Test Drive: Mercedes-Benz Actros
The Mercedes-Benz Actros has seen great success across many world markets resulting in record production numbers. The developments found in the latest evolution of the Actros are driven by advanced electronics and include what was considered a futuristic concept just a few years ago and is now a reality: Australia’s first mirrorless truck.
In keeping with the Daimler Trucks’ philosophy of ensuring a thorough understanding of all of their vehicles’ ability to handle the broad spectrum of Australian conditions prior to being brought to market, there are currently 20 pre-production Actros trucks committed to the local testing process, with the clear intention of gaining realistic feedback, mainly from large fleet clients. Mercedes-Benz management places a high value on such customer input and most of the local test units are involved in long distance linehaul applications as this is likely to be a major market focus once production vehicles become available during the first half of 2020.
This next Actros comes with more than 40 innovations and with the mechanical components largely unchanged there is no real need to test the mechanical reliability of the truck, so the current assessment emphasis is on new systems designed to further advance the driver’s environment, vehicle safety and fuel efficiency and to ensure the trucks suit the intricacies of the Australian market. Success in Europe hasn’t precluded the Actros from still having the hard questions asked of it here during the local validation process.
The most apparent physical change is the introduction of the ‘mirror cam’ system and the removal of conventional mirrors and brackets results in a significant impact on the Actros’s aerodynamics and a valuable improvement in fuel efficiency. The absence of traditional mirrors presents a much smoother airflow path with a palpable reduction in drag. Mercedes-Benz’s European research confirms a 1 to 1.3 per cent improvement in fuel economy at 80 km/h and it stands to reason that, at least, incremental gains can be achieved in Australian conditions due to higher road speeds on our highways.
The camera brackets are mounted high in a location less likely to be damaged and presents an 80 per cent smaller target for impact with infrastructure or other vehicles. To further minimise damage the camera arms are capable of being folded back or forward approximately 60 degrees. Mercedes-Benz claim the replacement cost of an arm and camera unit will actually be slightly less than a conventional mirror assembly. Emergency mirrors with magnetic mounting clamps will also be available through dealers.
The deletion of conventional mirrors and their mounts significantly improves the driver’s lateral fields of vision, most notable when turning right at intersections and negotiating roundabouts.
There are three gradation bars on the screens indicating three zones spaced at 30, 50 and 100 metres from the rear of the back trailer and provide an indication of when it is safe to merge left after overtaking so there is no longer the need to be ‘flashed’ back across by an overtaken truck. The zone bars are adjustable to suit various lengths and combinations of trailers and assist in making any driver capable of parking within 20mm of a dock which saves time and reduces damage costs. When in reverse the system switches to a panoramic display and the image follows the trailer based on steering wheel angle input.
Getting behind the wheel for the first time we fully expect it may take a little while to become used to the system and for the first few minutes there is a temptation to look more at the screens rather than out of the windscreen. However we quickly adjust to the situation and soon reach an epiphany by accepting the improved vision as the new norm. We had experienced a similar Daimler system on the autonomous Freightliner Inspiration truck several years ago in the USA, but a quirk in the US regulations dictated that the Inspiration must also be equipped with a conventional mirror even if only with minimal dimensions. No such problem here for these new Actros’s since in this type of circumstance our local Australian Design Rules quickly follow those from the European Commission.
The system remains effective regardless of weather conditions with no effects from fog, rain or even snow. The cameras are heated up to 15 degrees and the lenses specially coated to shed water and grime build up. During our on-road test we encounter some inclement weather. Raindrops from heavy showers register as momentary silver streaks in the cameras, yet the rear view displayed on the in-cab screens mounted on the A pillars is as clear as the family television at home. The displays are light sensitive with automatic brightness adjustment plus manual over ride if needed. The contrast of the high definition screens also automatically adjusts to counter sun glare.
