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Gear shift: Volvo targets transmission supremacy

Volvo Trucks demonstrates the power of its ‘crawler gears’... I-Shift add-ons that take the automated manual transmission from the impressive to the extraordinary, alongside five new features for rough-terrain applications

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.

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.”

Indeed, the latest FH and FH16 trucks have integrated a number of the features introduced with the FMX in a process was by no means incidental, as Celec notes: “The FMX was designed to be a robust truck really suitable for construction. Previously, I think Volvo was associated with a lot of long-haul. When talking to customers they saw the FH series and saw long-haul applications — and I know that the FH is totally dominant in the market in the Emirates for 6x4 tractors — it represents more or less 90% of sales.

However, there are tasks in construction that require the power and torque of the likes of the FH and the FH16, and catering to this market, a heavy-duty bumper that extends 130mm out from the cab has been developed for the FH the delivers the front robustness so widely appreciated in the FMX.

Celec notes: “It’s made out of three pieces, so if you damage one part, it’s easy to repair. It is high-tensile steel and the coating is made from a mix of plastic and rubber that makes it much less susceptible to small scratches.”

Another introduction is cloud-like air suspension, which Volvo Trucks has now introduced on dual front axles. Aside from the comfort, this accommodates load redistribution on the rear axles, so that the FH trucks can be optimised for better traction when driving up-hill with no load.

A feature that you simply don’t notice as you drive, because it is so effective, is the Volvo Dynamic Steering (VDS), which was launched in 2013, but only for single front axles.

Celec explains: “VDS is a system that gives really effortless driving. You don’t have to put much effort into the truck, because you have a small electric motor assisting and you can more or less turn the truck with one finger. This is really useful for the 8x4 trucks with the dual front axles that we are bringing in.”

In another drive, I take out a 6x4 FH-500 with a half-empty trailer to explore the functionality of the tandem axle lift. On the model, the tandem axle lift can be pre-configured to automatically raise the rear axle when the weight of the trailer drops — optimising the efficiency of the drive without the driver even having to act. However, when climbing a hill, the driver can stop, lower the tandem axle to improve the traction and then use Hill Start Assist to set off again.

A final novelty unveiled by Volvo Trucks is its five-axle 10x4 rigid body FH16-550, which, with has a max technical gross vehicle weight of 56 tonnes and I-Shift for construction applications, is equipped for off-road haulage. Its dual front axle makes for an improbably tight turning circle for such a long vehicle.

Muddy mayhem

In a follow-up to the activities at the severe-duty track, Volvo takes us to an unpaved track in the forest designed to test the functionality of the most off-road features on the FMX, in a simulation of the rigours of construction.

I set off in another fixe-axle, but this time a 10x5 FMX-540 with a mining tipper and loaded with material to produce a hefty gross combination weight of 45 tonnes.

The ride is equally impressive as the FH16-750 with 80 tonnes — not because there is anything exceptional about the load, though 45 tonnes is still a lot — but because the truck feels incredibly stable on the uneven track, which, no doubt, the distribution of the load across all five axles plays a role in.

An immediate contrast is the 8x4 FMX-500, which is equipped with Volvo Dynamic Steering that, in the context of an off-road scenario, just smooths all the bump and dips away and delivers a driver experience characterised by an extreme level comfort and effortlessness given the environment. Equally important on the steeper slopes is the Automatic Traction Control (ATC), which automatically engages the differential lock on the front or rear front-axle in models like the 6x6 FMX-420. This is as equally useful on the up-hills and downhills. Conversely, by automatically disengaging these axles when not required, the ATC improves steering and lowers fuel consumption.

From the experts

Discussing some of the features not already mentioned in detail, Celec continues: “Until now we have only offered EBS brakes with drums for Euro VI markets, but from this year we have extended the offering to include Euro III markets. The advantage of EBS is that you have better response time, and if you perform a full stop on an asphalt road, you will have a shorter stoppage distance. It also works seamlessly with the other auxiliary brakes on the truck — like the Volvo engine brake. They all work much better together compared to normal drum brakes. EBS is also a pre-requisite for Volvo Dynamic Steering.

Celec also highlights a new feature for engine power take-off (PTO) applications, including trailer brakes, tippers, mixers, and loader cranes and the powering of tools. Whereas in a normal engine PTO system with a hydraulic tank attached to it, the oil is always rotating and there is constant flow in the system, Volvo has introduced a de-clutchable pump, which makes it possible to shut off the pump so that it the oil is no longer rotating — reducing both the vibrations and noise in the truck — and in case of a leakage, preventing the oil from being pumped outside of the truck. The combination of this feature and the 20 tonnes now allowed on dual front-axles is particularly advantageous for mixer operation.

Returning to the I-Shift, Celec adds: “Comparing an I-Shift to a manual gearbox you save at least 3% in fuel, so we just don’t see the future of developing manual. We see that more and more customers are seeing all the benefits of automated gearboxes, and our competitors are also moving in that direction, but we are ahead of them with our gearbox – we are industry leaders with this gearbox.”

Nordqvist adds: “Today, 92% of our global Volvo sales are with I-Shift. We still have some customers buying manual or Powertronic transmission, but the vast majority is I-Shift.”

In weight, the I-Shift is still lighter than a standard manual transmission, even with the additional 48kg weight of the two crawler gears, because the I-Shift starts 70kg lighter.

The final tweak to the vehicles using the crawler gears is the reinforcement of the powertrain to handle the massive torque.

Nordqvist finishes: “With this huge ratio on the first gear, you get a lot of power and torque through the rest of the powertrain and chassis. The standard propeller shaft takes 28,000Nm, but if you’re above 74 tonnes then you have to go with a reinforced version that can cope with 33,000Nm. Both the D13 and D16 engines produce enough torque at idle to produce the maximum allowed torque through the propeller shaft, so you can start a 200t heavy haulage truck in a 12% inclination at idle, press the throttle gently and cruise up the hill at idle — it is all very impressive.”

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