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Driving the new Volvo VNR

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — If it takes a village to raise a child, as the African proverb goes, perhaps it takes an industry to design a truck. That was Volvo’s approach to developing its new VNR regional haul truck, which was unveiled at ExpoCam in Montreal in April, and made available to the truck press for initial rides and drives here June 1.

When designing the new VNR, Volvo consulted with about 2,000 customers and drivers, and results of their input can be found everywhere throughout the cab. There were so many ‘why hasn’t anyone else thought of that?’ moments noticed during my time in the VNR, that it was clear Volvo was listening carefully to driver feedback, and not just going through the motions. 

Mostly, it’s the little things. For example, drivers can adjust the interior volume of the turn signals and hazard lights, from obnoxiously loud to barely audible. A good idea for those times a team driver is trying to get in some sleep in the bunk. Also, cupholders can be removed and relocated to the exact position the driver wants them at along a rail on the center console. The driver can even install additional cupholders there. And the cupholders themselves are versatile enough to accommodate everything from large Big Gulp-type mugs, to small Styrofoam cups or narrow water bottles.

Volvo powertrain marketing rep Allison Athey told me she inadvertently put the cupholders to the test, when she placed in it a full coffee without a lid and forgot about it. On the road, she looked down in a panic, thinking she’d made a mess of one of the very first prototype VNRs to roll off the line, and to her relief saw that the cup hadn’t spilled over.

Chalk it up to an effective cupholder design and the smooth-shifting I-Shift transmission. But enough about cupholders.

There’s lots to like about the new design of the VNR, especially if you’re a driver. Volvo defines a regional haul truck as a work truck that tends to make deliveries within a 200- to 300-mile radius. Common applications involve bulk haul, flatdeck, tanker, and city P&D. These drivers typically don’t live out of the truck, but they spend enough time in it that they deserve to be every bit as comfortable as their linehaul brethren, and that’s what Volvo brings to them in the VNR.

The interior is stylish and comfortable, with exceptional visibility offered over the short, tapered hood. For the first time, Volvo is offering a full range of seats, regardless of interior trim level selected. If you want to splurge on a comfortable seat you spend all day in, but save on the interior trim level, now you can do so. And why not? Tying the available seat selections to the interior package limits customer choice, and the new VNR is all about choice.

Seven levels of seating are available, including high-end RollTek and Bose Ride System seats. You can also choose heated and cooled seats, or a passenger seat with an integrated refrigerator to eliminate the need to clutter up the cab with a cooler. Even the most basic seats are extremely comfortable. I drove a VNR 400 on the highway and assumed my seat was an upgraded option, only to discover it was the most basic one on offer – the X1 vinyl seat from National.

The new Position Perfect steering wheel is more comfortable than past designs, and can house up to 19 controls. It’s also pretty much infinitely adjustable. The VNR is a modern truck that doesn’t discriminate; drivers of all shapes, sizes, and statures will be comfortable in this truck.

The new steering wheel even offers a neck tilt option so you can position it just right to see the new, colorful driver information display. This five-inch display uses strategic colors – red and green – to convey key messages to the driver with minimal distraction. The display is also customizable, and where drivers can adjust things like the signal light volume, but that’s only possible when the truck’s parked.

The door panels have been redesigned as well, the speakers relocated to offer better acoustics and deeper pockets that provide more storage. A cool blue interior light on the door offers interior visibility for the driver and passenger, and a new puddle lamp on the bottom of the door shines down on the step and any hazards below when the door is opened.

That’s another idea that had to have come from a driver. No more soaked work boots!

Even the door-mounted fingertip controls for the windows, locks, and mirrors were revamped for a better feel.

I drove two VNRs – the 400 with 48-ft. flatdeck trailer loaded to about 75,000 lbs on highway, and the VNR 300 with 28-ft. trailer on a city route – and both were incredibly quiet. This is in part due to improvements to engine design, but also thanks to a new rubber floor covering insert that keeps road noise to a minimum.

Both trucks were powered by the D11 engine rated at 425 hp and 1,550 lb.-ft. of torque and Volvo I-Shift 12-speed automated manual transmission. The D11 is the standard engine for the VNR and it’s plenty powerful enough for loads grossing up to 80,000 lbs on reasonably flat terrain. The 13-liter will probably be preferred in many Canadian applications.

The highway tractor I drove was set up with the XE package for optimum fuel economy through downspeeding, while the city truck had a direct drive transmission and straight torque engine configuration. Both had fleet-level interior trim packages, but these were very well-appointed cabs and perfectly comfortable to drive. The highway tractor had a 42-inch mid-roof sleeper, home to a more comfortable higher-end mattress, while the city truck was a day cab.

