Argosy with the Cummins-Eaton combination
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burst of fresh thinking in American cab-over design, sporting so much more than a K-series that, back then, had become outdated in both form and function.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”
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