Elec­tron­ics and emis­sions: no two words bet­ter en­cap­su­late the last 25 years in en­gine and pow­er­train de­vel­op­ment

Australian Transport News - - Truck Reviews | Truck Progression - WORDS STEVE BROOKS

To my mind, dra­matic change in en­gines started around the mid ’80s when the hugely pow­er­ful state of Cal­i­for­nia de­cided it had had enough of a pol­luted, soot­soaked at­mos­phere, and sub­se­quently man­dated its own clean air bill.

Any truck trav­el­ling through the state had to com­ply or don’t bother com­ing. Sud­denly, the emis­sions ball was rolling and it rolled all around the world. Still is!

Diesel en­gine mak­ers were on no­tice: clean up your act or find some­thing else to make. There were nerves aplenty but re­search and de­vel­op­ment pro­grams went into over­drive and, rightly per­haps, an en­tirely new era in diesel en­gine de­vel­op­ment was born in Amer­ica’s au­to­mo­tive heart­land. Detroit by name and Detroit by de­sign, it was called Se­ries 60.

There had never been any­thing like it. Full author­ity elec­tron­ics in an over­head cam 12.7-litre (and later 14-litre) diesel en­gine that not only per­formed well but met those early emis­sions re­quire­ments with a level of fuel ef­fi­ciency that sparked ev­ery­one’s at­ten­tion.

Se­ries 60 quickly shot to the top of Amer­ica’s diesel en­gine hit pa­rade and the big win­ner was Roger Penske, who had the fore­sight to recog­nise the en­gine’s mas­sive po­ten­tial and jumped at the op­por­tu­nity to ac­quire lu­cra­tive rights to the en­gine from its Gen­eral Mo­tors cre­ator. The en­gine was a rev­e­la­tion in our neck of the woods just as it was in the US and, crit­i­cally, spurred the other big play­ers in the heavy-duty diesel en­gine busi­ness into ac­tion.

Yet so far ahead of the pack was Se­ries 60 that the likes of Cat and Cummins had lit­tle come­back. It would, in fact, be many years be­fore any en­gine maker any­where in the world had new plat­forms even close to the Detroit en­gine’s stan­dard.

The best most could do was de­vise add-on elec­tronic pack­ages which still couldn’t match Se­ries 60’s ad­vanced tech­nol­ogy or its fuel ef­fi­ciency.

In Australia, dur­ing the early to mid ’90s, there was no bet­ter show­case of en­gine de­vel­op­ment and mar­ket pop­u­lar­ity than the Ken­worth pro­duc­tion plant in Bayswa­ter (Vic). Cat, Cummins or Detroit, take your pick. In time, how­ever, much would change.

For its part, by 2008 Cat had found the truck en­gine busi­ness far too dif­fi­cult and costly, pulling out of on-high­way en­gines al­to­gether and leav­ing many of its de­voted fans frus­trated and an­noyed.

Per­haps sad­dest and strangest of all, though, tough­en­ing emis­sions stan­dards would be the death of Se­ries 60. In a bid to meet those stan­dards, Detroit en­gi­neers re­cy­cled big bursts of ex­haust gas (EGR) back into the com­bus­tion cham­ber of an en­gine which, sim­ply put, had never been de­signed for EGR.

But that cer­tainly didn’t mean the end of Detroit Diesel. Penske had by then sold the en­gine maker to the Daim­ler em­pire, and the same US plant which had been the cru­cible for Se­ries 60 soon enough be­came the first launch pad for an en­tirely new fam­ily of high-tech en­gines de­signed for Daim­ler brands (Freight­liner, Fuso, Mercedes-Benz) and mar­kets around the world. How­ever, with Cat’s exit and Detroit’s ac­qui­si­tion by Daim­ler, the only big-bore en­gine left for Pac­car was Cummins.

What­ever, Cat’s de­par­ture was un­ques­tion­ably a ma­jor boost for Cummins, a brand that had also con­sid­ered leav­ing the truck en­gine busi­ness and, later, no­tably in our part of the world, suf­fered a par­tic­u­larly dif­fi­cult time with its new 15-litre Sig­na­ture en­gines.

“Diesel en­gine mak­ers were on no­tice: clean up your act or find some­thing else to make”

Cummins, along with most en­gine mak­ers in the US at the time, was bas­ing its emis­sions tech­nol­ogy on EGR and, with ever-tougher stan­dards to meet, the tech­nol­ogy did not fare well. Now, of course, it’s all about se­lec­tive cat­alytic re­duc­tion (SCR) and Cummins is a much hap­pier and health­ier com­pany. So, too, is a re­lieved Ken­worth.

As far as per­for­mance goes, en­gines to­day make their pre­de­ces­sors ap­pear pas­sive in com­par­i­son. Where 450hp (336kW) and maybe 1400ft-lb (1898Nm) of torque were the stuff of big bangers in the early and mid-’90s, the race was on to climb ever higher up the per­for­mance lad­der.

