By Jack Roberts –
Volvo’s SuperTruck features some amazing, cutting-edge technology. And yet 70% of its components are running the roads on VNL tractors today. Equipment Editor Jim Park and Senior Editor Jack Roberts were the first non-Volvo drivers to climb behind the wheel. Roberts shares the experience in his Truck Tech blog.
You’d be forgiven for being a little intimidated, frightened, even, driving a one-of-a-kind truck worth $2 million through heavy traffic around Greensboro, North Carolina. But, in reality, the experience isn’t nerve-racking at all.
The SuperTruck Project is a holdover from the Obama Administration, which provided federal dollars to trucking OEMs to help them develop advanced technologies that can improve freight efficiency and fuel economy for the next generation of U.S.-built Class 8 trucks. The federal dollars serve as a way to encourage OEMs to pursue new and emerging fuel efficiency technologies that real-world market forces wouldn’t ordinarily allow them to spend private dollars researching on such a large scale – or actually put on the road in a concept truck.
Volvo’s SuperTruck made its public debut in Washington at the Department of Energy last September. And earlier this week, Equipment Editor Jim Park and myself were the first non-Volvo drivers to climb behind the wheel of the gleaming, white-and-black, futuristic tractor-trailer and hit the Interstate outside of Greensboro, where Volvo’s North American headquarters are located, for an evaluation drive.
And although, as I noted, Volvo’s SuperTruck is not a quantum leap forward, there’s still a lot to take in and digest with this remarkable vehicle.
But, in doing so, it’s important to keep in mind that this one-off truck is a test platform for new technologies. It is not a production truck. Nor will it ever be a production truck. Although it is almost certain that some – if not many – of the new technologies on the vehicle will appear on production Volvos in the near future.
In the meantime, the test drive differs from more conventional ones in that there is a small contingent of Volvo engineers hovering around the tractor, or sitting in the sleeper monitoring laptops during the drive. And that’s to be expected: When you’re working with something this cutting-edge, there are bound to be technical glitches. Although, as the day progressed, the Volvo SuperTruck performed flawlessly during our drive out and back on Interstate 40.
70% Tried and True
Walking up to Volvo’s SuperTruck for the first time, you’re struck right away by two distinct impressions. First, it is a highly advanced, super-aerodynamic design that practically screams Future Tech. But it’s also comfortingly familiar as well. Even a brief glance confirms strong Volvo VNL DNA coursing through the design.
All told, the Volvo SuperTruck isn’t so much a departure from current Volvo design standards as it is a natural evolution. And, not surprisingly, it’s an evolution that is laser-focused on aerodynamics: This SuperTruck’s ultra-smooth contours and lines are enhanced by highly aggressive, full-length aero skirts and an ultra-tight trailer gap complete with airflow-dampening flooring around the fifth wheel.
The skirting is extremely close to the ground. And my guess is that aspect of the design would be dialed back a bit should this aero configuration go into production. But after seeing the full-length aero package up close and seeing how it breaks at the fifth wheel to allow articulation, I’m convinced something similar will appear on production models in the near future.
Up front, the familiar VNL-style grille and headlights are punctuated by the most aggressively sloped hood design I’ve ever encountered on a Class 8 tractor. The hood designed is so advanced, in fact, that you cannot see it, at all, from inside the cab – even if you lean way far forward in your seat trying to do so. For all practical purposes, you might as well be driving a cabover down the highway, as far as forward views over the nose are concerned.
Further up on the cab is a solar panel that replaces the usual skylight illuminating the cab and sleeper. The solar panel feeds additional energy into the SuperTruck’s electrical system to help run auxiliary and hotel-load power systems. Interestingly, Volvo engineers didn’t want drivers to feel they were “in a cave,” given the loss of natural light. So, a screen inside the cab, where the skylight window would usually be, monitors exterior light levels and projects artificial “natural” light into the cab/sleeper. The system perfectly mimics exterior light conditions. If the SuperTruck passes through a tunnel, for example, the project screen will go dark until the truck emerges back into sunlight again.
