The last 10 years has been all about the increasing penetration of automatic and automated gearboxes into the modern trucking fleet. Things have come a long way from their initial introduction in a few expensive and sophisticated European prime movers, to the expectation by truck buying customers for an auto option in just about every model. The latest truck manufacturer to get on the bandwagon is Hino, with the introduction of an AMT option, the ZF AS Tronic, for the SS model in the 700 series. This addition is a precursor to the introduction of AMTs throughout the Hino heavy-duty range.
Hauling a single trailer out of Brisbane loaded up to around 40 tonnes GCM, Prime Mover took the truck down the New England Highway to Sydney. This is a route capable of giving any automated manual transmission a good workout with a number of major climbs and steep descents and plenty of rolling countryside in between, where well judged gearchanging can help in maintaining momentum and minimising fuel consumption.
Jumping up into the cab is a familiar story – very little about the look of the interior of the 700 Series has changed. This is a much improved version of the heavy-duty prime mover from Hino, but all of the changes are going on under the skin with little cosmetic change. The most obvious signal we are in a different kind of a truck is the presence of the brushed metal ZF AS Tronic gear controller. However once the truck is rolling there are clearly profound differences between this prime mover’s set up and that of the original 700 Series when it was introduced into Australia over five years ago.
When it first arrived here, it was the first attempt by a Japanese truck manufacturer to come up with something that could be considered as being designed for the global market rather than the domestic Japanese one. The size and shape of the cabin moved away from the old-fashioned and cramped designs of the past. The feel of the truck was still very Japanese. In the last few years this has changed and the feel of the truck, especially the steering is a lot closer to what we can expect from the European manufacturers, with a light but very positive feel.
This adds some much needed sophistication to a truck which is, at its core, very basic. Combine this with the addition of the ZF gearbox with retardation and the overall impression given to the driver is of a sophisticated modern truck. Hino has come a long way down the track to meet the preferences of the Australian trucking industry. These developments are an indication of the changing nature of the world of truck manufacturing and road transport.
The long haul up the Cunningham Gap is a good test of any automated manual transmission. It provides the system with a number of problems with its unremitting climbing and variations in gradient questioning the gearbox’s ability to pick the right gear at the right time.
The climb saw the gearbox alternating between 10th and 11th gear. Revs would rise to around 1800 rpm before an up change was made bringing the engine revs back down to 1400 before pushing on back up to 1500. On some of the steep sections, 35km/h with the engine going at 1450rpm in 11th gear, it felt very comfortable from the driver’s seat on what is quite a difficult climb.
At certain points in the climb, where the gradient varies constantly, it was necessary to pop the AS Tronic into manual to hold onto 10th gear at around 1750 to 1800 rpm and avoid the box jumping into 11th and losing momentum.
The last few metres of the climb up and over Cunningham’s Gap sees the gradient steepen considerably, catching many trucks out. In this respect, the Hino performed quite well requiring just one gear to make it over the top. This particular part of the route gives the driver a chance to assess the quality of the torque available. Many engines can maintain a reasonable speed on the long winding grade only to require two or three quick gear changes in the last few metres.
If there is a point at which this gearbox is not quite as smooth as it really should be, then it is at lower speeds. It would appear that the communication between the engine management computer and the gearbox is not perfect at these speeds. The result is, what appears to be, heavy-handed gearchanging. Once the truck reaches 20km/h, the changes become much smoother and the issue disappears.
After many years of being frustrated by the lack of any real effective retardation capacity in any Japanese truck, the technology has suddenly become available in most Japanese brands. Isuzu has fitted the Voith in the Giga models, UD has set up its automatic gearboxes to maximise the retardation effect from its engine brake and now Hino is fitting the ZF Intarder alongside the ZF AS Tronic in the 700 series.