These days, the race has slowed down a good deal but, then again, why shouldn’t it? After all, we’re now at 700-plus (522kW) with more than 2200ft-lb (2983Nm) of torque. Back in the ’90s, and even the early part of this cen­tury, these were mys­ti­cal fig­ures rarely con­sid­ered a pos­si­bil­ity, let alone a prob­a­bil­ity.


Mean­time, trans­mis­sion de­vel­op­ment cer­tainly hasn’t stood still ei­ther, and the days when 9-, 10-, 13-, 15- and later 18-speed Road­ranger man­u­als were the norm along­side the slow syn­chro boxes of the con­ti­nen­tal brands have well and truly pe­tered into the past. Au­to­ma­tion changed ev­ery­thing and when it comes to in­te­grated and elec­tron­i­cally man­aged en­gine and trans­mis­sion pack­ages, the ver­ti­cally in­te­grated Euro­peans (mean­ing they de­velop their own en­gine, trans­mis­sion and driv­e­line com­bi­na­tions) have largely left the Yanks in their wake.

Ar­guably the first to truly get an au­to­mated box right was the gi­ant Ger­man com­po­nent spe­cial­ist ZF with its AS-Tronic 12 and 16-speed boxes. Su­per smooth with quick, slick shifts, it came to Australia in sev­eral forms but most no­tably in Iveco heavy-duty mod­els.

Com­pared to other au­to­mated ef­forts, in­clud­ing Mercedes-Benz’s or­di­nary ‘ Tel­li­gent’ shifter in the orig­i­nal Ac­tros and early ver­sions of Sca­nia’s Op­ti­cruise shifter, ZF set the bar at an en­tirely new level. What’s more, ZF con­tin­ues to con­trib­ute in a big way and the sweet au­to­mated shifters in DAF and the lat­est Benz mod­els all re­tain a strong con­nec­tion with the Zah­n­rad­fab­rik ( gear fac­tory) from the Ger­man town of Friedrichshafen. Still, it wasn’t long be­fore the au­to­ma­tion bar went even higher when Volvo in­tro­duced its stun­ningly adept and highly in­tu­itive I-shift which to­day, of course, also per­forms as Mack’s mDrive and UD’s strangely named Es­cot (se­ri­ously, why not U-Drive?). And, make no mis­take, the evo­lu­tion con­tin­ues.

Mean­while, over the pond in the US of A, driv­e­line spe­cial­ist Ea­ton was strug­gling to catch up. Its Au­toshift ver­sion of the 18-speed shifter was, for in­stance, or­di­nary to say the least. Ad­mit­tedly, the cur­rent Ul­trashift-Plus au­to­mated box is light years bet­ter than Au­toshift but, even so, it’s easy to have some em­pa­thy for Ea­ton’s early ef­forts.

Un­like the Euro­peans, its au­to­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy has had to con­tend with the dif­fer­ent pa­ram­e­ters of dif­fer­ent en­gine mak­ers, namely Cat, Cummins and Detroit. How­ever, with Cat’s en­gine exit and Detroit’s move into the Daim­ler world, the fu­ture is look­ing much brighter for Ea­ton’s au­to­ma­tion am­bi­tions, par­tic­u­larly since Cummins’ re­cent in­vest­ment of $600 mil­lion to part­ner with Ea­ton in pow­er­train de­vel­op­ment. This ef­fec­tively means Cummins and Ea­ton are in their own unique way, repli­cat­ing the ver­ti­cally in­te­grated sys­tem of their con­ti­nen­tal com­peti­tors. A smart move!

No mat­ter how you look at the world of truck and pow­er­train de­vel­op­ment, the in­escapable fact is that noth­ing is as it was. Truck sales around the world may be greater than they’ve ever been but it’s a world which has, in fact, shrunk be­yond recog­ni­tion of what it was 25 years ago.

There are, of course, still plenty of truck brands but most are these days an in­te­gral part of a greater cor­po­rate cas­tle. Daim­ler has Freight­liner, Fuso, Mercedes-Benz and in North Amer­ica, West­ern Star, all with ac­cess to the cor­po­rate fam­ily of en­gines, trans­mis­sions and driv­e­lines. Like­wise, Mack, Re­nault, UD and Volvo.

Pac­car, of course, is the par­ent of Ken­worth, Peter­bilt and DAF, and while Cummins still fig­ures highly in the cor­po­ra­tion’s busi­ness, Pac­car’s DAF ac­qui­si­tion in 1996 for more than half a bil­lion US dol­lars has also de­liv­ered its own highly re­garded en­gine fam­ily. Here, we know it sim­ply as the Pac­car MX-13.

The in­escapable mes­sage is that it’s now about group tech­nol­ogy rather than in­di­vid­ual pur­suits of sin­gle brands.

So what’s next? The an­swer’s sim­ple. Change! You can count on it.

Right: In­tu­itive I-shift. Volvo’s au­to­mated trans­mis­sion has done a great deal to change think­ing about au­to­mated shifters

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