The hybrid power train has moved from a theoretical technology belonging in the minds of optimistic boffins to something we can expect to see regularly on our city streets. They are getting large companies to do some serious number crunching to assess viability. The initial entry onto the market was met with a great deal of scepticism and the only buyers were operations wanting to emphasise their green credentials and willing to pay a substantial premium for the privilege.
But times have changed since the original launch and the maths looks very different in the current economic climate, mainly because diesel is much more expensive. There is very little prospect of any reduction in fuel prices. In fact, the only way is up for truck running costs – especially fuel.
Both manufacturers who are playing in the hybrid space in the Australian market, Fuso and Hino, are now on the second generation of truck models and extending the number of models available on an on-going basis. Both are part of major global automotive giants, Daimler and Toyota, who have the kind of funds the development of better hybrids needs.
Fuso were second off the rank in Australia with their first hybrid a few years ago, they watched how the market reacted to the introduction of the first hybrids before putting their toe in the water. They have certainly caught up quickly with their opposition and the two brands stand side by side with very comparable specification levels.
The latest Fuso Eco Hybrid is on the market now and Prime Mover took one of the first to come into the country on a test around the streets of Brisbane. This new Canter represents the state of the art, in terms of Japanese trucks, with the well-liked Duonic dual clutched automated manual transmission. It is this development which puts it on a par with its opposition.
There are not enough hybrid trucks around for there to be a general understanding about how they work and the differences between the models on offer. They are simply regarded as an additional box on a driveline which works differently to a conventional truck. Recent improvements in the system have consisted of the manufacturers integrating the system so the driver needs no knowledge of how or why they work to get a good day's work out of them.
In fact, there are differences, but the basics responsible for changing between electric and diesel power and using regenerative braking to recharge the large batteries are quite similar. The Fuso uses a lithium-ion battery, a technology used in many applications like power tools etc, as well as by most of the other hybrid systems. Hino have stuck with a nickel hydride for their battery technology and it has served them well so far.
It is possible to jump into the new Eco Hybrid and go about a day's work without even realising this is a hybrid. The only giveaway to the driver is a number of flashing lights and graphics telling them about the charge level of the batteries and how effective they are utilising the hybrid. Most drivers would just ignore these and just drive as they would normally.
In fact, the display does not really enhance the ability of the driver to make much more of the system. Being quite small and simplistic in its design it tends to serve as a method of telling the driver whether the batteries are fully charged or not. However, this does not seem to matter as the way the system has been set up, the good steady driver will get excellent performance and fuel economy out of the truck and the driver with a heavy right foot will not get great results – but they are still better than what could be achieved with a standard diesel Canter.
Here is the essence of how effective the combination of AMT and hybrid can be. As long as the driver keeps the transmission in auto, the electronics of both the Duonic and the hybrid system conspire to get a lower fuel consumption result.
Getting the balance right is the difficulty for the truck designers and both Hino and Fuso encountered difficulty getting the mix just right between maintaining truck performance and saving fuel when coupling the hybrid with an automatic or automated gearbox. The initial hybrids came with manual boxes. This aids simplicity of design but does give the driver a big influence on fuel use. Autos tend to take some of the worst performing drivers back into a more acceptable fuel consumption level.
Out on the road, the Duonic feels totally in control, giving fast and well-timed gear changes. The added performance when the electric motor cuts in and puts extra torque into the driveline means the changes are always well within the engine's comfort zone. There is no lugging out of too low an rpm level or over revving before a change is made.
In fact, the extra torque does give the driver the opportunity to go even easier on the accelerator and still get an acceleration and deceleration performance out of the hybrid which is more than satisfactory around the city. On this test it was possible to get most of the work done around Brisbane with just the lightest of pressure on the pedal. Only on rare occasions was it necessary to push harder to get the truck over a rise or take off on a grade.