The mirror cam system takes the driver’s vision to next level with a much wider view along the sides of the trailer(s) and also reduces the traditional blind spot in the vicinity of the kerbside steer wheel. Up to four extra cameras can be fitted in addition to the mirrorcams.
Inside the cab the highlight of the interactive multimedia cockpit is the two screens. The multimedia displays have components similar to those fitted to the latest Mercedes-Benz passenger cars and are an integral part of the leap forward in the connectivity between the trucks and their drivers and the operators’ bases. The screen in front of driver is accessible using buttons on the steering wheel and it and the centre screen has the capability of interfacing with other vehicle systems and can be programmed to incorporate more than 200 ‘soft’ switches to operate components such as power take-offs.
The screens respond to operators’ input by making an on-screen switch available which is similar to using an app on a smartphone. Reliability and durability are extended significantly as there is no longer reliance upon mechanical switches to make and break contact. Touch pad switches for commonly used functions including speaker volume and cabin temperature are located at the base of the centre screen and are replicated, with some others, on the steering wheel buttons. This avoids the driver having to scroll out of multiple screens just to adjust the radio. The Actros also keeps up with passenger vehicle trends by having a wireless inductive smartphone charging pad.
The Mercedes-Benz Predictive Powertrain Control (PPC) incorporates the latest advancements in topographic mapping and the truck knows the road ahead up to two kilometers before it gets there using a combination of 3D topographic maps and historical routing. Anything the system doesn’t already know it will continue to learn which can be much more effective than simply having the basic mapping installed. Benefits include maximising use of over run when travelling on cruise control in order to maximise time spent at legal speeds and suggests the system has enormous potential. Instead of relying upon the transmission’s inclinometer to indicate the top of a rise and possibly reduce throttle application well before the weight of the trailers has cleared the crest, the PPC system uses its stored data to keep the power applied and when appropriate feather the throttle and perform an upshift as trailers pass the apex of the rise. Mercedes-Benz are aiming for wider driver acceptance of this type of assistance technology which may require some changes to driving style with the bonus of making the driving task easier.
The braking system has also been a target of advanced electronic engineering with instantaneous computation of factors such as gross vehicle weight, road speed and vehicle vectors plus the amount of brake pedal pressure being applied by the driver to provide optimum braking in all circumstances. The parking brake is now operated electronically and can be applied manually using a switch on the dash or it is activated automatically when the engine is switched off. The parking brakes are released electronically when a gear is engaged and the truck begins to move. The engine brake and wheel brakes are even more integrated than before in their operation with emphasis on using the engine to reduce speed rather than the service brakes.
The Actros will have Active Brake Assist 5 which is the next generation of Autonomous Emergency Braking and Daimler is currently the only truck manufacturer with pedestrian detection. This type of technology is aligned with Mercedes-Benz passenger vehicles as the group is heading towards higher levels of automation. The system incorporates fully applied emergency braking to come to a complete stop in response to moving pedestrians in built up areas when travelling at under 50 km/h using camera and radar detection in conjunction with some very complex electronics which harness more of the data inputs from around the vehicle. The braking package is now four levels ahead of the current European minimum standard and the multiple inputs deliver much improved accuracy and reduce false positives. The Autonomous Emergency Braking system has the capacity to reduce the incidence and severity of rear end collisions, therefore saving lives, avoiding injuries, reducing downtime and expense.
“We’re passionate about this next iteration of the Actros,” says Michael May who is the Mercedes-Benz Trucks National Product Manager. “We’ve put a lot of work into getting it right in the current model and this latest version is going to take it to the next level. The enhanced connection between the vehicle and the driver is a good example of us as a company in what we believe in as the future and I’m excited we’re actually able bring it to life now in the new Actros.”
Michael views the advanced electronics as something of a drawcard to help attract younger people into the road transport industry.
“Our biggest challenge as an industry is to get new people excited about what we do. We believe in the ‘without trucks Australia stops’ mantra, and it’s up to us to somehow engage new young people into this space. We think this is an opportunity for us to connect with a new base of people,” he says.