The ZF Intarder is a very effective tool once the driver gets a handle on exactly how much retardation is available at each level of the system. The left hand steering column stalk has four positions for the four different levels of retardation. On this road test it would appear the first two are useful in just taking the edge off any speed out on the highway. The last two positions are the ones which come into play when the truck is descending a grade.
The integration of the Intarder and the AMT is clearly demonstrated when wanting to pull the truck over into a parking bay. Travelling along at 100km/h, when a suitable parking space has been spotted, simply pull on the stalk for full retardation and the message gets through to the system. The AS Tronic simply starts changing down gears as the retarder washes off the speed at quite a fast rate. For the driver, it is simply a matter of steering the truck into the parking bay and finally bringing it to a halt with the service brakes when required.
The effectiveness of the Intarder was well proven on all of the descents along the New England Highway. It was possible to get down each grade at a reasonable speed without touching the brake pedal, keeping it in reserve. This kind of retardation increases the feeling of security the driver feels in hilly country.
Driving into Sydney demonstrated the ease of use of this driveline in busy traffic conditions. After coming off the freeway the Pacific Highway is a succession of traffic lights as the road rises and falls through the suburbs of northern Sydney. It was simply a matter of using the right foot on the accelerator to take off and speed up as and when the lights and traffic allowed; then pulling back on the retarder control when the lights turn red and the queues build up.
Hino has learnt its lessons with the Australian trucking industry and with every model change is getting closer and closer to the kind of thing this market requires. The organisation seems to be taking a lead from its big brother, Toyota. It may not be the best at everything but just keeps chipping away at the problem trying to get as much as possible right and improving year on year.
Several sections of the Cunningham Highway give the cab suspension a real workout. If it’s not quite right, the driver can have some uncomfortable experiences on this particular section of road. The improved suspension of this cab passed with flying colours.
This truck has the higher roof option fitted and, as a result, has a second bunk. The step to enable drivers to climb up to this higher bunk actually provides some useful storage when driving. It folds out to form two useful bins for storing the kind of clutter which seems to build up so quickly in a truck cab. There is also useful storage overhead with a well-designed shelf in which the driver can place items like their logbook, road atlas etc. The design means that the items are unlikely to fall out when the truck hits a rough patch of road.
This truck is also is fitted with another invaluable item for a modern truck, a plug to connect the iPod or iPhone into the audio system of the truck. This consideration would not have appeared in a truck assessment just five years ago but now the ubiquitous mobile technology is part of every truckie’s everyday life.
There are still compromises to be made when looking at Hino as a heavy-duty truck. There is still little flexibility when it comes to wheelbase options and Hino has overcome this, to a certain extent, by fitting a movable turntable. Most operators should be able to get the weight distribution just about right using this, but it is still a compromise.
What we can say though is that this new model does tick most of those specification boxes truck buyers are regarding as run-of-the-mill. Yes, the truck does have an Isri 6860 drivers seat with a fully integrated seatbelt and all the adjustment you could possibly need. The design does pass the cab strength plus front underrun protection test to get an extra half a tonne on the front axle. For a relatively tall cab, getting in and out of the truck satisfies strict OH&S requirements and driver ease-of-use is guaranteed with the sophisticated automated transmission.
Hino has done a good job with the grab handle fitted to the A pillar. It’s just a simple thing but it has been done well. As the driver steps onto the bottom step, they can grab the handle with their right hand and it flows easily through the hand all of the way as they climb into the cabin.
One omission on the test model is a downward facing mirror above the passenger door window. This is quite a tall cab making the blind spot around the near side front wheel quite large and some form of safety mirror would help in traffic. It is understandable that the mirror had been omitted as the relatively small passenger window could get crowded with too many obstructions.
What we see here, when looking at the auto option on the Hino 700, is a part of a process. Hino is a relative newcomer to the heavy end of the market but is learning fast and coming up with solutions to issues all of the time. In terms of the progress being made, the addition of such a sophisticated transmission as the ZF AS Tronic can be seen as a great leap forward.