Both had ample, well placed power options inside the cab, another result of the consultation designers did with drivers. These include USB and 12-volt power outlets at the top of the dash, close to the slots and pockets drivers can use to store their electronic devices.

Volvo cleaned up the dash, making it more intuitive while eliminating unnecessary empty switch blanks. An optional touchscreen infotainment system is available, but both trucks I drove were without.

The exterior of the truck is indisputably more handsome than the 20-year-old VNM it will replace. The truck has a more modern, streamlined appearance. But changes to the exterior were as much about function as they were aesthetics. Bearing in mind regional trucks are often required to work in tight spaces where damage can easily occur, Volvo designers took steps to protect against damage and to simplify repairs when required. For example, the headlights are inset from the edge of the fenders, where they’re less likely to get cracked.

Two bumper end plates can be removed if the truck is going off-highway, or replaced if they get dented. Volvo went with all-LED lighting, which is rated at 10,000 hours, making even bulb replacements less frequent. The bumper hugs the chassis so it doesn’t stick out where it’s vulnerable to damage. The hood offers incredible visibility from the driver’s seat, and Volvo’s stylish hood-mounted mirrors provide excellent visibility around the truck without detracting from the truck’s appearance.

The hood is attached to the cab, offering easier access to underhood components. The air intakes on the side of the hood – while not as distinctive as the inverted hockey stick shape I personally am fond of – offer excellent ventilation, Volvo officials said. The truck has a 113-inch BBC, one of the best in the industry, and 50-degree wheel cut, for excellent maneuverability. I was really pleased with how the VNR 300 handled on a tight city route in Winston-Salem.

You can tell by looking at the VNR that it’s a more aerodynamic design than the VNM it replaces, which Volvo says will net a fuel economy improvement of about 1%. The new GHG17 engines Volvo rolled out earlier this year contribute another 2.5-3% improvement in fuel economy. So fleet owners will really like the new VNR and its ability to boost their profit margins.

But to me, this truck is really about the driver, and bringing unsurpassed comfort, versatility, and customization to a segment that hasn’t always been afforded such luxuries.


In support of the glider

My purchase of a glider kit is getting closer. I have a buyer for the truck I want to replace with the glider, and hopefully by the time you read this I will be putting the first of many miles under the glider’s bumper. It took a lot of soul searching to make the decision to go for it. The main reason was the price; to start with, glider kits are only available as old-style longnose trucks.

They already carry a premium over an aerodynamic model, possibly because of the extra man hours required to build one, and possibly because of their desirability among the people who want one. Now, add the cost of a donor chassis, the man hours and parts required to rebuild the engine and transmission, and then put it all together and the numbers keep getting bigger and bigger. Factor in the 30% hit from the exchange rate to Canadian dollars and the final number at first looked to be out of reach.

So, I started crunching numbers. Yes, I could afford it, but it was still more expensive than a new truck and a lot more expensive than the truck I already run, which has been trouble-free and has a good few years of life left in it. I checked out the cost of a new truck and was shocked to find out the difference in price was not as great as I first thought. New model years, coupled with the exchange rate on both the truck and warranty, have increased prices significantly, making the glider start to make sense financially.

But why a glider in the first place? There are a few negatives. It can’t go to California, a lot of companies will not sign one on, the old longnose style has terrible aerodynamics, the cab is small, and they’re not the most maneuverable truck at the best of times. And then there’s the rebuilt engine and transmission. Why suffer all that when I could go to a dealer and pay less for a truck that has none of those drawbacks?

To me, the answer is simple: reliability. As I said, my current truck has performed faultlessly, but how long is that going to last? The truck itself is very well made and the mechanical parts are strong – it’s the electronics that worry me. There are so many sensors and gizmos controlling the emissions system that can, and often do, go wrong, and when they do go wrong it’s not obvious what the problem is and diagnosis can be difficult.

But the biggest problem is that these issues often cause the engine to derate. I cannot afford to chance that. I had such a fault on my other truck, and phoned the closest dealer. It was a Thursday and I was informed the earliest they could get me in was the following Tuesday. I told the service guy the fault code and he said it was a quick fix, but it still couldn’t be done any earlier than the Tuesday. I was told my best option was to keep going and get towed in if it shut me down. Seriously?

How can I run a business when the equipment I rely on to provide my income can be shut down by something as insignificant as a faulty sensor, and then have to wait for at least four days to get it replaced? Or I can take a chance and risk breaking down on the side of the highway requiring a tow for the tractor unit. On top of this, I’m going to need accommodation, which is not cheap. Then I’ve got to try and make up for lost time, so my time at home with the family suffers.

