents around a uni­ver­sity cam­pus.

Ac­cord­ing to a joint press re­lease is­sued by the trial’s par­tic­i­pants – La Trobe Uni­ver­sity, Royal Au­to­mo­bile Club of Vic­to­ria, Aus­tralian Road Re­search Board, and spe­cial­ist providers HMI Tech­nolo­gies and Ke­o­lis Downer: “The pro­ject aims to ex­plore, through a model de­ploy­ment in real op­er­at­ing con­di­tions, the use of au­tonomous ve­hi­cles to cre­ate a re-us­able com­mer­cial frame­work to sup­port de­vel­op­ment of the req­ui­site reg­u­la­tion and/or leg­is­la­tion.”

HMI Tech­nolo­gies, a Mel­bourne- head­quar­tered com­pany spe­cial­is­ing in in­tel­li­gent trans­port tech­nolo­gies and sys­tems, is sup­ply­ing a French-built, elec­tri­cally pow­ered Navya 15-per­son shut­tle for the trial, de­scribed as a fully au­tonomous ve­hi­cle with no steer­ing wheel.

A uni­ver­sity cam­pus is, of course, a long way from the un­for­giv­ing world of long-dis­tance road freight haulage, but the Vic­to­rian trial is an­other step to­wards what an in­creas­ing num­ber of peo­ple be­lieve is an in­evitable evo­lu­tion. One of those is HMI Tech­nolo­gies chief ex­ec­u­tive Dean Zabrieszach, who says: “Au­tonomous ve­hi­cles are com­ing, whether we are ready or not.

“Many peo­ple be­lieve we are years away from see­ing these ve­hi­cles on our roads, but we dis­agree. In­creas­ing lev­els of au­to­mated tech­nol­ogy are be­ing de­liv­ered so it’s im­por­tant we un­der­stand what is re­quired for au­tonomous ve­hi­cles to operate safely here.”

PROS AND CONS

But again, what of the driv­ers po­ten­tially dis­placed by driver­less trucks? It’s a ques­tion gain­ing plenty of trac­tion as au­tonomous

tech­nol­ogy con­tin­ues to gather fol­low­ers in Europe and the US, with many ob­servers con­vinced that driver­less trucks will be­come a com­mer­cial re­al­ity much sooner than ini­tially ex­pected.

In Europe, for in­stance, a com­pre­hen­sive study ti­tled Man­ag­ing the Tran­si­tion to Driver­less Road

Freight Trans­port by four sig­nif­i­cant trans­port-re­lated en­ti­ties – the Euro­pean Au­to­mo­bile Man­u­fac­tur­ers’ As­so­ci­a­tion, In­ter­na­tional Trans­port Work­ers’ Fed­er­a­tion, In­ter­na­tional Road Trans­port Union and the In­ter­na­tional Trans­port Fo­rum – sug­gests the jobs of be­tween two mil­lion and 4.4 mil­lion truck driv­ers in the US and Europe could be­come re­dun­dant by 2030 if ef­forts to in­tro­duce driver­less trucks main­tain their cur­rent mo­men­tum.

While the re­port’s au­thors ac­knowl­edge the prospec­tive ben­e­fits in cost savings, re­duced emis­sions, safer roads, and even pro­vid­ing some relief for an emerg­ing short­age of pro­fes­sional driv­ers, it also concludes the loss of mil­lions of jobs will have dire eco­nomic and so­cial con­se­quences un­less pro­vi­sions are made to counter the im­pacts of

“It will be evo­lu­tion more than revo­lu­tion”

au­tonomous tech­nol­ogy. Ex­am­in­ing nu­mer­ous sce­nar­ios around the im­ple­men­ta­tion of driver­less trucks, the joint re­port concludes a 50 to 70 per cent re­duc­tion in truck driv­ing jobs in the US and Europe by 2030.

Mean­time, the pace of progress con­tin­ues to ramp up, with In­ter­na­tional Trans­port Fo­rum sec­re­tary-gen­eral Jose Vie­gas com­ment­ing: “Man­u­fac­tur­ers are in­vest­ing heav­ily into truck au­to­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy, while many gov­ern­ments are ac­tively re­view­ing their reg­u­la­tions to un­der­stand what changes would be re­quired to al­low self-driv­ing ve­hi­cles on pub­lic roads.”

In other words, reg­u­la­tory prepa­ra­tions are now firmly in play for the ac­cep­tance of trucks equipped with au­tonomous tech­nol­ogy.

When it’s all boiled down, the ef­fi­ciency gains are just too great to pass up and big busi­ness will push gov­ern­ments hard to make those gains a com­mer­cial re­al­ity. Like­wise, gov­ern­ments won’t be shy about max­imis­ing the po­lit­i­cal ku­dos as­so­ci­ated with bring­ing goods to mar­ket cheaper and more ef­fi­ciently.

The prob­lem for gov­ern­ments, how­ever, will be to pro­vide busi­ness with the reg­u­la­tory plat­form to bring au­tonomous trucks into main­stream trans­port op­er­a­tions while some­how min­imis­ing the im­pacts on driv­ers dis­placed by the wide­spread im­ple­men­ta­tion of the tech­nol­ogy.