The green band on the tachometer is placed between 1000 and 2000 rpm, quite low for an engine this size. If the driver takes heed of what is recommended, they should get both good performance and good economy. Travelling along at 60 km/h the rpm sits at 1500 and can comfortably cope with most situations with a swift down-change always available if a bit more torque or power is required, simply by pressing slightly more on the pedal.
The hybridisation also improves the performance of the exhaust brake, especially with lighter loads. When the driver takes their foot off the throttle, the electric motor turns into a generator and has a substantial retarding effect. Add to this the exhaust brake and an AMT which starts selecting lower gears to get the revs up, and you have improved retardation as the truck slows for things like traffic lights.
This is probably the ideal environment for the hybrid to function and get its best results. Crossing the city of Brisbane and heading through the stop/go traffic of the CBD sees the batteries charging and discharging constantly. Taking off at the lights sees the electric motor kick-in and give the torque a boost only to regenerate when slowing for the next set.
The other fuel saving part of the hybrid system is the Idle Stop Start (ISS). This sees the engine stop when idling at road junctions. At first, this can be quite disconcerting for a driver unaccustomed to driving a hybrid. Pulling up, the driver simply presses the brake pedal and the ISS waits a few seconds before killing the engine. The engine stays stopped until the driver releases the foot brake, when it fires up again and the truck is on its way.
It will take a driver some time to get used to when the ISS kicks in and when it doesn't. If the traffic queue is only moving a few metres before stopping again the truck does not get up to a high enough speed to reset, and the engine will not shut down a second time. This means the driver only gets the fuel saving benefit at the first halt in a slowly moving queue.
When setting off again, the restart can sometimes be a little ponderous. The starter motor has to kick in and the system waits for the correct revs and torque before getting underway. Once acclimatised to the truck, the driver simply has to anticipate when the truck is about to set off and release the brake early to get the engine running and be ready to take off when the traffic starts to move. In some situations, like on a steep incline, it is sometimes more effective to release the brake several seconds early to get the engine running, before reapplying the brake but being ready to pull away swiftly and cleanly.
As we have come to expect from Fuso, the overall set-up of the truck is very precise. The steering is positive and effective, with an excellent turning circle. The suspension is just right, making the ride comfortable but not floppy, and with just the right amount of feel for the driver. These kinds of aspects of the trucks can be regarded as a given on modern Japanese trucks.
Driving this new hybrid for the first time, it is hard to look at other aspects of the new Canter outside of its hybrid driveline. However the interior is well laid out and both controls and instruments well placed. This test model also has the optional entertainment system, which includes a screen for the reversing camera that takes over the system, shutting down music and displaying the view directly behind the truck when reverse is selected. This proved useful when getting the truck parked in tight urban parking situations, especially when there were large numbers of oblivious pedestrians around the truck.
Bluetooth included in the entertainment system means the driver can automatically answer the phone without getting too distracted. Another boon in the centre of the city. The driver's seat leaves a little to be desired when compared to its competitors. However, the drinks holder deserves a mention simply because, initially, it looks flimsy, but proves to be well designed and up to the task of handling a couple of 600ml bottles.
All-in-all the Fuso gives the operator an effective hybrid package which will do its best in all conditions. Although not completely idiot-proof – no truck is – the hybrid will bring down the fuel consumption of every driver, as long as they spend most of the time in auto mode. The combination of hybrid driveline and Duonic AMT proves to be a good performer.
The way to get the best out these trucks is to challenge the driver to get the best fuel consumption. It will be important for the buyers of these trucks to maximise the benefit they are hoping to get from, what is, a relatively expensive vehicle. The jury is still out as to the effectiveness of a hybrid truck for many operators in Australia.
It is clear they are effective for some operators because two brands of trucks have managed to sell a number into the transport industry without environmental incentives from any level of government. There has been no legislative drive towards these kinds of trucks apart from the threat from a future carbon pricing scheme, which seems to be fading over the horizon. If the economic imperatives do start to drive the transport industry into hunting for much lower fuel consumption, then the Fuso Canter Eco Hybrid looks like being an effective tool to achieve that.