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Gear shift: Volvo targets transmission supremacy

by John Bambridge on Jun 9, 2016

An 8x6 FMX-460 equipped with both Automatic Traction Control and featuring I-Shift with crawler gears — the ultimate unstoppable combination.
An 8x6 FMX-460 equipped with both Automatic Traction Control and featuring I-Shift with crawler gears — the ultimate unstoppable combination.

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The conditions in Gothenburg are perfect — no wind, nor rain — as my fellow trade journalists and I step out on to the tarmac of Volvo’s severe-duty test track. This is reassuring as I climb up into the cabin of an FH16-750 coupled to 80 tonnes of trailer and excavator. I’ve never driven a heavy goods vehicle before, and had never envisaged doing so. Thankfully, the combined sum of all the driver assisting technology that Volvo Trucks has painstakingly integrated into these vehicles all but takes the driver out of the equation.

I exaggerate, because while driving an FH16 fully equipped with Volvo Trucks’ technology is a walk in the park, the skills necessary to drive in a way that avoids unnecessary stress to the vehicle while simultaneously maximising the efficiency, or in other words to drive with any degree of finesse, is probably still at least several HGV licences away.

However, for the purposes of getting around the track, the exercise comes no-skills-required, and this is immediately evident on the test track, which begins with a 12% hill climb — something that should always be a struggle with an 80-tonne loadstone behind you (particularly bearing in mind that most roads rarely crest a 5% incline, with trucks in mind) but it isn’t a challenge: the FH16’s I-Shift automated manual transmission shifts down but makes resolute progress.

That is before I lay on the brakes mid-incline, as we’ve been invited to do, to test the capabilities of Volvo’s Hill Start Assist — a feature that for anyone who has learnt to drive a car in manual feels like cheating. At the flick of a switch, Hill Start Assist holds the truck in place for three-seconds after you release the foot brake — time that you then have to switch to the gas pedal and gently apply pressure.

Before this, however, it is time to manually select Volvo’s new ultra-low crawler gear, which elevates the gear ratio to a time-slowing 32:1 — double that of the lowest manual gear. At this ratio, the powerful engine of the FH16 can carry out just about any task, assuming its powertrain can hold — and Volvo has indeed reinforced the powertrain for such severe-duty applications. Crawler gear engaged, brake released and gas depressed, it crawls — in an understandably slow but steady motion.

In reality, in the context of the full-scope of Volvo’s engineering, and the full capacities of the FH16-750, achieving this with 80 tonnes on a 12% incline is in fact quite a laughable challenge — in April, Volvo’s latest choreographed stunt involved an FH16-750 with I-Shift and crawler gears pulling an absurd combined weight of 750 tonnes — but that doesn’t diminish the impact of sitting in the cab and feeling the vehicle in action.

The sense of wonder only continues on the subsequent 16% downhill slope, where the FH16-750’s 16-litre D16K engine, with 750hp, deploys its Volvo Engine Brake (VEB+) capable of absorbing up to 470kW (639hp) on the D16, bringing the 80 tonnes under absolute control.

Perhaps even more enjoyable than either the up-hill or the downhill is the long, flat section of the test track, where a suitably loaded FH16-750 with momentum can deploy its I-Roll function, which, when selected, automatically disengages the engine when the gas is eased off. In practical scenarios, this function can achieve up to 2% lower fuel consumption.

Heavy load-out

Breaking down the various features of the FH Series is Robert Celec, product manager for the FH and FH16, who highlights: “For heavy hauler applications, we used to be limited to 200 tonnes, but now, with the crawler gears, we can go all the way up to 325 tonnes. It could be really useful in the Middle East, especially in soft ground, where you don’t want to add on all of the torque just to get moving.

“It is easy to think that Volvo only has one model to offer when it comes to construction, and that it’s the FMX, but this is not true — we have a wide range of trucks to offer, and it starts from the FL and FE in the medium-duty segment and moves up to the FM for inter-regional haul and for regional distribution of heavy construction goods, the FH and FH16.”