Underneath all these super-efficient body sculpting are a few more interesting surprises. Perhaps the most notable is the all-aluminum box frame the tractor rides on – although other cool features like smart lithium-ion battery packs, a smart alternator-charging system, a highly sophisticated energy management system and a waste heat recovery system (which was disconnected during our drive) are vastly interesting as well. The overall packaging of these various systems is impressive, as are the overall weight savings. All told, Volvo engineers were able to cut the SuperTruck’s total weight by a whopping 3,000 pounds, compared to a current production VNL model.
Of these features, the most controversial is likely to be the all-aluminum frame, as fleets will no doubt question the overall durability of the design. Again, the purpose of this vehicle is to evaluate new concepts like this and determine if they can work in real-world trucking applications. I can tell you that out on the highway, neither Jim nor I could feel any difference at all in terms of ride, roll, lateral stability or shock and vibration in terms of frame/chassis performance.
For decades, the standard “recipe” for designing a new truck has been to overbuild a basic frame/chassis, and then spec for specific applications. Now, clearly, an aluminum frame isn’t going to work in many tough trucking applications. But, should the concept prove itself out in testing, I can envision a time in the future where they might be an option – or even a standard feature – on trucks specifically designed for maximum fuel economy in long-haul, highway applications.
Taken as a whole, Volvo engineers tell me that roughly 70% of SuperTruck components are already in everyday use in current Volvo production trucks, with the remaining 30% being new, advanced or experimental components and systems.
This design approach is most notable in the cab which – except for a few notable items – is pretty much a stock Volvo VNL cab and sleeper. The A-pillar and passenger bulkhead-mounted rear-view camera screens are the biggest departure from current Volvo cab arrangements. Although a center dash-mounted camera control systems is a close second.
The SuperTruck has rearview side mirrors, as required by law. And it’s worth noting that they are the single biggest drag-inducing exterior feature on the truck. The mirrors are a mixed bag in actual driving conditions: Jim and I both like them pretty well out on the road. Although he has some reservations about their effectiveness in low-speed turning situations – mainly the fact their view is set and doesn’t allow a driver to shift forward to get a better view of what’s happening with the trailer during a turn.
The reliance on current technology extends to the powertrain as well. As noted, it has been tweaked a bit with some experimental systems, including a highly advanced, intelligent cruise control system controlled by the Volvo I-Shift automated manual transmission and a new turbo-compounding system. But the heart and soul of the SuperTruck are a Volvo D11 diesel and the aforementioned I-Shift AMT, which would be right at home on any new Volvo tractor you’ll find today.
So, what’s it like to drive? Well, frankly, when you’re behind the wheel, the experience isn’t dissimilar from taking a new VNL down the highway today. The main differences are the exceptional views out in front, thanks to a curved, panoramic windshield and that insanely sloped hood I mentioned. And it’s an extremely quiet truck, thanks to all the aerodynamic design elements. The majority of any outside noise is actually generated by the side-mounted rear-view mirrors, in fact.
Performance-wise, the SuperTruck isn’t a dragster and wasn’t designed to be. So, it’s not going to blast up a hill in a hurry and you don’t have as much reserve power on hand as conventional highway trucks have today for accelerating and passing. On the other hand, the truck is so slippery when it comes to cutting through the air, that you really have to watch your speed on downgrades when you’re not in cruise mode. This truck can easily pick up 5 to 10 mph on even a modest downhill grade when the truck is in “Eco” mode – essentially transmission in neutral with zero throttle input. And the Volvo engineers have some fairly hair-raising stories about what can happen on extreme downgrades if the driver isn’t careful!
All told, the Volvo SuperTruck is an impressive technology-validation platform. The initial SuperTruck program goal, as set by the U.S. Department of Energy, was to achieve an overall freight efficiency boost of 50% compared to conventional tractor-trailers running today. Volvo engineers decline to cite any fuel economy numbers. But they do note that the truck attained a freight efficiency boost of 88% – clearly exceeding the SuperTruck program goals.
Evaluation of the Volvo SuperTruck is ongoing. So, it’s way too early to say what features will definitely find their way onto the next generation of long-haul tractors, and which ones won’t.
But there is no doubt that there is more than just a mere hint of the future of trucking present in this design. Stay tuned. My guess is it won’t be long before you’re seeing these advances for yourself.