With a glider, this is less likely to happen. There are no sensors on the emissions system because it doesn’t have one. All that is reason enough to buy one, in my mind, but the main reason is even simpler. The idea of business is to earn as much and spend as little as possible, and the glider, in my opinion, is the best way to do that.

I’ve already acknowledged they’re more expensive to buy than a new truck, but that’s only when you compare it to one new truck. Over a projected 15-year lifespan a glider will need one in-frame, whereas a new truck will need replacing when the warranty runs out. If I manage to get five years out of a new truck before that happens, I will need three new trucks within that 15-year period. If I work them hard, I could need five. Now the glider is cheap by comparison.


A fourth generation trucker and trucking journalist, Mark Lee uses his 25 years of transcontinental trucking in Europe, Asia,
North Africa and now North America to provide an alternative view of life on the road.


Pack performance

BLAINVILLE, Que. — It was an unusual sight: three tractor-trailers zooming around Transport Canada’s test track in Blainville, Que., separated by as little as 17 meters, or 56 feet. The purpose? To gather evidence on possible fuel savings associated with what race car fans would identify with as a drafting, or slipstreaming technique, and what police would call tailgating. There were indeed fuel savings, with caveats, says a report on the trials, made public June 1.

The report goes into a trailer-load of detail on the experimental design, the whodunit, the many results, and the usual ifs, ands, and buts, associated with complex tests, but the basic story is this: Three Volvo tractors carrying a package of gear including radar, video cameras and computers – developed by the California PATH Program (Partners for Advanced Transportation Technology) and designed to let the trucks safely maintain precise separation distances – were driven round and round a 6.5-kilometer oval to see if there were any fuel savings in traveling close together.

This international effort included PATH researchers, Transport Canada as the project lead, the National Research Council Canada in charge of the experimental design and data analysis and the PIT Group running the trials, providing equipment, personnel and logistics.

The trials addressed several fuel savings questions: What is the effect of separation distance? What is the effect of truck position (lead, middle, and trailing)? Does the speed of the platoon affect fuel savings? Does the rig’s weight influence the fuel savings? Does having aerodynamic enhancements – in this case side skirts and boat tails – affect the platooning effect?

There were three separation distances, expressed in seconds and meters: 0.6 seconds (17.4 meters), 0.9 seconds (26 meters), 1.2 seconds (35 meters) and 1.5 seconds (44 meters). The experimenters sliced and diced the variables and results six ways to Sunday, but as a broad-brush statement, the lead truck saved basically nothing, the middle truck saved something, and the trailing truck saved the most.

For example, in the standard configuration (no side skirts or boat tails) and the shortest separation, the middle truck saved 7.4% and the trailing truck 11%. The aerodynamics bumped that up to a 9.4% and 12.3% fuel savings, respectively, but the advantages to the aerodynamically-kitted rigs varied, depending on the combination of experimental variables.

The combined fuel savings amongst all three trucks varied between 5% and 7.6%, in one part of the trial.

In general, the fuel savings decreased as the separation distance increased, although the report does note that more tests should be done to see just how far the trucks can be spaced apart while still saving fuel.

Two speeds were tested – 65 mph (105 km/h) and 55 mph (89 km/h) – but the results were statistically the same for both.

The rigs were run at two weights: 65,000 lbs, and 29,400 lbs, with weight removed from the trailers. Fuel savings increased from 1% to 2% for the unloaded trailers.

The trial results will support platooning projects in the U.S. and Canadian emissions regulations for truck model years 2018 and beyond, in some unspecified way. However, there are many more questions that must be answered, note the report’s authors. For example, will even shorter separation distances, such as nine meters, yield savings for the lead truck? What fuel savings are already happening out there at the typical, and legal, separations we see on the highways? How would two-truck platoons perform? For that matter (and this is a good one for Canada) how would a two-truck platoon stack up against a long combination vehicle?

How about lateral offset? That’s when one of the trucks drifts to one side or another. How does that influence fuel savings? Another real-world issue is the performance of mismatched trucks, say a dry van and a tanker.

Another one is the inevitable real-world problem of platoon interruptions. The report’s authors suggest running trials in which a car bobs in and out of the platoon, disrupting the distances and speed.

Last fall’s trials were important. The report, which includes nice explanations of platoon aerodynamics and the technologies PATH have developed, is an education.

You can download the report at: http://tinyurl.com/platoonresults. It’s free, if not easy!