Given the num­ber of jobs at stake, min­imis­ing those im­pacts won’t be easy. Nor will it be cheap.

As the Euro­pean study in­di­cated, fi­nan­cial sup­port for dis­placed driv­ers in de­vel­oped economies may even prove to be in­ad­e­quate if the sug­gested speed and scale of job losses due to the fast­paced in­tro­duc­tion of au­tonomous tech­nol­ogy are re­alised. Sim­i­larly, as a US re­searcher re­cently ob­served, wide­spread adop­tion of au­tonomous trucks will hit like a train and po­ten­tially re­sult in mil­lions of job losses if ap­pro­pri­ate safe­guards are not part of a tran­si­tion process to driver­less trucks.

Yet truck driv­ers are un­likely to be­come a com­pletely ex­tinct species. Con­gested ur­ban ar­eas, for ex­am­ple, are not the ideal work­place for au­tonomous trucks. For in­es­timable years to come, lo­cal de­liv­er­ies and the need to re­lay trucks to and from ‘con­nected’ high­ways will con­tinue to re­quire a man or woman who knows how to steer a truck.

That said, though, in­dus­try an­a­lysts and com­men­ta­tors across the US and Europe are con­vinced au­tonomous tech­nol­ogy can and will per­form a huge amount of the high­way work cur­rently in the hands of truck driv­ers.

As we’ve pointed out in ear­lier re­ports, the world’s ma­jor truck mak­ers would not be com­mit­ting vast re­sources to au­tonomous tech­nol­ogy and pow­er­ing ahead with test­ing in real-world con­di­tions un­less the road freight in­dus­try was not show­ing such in­tent and will­ing­ness to adopt the tech­nol­ogy.

Demon­stra­tions such as last year’s ‘pla­toon­ing’ ex­er­cise across Europe leave lit­tle doubt in most minds that driver­less truck­ing is no longer piein-the-sky think­ing. It is real and just around the cor­ner.

In the short term, politi­cians and reg­u­la­tors may be re­luc­tant to pub­licly sanc­tion tech­nol­ogy which has the ab­so­lute po­ten­tial to put so many work­ers on the so­cial and eco­nomic scrapheap. Yet for busi­ness, the ben­e­fits are sim­ply too great to ig­nore or leave locked in a reg­u­la­tory closet, ef­fec­tively forc­ing gov­ern­ments to pro­vide the frame­work for so­ci­ety to en­joy the flow-on ben­e­fits of lower road trans­port costs.

The real is­sue, it seems, is not so much when or if au­tonomous trucks are in­tro­duced, but how their in­tro­duc­tion is man­aged to soften the ef­fects of hu­mankind once again demon­strat­ing a re­mark­able ca­pac­ity to find new ways of do­ing it­self out of a job.

Brian Wadley (left) and man­ager Ed Slade: Ar­gosy is the fleet favourite but so, too, are Cum­mins SCR en­gine and Ea­ton au­to­mated shifters. X15 trial has shown no­table gains in fuel econ­omy

Con­nected: ADEPT soft­ware stream­lines per­for­mance be­tween Cum­mins X15 and Ea­ton’s Ul­trashift-Plus au­to­mated trans­mis­sion

Con­test: Freight­liner Ar­gosy and Ken­worth K200 stare off at the Bris­bane Truck Show but, typ­i­cally, the Euro­peans were just around the cor­ner

Step in the right di­rec­tion: a great idea from the start, re­li­a­bil­ity is­sues now ap­pear a thing of the past for Ar­gosy’s unique swing-out step

Smarter in the ‘burbs: par­tic­u­larly no­tice­able in baulk­ing traf­fic, Cum­mins X15 soft­ware re­duces gearshifts by dig­ging deeper into torque re­serves

Con­voy: Volvo was one of six lead­ing truck mak­ers to take part last year in a ‘Pla­toon­ing Chal­lenge’ across Europe. The ex­er­cise was hugely suc­cess­ful, show­cas­ing the eco­nomic vi­a­bil­ity of au­tonomous truck­ing

Volvo’s Hay­der Wokil at the Bris­bane Truck Show: “This tech­nol­ogy is all about ad­dress­ing safety, ef­fi­ciency and the en­vi­ron­ment.” But he doesn’t deny it will have a huge im­pact on driv­ers

Un­der­ground move­ment: Au­tonomous tech­nol­ogy is be­ing in­creas­ingly ap­plied to min­ing op­er­a­tions, re­port­edly with big im­prove­ments in pro­duc­tiv­ity

Closer to home: it’s no road-go­ing truck but this fully au­tonomous, French-built shut­tle will soon start tri­als in Vic­to­ria

Like the min­ing in­dus­try, agri­cul­tural in­ter­ests are look­ing hard at au­tonomous driv­ing tech­nol­ogy. Here, a Volvo VM with au­tonomous tech­nol­ogy works along­side a har­vester in a South Amer­i­can cane­field

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