ENGINES, BOXES & MORE
Electronics and emissions: no two words better encapsulate the last 25 years in engine and powertrain development
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