North of the Overlander and then anywhere beyond Carnarvon, it’s easy to gaze through a wide windscreen and deep side windows and think you’re the last person rolling across the planet.
Maybe Covid really has wiped everyone out and it’s just you, your 700hp Volvo FH16 prime mover with a 64-tonne B-double full of water tanks, and the seemingly endless Australian desert scrub stretching away in every direction.
Particularly as the Dynamic Steering system insulates you against road irregularities, and the big 16-litre Volvo engine keeps you rolling with less than a hint of diesel rumble getting into the cab. Wind and road noise only thank you.
Suddenly there’s a beep as the lane keeper ticks you off, followed by Volvo’s projects and communications manager, Matt Woods in the passenger seat: “It’s watching you ALL the time Dave.”
Yeah, well I’m used to that close attention from new truck digital systems, and they nearly always have lane systems that get confused with road seams and tar lines. That’s my story anyway.
I had accepted the invitation to partner Wood in relocating the big Volvo from Perth to Karratha for some Pilbara demonstrations.
This one was special though. Apart from being the new model, it included the new I-SEE topographical navigation system that has been in operation in Europe for several years already.
More on that later.
Early last year, the entire Volvo truck range was renewed with fresh styling and features, but the release was restricted to a technical preview in late February, before test models of the range arrived in Perth two weeks ago.
So, my first run in the new 700hp FH16 was this two-day drive with an overnight in Carnarvon, sharing the driving with Matt, who’d highlight the new features of Volvo’s latest as we rolled north.
I’ve done several interstate runs in the FH range, mainly along the east coast, so the comfort and driver-centric cab design, although completely refreshed was a familiar place to me, as was the market leading I-Shift 12-speed transmission.
The new features of the latest model were also of interest, but I was mostly interested in the new digital systems embedded in Volvo’s driver aid tech. Additionally, this truck had a key feature I hadn’t spent much driving time with – Volvo’s unique Dynamic Steering system – VDS.
The system places a computer controlled electric motor on top of the steering box, insulating the driver against road shock and allowing low steering wheel loads. It auto self-centres when manoeuvring and the level of assistance can be adjusted by the driver.
I’d first heard of VDS during a visit to Volvo’s engineering section in Sweden a few years ago. I got to meet with the fellow who designed it from the ground up.
He told me it started out as a lunchtime chat with the most outlandish ideas tabled for exploration. A steering system that reduced driver effort quickly evolved into a safety improvement that you wouldn’t want to be without after the first few kms.
At one stage I drove a 45-tonne rigid tipper along a Swedish quarry ridge with a 50-metre drop on one side. The track was only wide enough for one truck, but had alternating undulations, just the job for twisting a truck chassis and shifting you off-line.
I aimed the truck at the place I wanted to end up, engaged third gear and allowed the truck to idle along the ridge without touching the steering wheel. The VDS system kept me on track and safe.
Since then, I’ve spoken to a WA long distance road train operator who had a steer tyre blow at 100km/h and credits the system with allowing him to stay on course and ease his truck off the road safely.
As a bonus, the rim was undamaged and able to be re-fitted with a new tyre, so I knew the system had some serious safety advantages.
Like most manufacturers Volvo doesn’t like to talk about prices, they prefer to leave that to dealers.
But as a rule, VDS will add around $10,000 to the truck purchase price – around an extra four per cent. For some contracts that might be a bridge too far, but if you drive a Volvo with it installed, that won’t matter anymore.
The test truck also had Volvo’s CRUIS-E combined with I-SEE. In short, CRUIS-E softens throttle and auxiliary brake assistance to allow a margin around the set cruise speed. That margin can be set by the driver.
On my drive I set the system at 100km/h, the under-speed limit at 95km/h and the overspeed at 103km/h. The FH moved within this range as the terrain allowed, maximising fuel efficiency as well as maintaining road speed.
Optimal use of CRUIS-E is best found in undulating territory. The largely flat plains of the north-west don’t stretch the system much at all, but there is no doubt that a conventional cruise control with a blinkered, rigid view of set speed will be less fuel efficient. CRUIS-E actually mimics a good driver’s rollercoaster skills.
The I-SEE system is best described as data preparation, albeit full of smarts. It knows from topographical data when a hill is coming and increases speed to prepare. Near the crest, it backs off the throttle when it knows the downhill gradient on the other side and allows the overrun margin to take advantage of momentum.
Key to Australian use of the system is the ability to adjust the length of the rig in the software as the European default assumes a single trailer.
Without that, a B-double or road train could have at least one tri-axle set still on the uphill while the prime mover and first trailer are on or over the crest, causing an excessive loss of momentum and more fuel to recover.
The terrain data itself is centrally stored in Volvo’s cloud server and constantly accessed by Volvos globally. The information is used to alter fuel mapping and gear change points to maximise the fuel efficiency of CRUIS-E.
However, the leg from Carnarvon to Karratha wasn’t in the cloud database, so as I engaged CRUIS-E, the system started recording the terrain and uploading it for the next Volvo that takes that route with I-SEE on board. Over repeated drives, the system refines the data and updates any changes from road realignment or storm damage.
With all that new tech on board, Volvo’s biggest cab, the XXL took a back seat. I was so engaged utilising the systems I took little opportunity to stand up and move around in the cab during stops.
In short, for an operator used to long distance work, this is a great place to park your body when the driving is done.
The fridge deserves special mention. It’ll freeze things easily and kept everything else cool and crisp. Cab lighting options and climate control are as good as any premium luxury car.
Ultimately though, a truck is a piece of plant, and has to earn its keep. Volvo’s systems are a major part of squeezing maximum energy from each litre of diesel, saving big dollars and drilling down CO2 emissions as a result. The business case can only be stronger as a result.
Until hydrogen fuel cell electric trucks are the norm, optimising diesel efficiency will continue to be a primary focus of all truck engineers.