Volvo FH 16 700
The most powerful production prime mover available on the Australian truck market is the Volvo FH 16 700. Tim Giles takes one of these flagship trucks for a trip down the Hume Highway.
The current leader in the horsepower race is Volvo. With the introduction of ADR 80/03 making Euro 5 engines, which have actually been on sale for some time, the minimum legal requirement for trucks in 2011, Volvo has decided to introduce its 700hp, top power prime mover here in Australia. Over the years, the level of horsepower available from any truck has consistently increased year-on-year and truck manufacturers have constantly competed for bragging rights by having the highest horsepower truck on the market.
Horsepower ratings have now reached 700hp. In fact, there is a 730hp Scania truck available in the European market and going on display at the Brisbane Truck Show, but operators here in Australia will have to make do with just 700hp, for the time being. For anyone with a longish memory in the trucking industry, this level of power being available was completely unthinkable just a couple of decades ago. Semis, and even multiple combinations, were being hauled by prime movers with under 300hp available.
How times have changed. In the past ten years Volvo has been consistently at or near the front of the horsepower race. Its most intense rivalry has been with its Scandinavian competitor Scania, as both manufacturers introduced 16L engines and consistently managed to be able to turn up the wick, just a little, over and over again.
The horsepower race isn’t just about bragging rights within the truck manufacturing industry, it has also been about an increasing demand within trucking for higher horsepower trucks. Truck driver satisfaction and lower trip times were on offer to operators choosing higher horsepower. There is also a perception higher horsepower trucks spend less time under full load and are consequently more durable.
Prime Mover took the opportunity to test drive one of the new Volvo FH 16 700 prime movers, pulling a B-double combination of around 62 tonnes, out of Sydney down to the twin cities of Albury/Wodonga. The route, down the Hume Highway, has enough undulations to test the mettle of the new engine and see how much difference an extra 40hp makes.
For most observers the only way to tell this is the new top power version of the FH prime mover is the 700 badge on the door. From the driver’s seat it would be very difficult to tell the difference between this truck and some of the power and torque ratings which have been available in the past. The truck works so quietly and appears to be doing the job so effortlessly, there seems to be enough power and torque available to do the job in just about every situation.
In fact, when comparing the numbers with the previous top power Volvo FH, the 660hp model, there is only a difference of 50 Nm of torque available with the extra 40hp. At 3150 Nm there is no discernible difference, from the driver’s point of view, in the amount of torque available, when compared to the old FH 660. The difference in power is equally difficult to discern as driving these top power prime movers at these kind of weights and at highway speeds does not require that last ounce of power to be called for.
Having said that, the impression this truck gives heading south on the Hume Highway, climbing up through the Southern Highlands is of a truck well within its capabilities. The smoothness of the truck’s acceleration and deceleration comes from the integration of the driveline. Engine, clutch, gearbox and rear axle have all been designed together to work as one in getting the truck from A to B as effectively as possible.
With every new iteration of the Volvo I shift AMT gearbox, the transitions between gears and the gearchange decision-making improves slightly. As has always been the case, the more information the gearbox control system receives the better informed any gearchanging decision is. The system can pick up cues from anywhere: the driver’s right foot, rotation speed at the rear wheels, engine speed, the inclination of the truck and other useful data to make sure it is changing at the right time in the right way.
Surprisingly, Volvo still persists with a gearstick in the traditional position. It has not moved the gear control either to the dash or to a steering column stalk, as has happened with several brands of truck, including Volvo’s stablemate Mack. The company came up with the idea of fixing the I shift controller to the driver’s seat quite early on. It was a good idea at the time and the pragmatic Scandinavians clearly see no reason to change.
After the driver gets used to the way this new box works with this high-power engine, it is possible to leave all of the gear control decisions to the system. This allows the driver to concentrate on what is happening on the road around them. In this particular case, trying to get out of Sydney travelling with a large number of cars whose drivers were totally unaware of any other traffic, especially trucks on the road, all of the driver’s attention was required just to avoid a nasty collision.
Travelling in this busy and irresponsible traffic situation also gave this driver the opportunity to work with the system Volvo has chosen to call Adaptive Cruise Control (ACC). For the first timer, this system can be a little awkward to set up. All of the switches and settings need to be in the right place to activate the system. Once it is activated, it works quite well. The driver can set the following distance to the car ahead at a number of different preset steps.
Travelling behind a car, the truck will hold the following distance to 100m, for example, and use the engine brake to maintain the distance. If the system decides the amount of deceleration occurring in the vehicle in front is a cause for concern, it will immediately warn the driver and bring the engine brake further into play. This Volvo Engine Brake proves to be very effective, it has nearly 600hp deceleration available to it, if and when required.
All of these new electronic safety devices being fitted to new, especially European, trucks have been well tested and, clearly, work very well. For someone coming across these systems the first time, or in a variety of different brand vehicles, the way the systems are set up and the way they work most effectively is not obvious. One of the most important aspects for the truck owner to consider when buying safety equipment like this, which can be very expensive but is unlikely to add a significant amount to the business’s bottom line, is whether it is correctly utilised by the driver on the job.
Along with the safety hardware, a substantial amount of training is required to get a proper understanding of the capabilities of the systems fitted in the truck. Drivers also need to develop a certain amount of familiarity with the technology, probably under the supervision of somebody who genuinely knows the system, in order for them to feel comfortable switching it on and off and using it as part of their daily routine when taking trucks down the highway.
There is a danger when utilising this new technology does not occur and these complex but effective systems sit idly in these state-of-the-art trucks. If this is the case, we are simply paying lip service to the safety agenda and not effecting genuine change resulting in saved lives. The most effective tool, in terms of safety, in this high technology truck is not the equipment itself, it is still the driver and that driver needs knowledge in order to get the best out of all the bells and whistles.
When looking at the general truck driving environment inside the Volvo FH cabin, it is possible to see the major steps companies like Volvo have made, in terms of driver comfort, in the last 20 years, since the first FH cab appeared. Lessons have been learned and the equipment in the cab interior has been ever more finely tuned to suit conditions. Noise levels are extremely low, it is possible to hear the 16L engine but it doesn’t appear to be working very hard. The driver has to look at the speedometer, tachometer and compare this with the vehicle mass and terrain to realise just how much work is being done and how little it impinges on their environment.
This latest Volvo flagship continues the tradition the company has followed throughout its history in the Australian market. It has taken the technology available at the top of the range in Europe and adapted it to suit Australian tastes and conditions. For many operators a lot of the high technology now available will be seen as unnecessary. For others the new technology available and the ease of use for the driver may be vital as the search for quality drivers gets ever tougher and the search for new drivers widens.
There is also a certain attraction which accompanies the headline horsepower figure. Having 700hp available under the hood is always good, even if it is a little unnecessary. Having the 700 badge on the door is also an attractive idea, especially if you are trying to attract new drivers to the fleet. What Volvo is demonstrating is that it can build trucks at these high horsepower levels and has designed an integrated driveline to fully utilise it.