Volvo’s new FH hits Australia – still with “only” 700 hp

Volvo's new FH hits Australia – still with “only” 700 hp

In his monthly review of global news for local truckers, FRANK BEETON looks at Volvo’s Australian-spec FH flagship, dissects the “different” Japanese commercial vehicle market, and details an AMT counter-attack by Eaton against the latest moves to make full automatics more widely accepted.

When Volvo Trucks launched its new FH Series flagship last September, the transport world sat up and took note. This was not only because of the new product’s striking appearance, or the fact that this manufacturer was moving into a leading position in the global trucking industry, but also owing to some very innovative components, such as “Individual Front Suspension” and rack-and-pinion steering. This was acknowledged as the initial application of this particular combination of handling and directional stability-enhancing features in a series production heavy truck.

In common with other new Euro-6 compliant products from European manufacturers, the rest of the FH Series specification was brim full of fine-tuned complementary technology – including new engine derivatives; an automated transmission with optimised control of gear selection; a full suite of electronic lane-keeping, braking, traction and stability enhancements; an all-new cab design with even more safety features than found in earlier Volvo designs; fine-tuned aerodynamics; and an interactive system to make servicing more flexible and appropriate to the vehicle’s actual needs.

With these credentials, it was not surprising that the Volvo FH Series was elected International Truck of the Year 2014 by a panel of journalists representing 25 European commercial vehicle publications. The citation read: “Volvo Trucks has delivered a completely new heavy-duty truck, which, with its innovative cab, hi-tech driveline components and advanced maintenance solutions, sets a new benchmark in the automotive industry”. Earlier incarnations of the Volvo FH won this award twice previously, in 1994 and 2000.

It was noted at the global launch that Volvo was offering the IFS option only on left-hand-drive models, in applications involving high-speed operation on smooth surfaces. This was fully understandable, given the wide variety of road and operating conditions that are regularly encountered by trucks in the execution of their duties, and clearly aimed at protecting this innovative, but more vulnerable, design from abuse from passage over the rocks and tree debris typically associated with construction and forestry applications.

It was evident, however, from the 345 to 560 kW (460 to 750 hp) power spread in the European FH catalogue, that demand for this vehicle from Volvo’s established export markets would soon be forthcoming. We were not surprised, therefore, to read that the FH was on show to Australian operators in Brisbane during May, but it was surprising to learn that the 560 kW
(750 hp) rating for the 16-litre engine option was not initially being made available to power-hungry operators “down under”.

This is where the story becomes a tad confusing. The FH product guide on Volvo’s Australian website lists the 13-litre D13C and 16-litre D16G engines in a power range from 309 kW (420 hp) to 551 kW (750 hp), but the site’s landing page defines the local limits as 340 to 520 kW (460 to 700 hp). This was confirmed in the September-October edition of Diesel, Australia’s premier trucking magazine, and is reportedly owing to engine cooling and drivetrain considerations under Australian conditions.

It is predicted, however, that the highest engine rating will become available in due course. The driveline options being offered include 14-speed manual or direct- and overdrive-top 12-speed automated I-Shift gearboxes, and single- or hub-reduction rear drive axles, riding on conventional leaf, parabolic or air suspensions, in single, pusher-axle or tandem-drive sets. The FH is cleared for operation at gross combination masses (GCM) of up to 100 tonnes, when equipped with hub reduction drive axles. The specification includes fuel tank capacities between 385 and 690 litres and AdBlue capacities from 32 to 205 litres.

The specification “mix” described above will surely lead to FH tractors being used extensively in road train applications. This suggests that Volvo is confident that this highly sophisticated prime movers will be able to handle the Outback. Experience gained in the Australian market will, no doubt, also come in very handy when preparing this model for other world areas with similarly severe operating conditions, and it will be interesting to see if the IFS option is also eventually opened up to RHD markets, subject to the appropriate safeguards against abuse being applied.

The (different) Japanese commercial vehicle market

Japanese commercial vehicles have been an integral part of the South African market since the early 1960s, with the combined total of brands such as Toyota, Hino, Isuzu, Nissan Diesel (now UD) and Mitsubishi Fuso currently making up a substantial percentage of the truck population seen daily on our roads.

Earlier, during the 1970s and 1980s, front-engined full-size buses built on Japanese bus chassis were also to be found in substantial numbers, but the introduction of compulsory local diesel engine fitment during the 1980s, using power units of European origin, reduced the incentive for Japanese bus manufacturers to participate in the local market. Since then, most Japanese-branded buses in South African service have usually been built on truck chassis derivatives.

This local success of Japanese products has inevitably focused attention on the home market performance of brands from the Land of the Rising Sun. In truth, foreign commercial vehicles are a rare sight in that country, with only small numbers of European “heavies” having been imported through joint marketing ventures with local manufacturers. Although there was some earlier trade protectionism against vehicle imports, the rather unique Japanese tastes in specification and configuration details have also played a role in keeping local brands dominant.

Initially, there was a preference for very large displacement naturally aspirated diesel engines to cope with the prevalent heavy traffic conditions, while the rest of the world had moved to turbochargers and intercoolers for greater efficiency. This has subsequently been largely cancelled out by Japan’s adoption of more stringent emission standards.

Honda’s tiny Acty is typical of the ‘Kei trucks’ not covered by our Japanese market feature.Then there were the rather quirky long-wheelbase rigid heavy trucks, with varying numbers of multiple axles, running on small diameter wheels to provide lower loading heights, when everyone else had gone the articulated route. This preference is still evident in current Japanese product catalogues.

The Japanese commercial vehicle market is also unique in the way its segmentation profile has developed. Disregarding the large number of tiny 660 cc Kei trucks and micro vans that buzz around the tight confines of city back streets, the market starts at two tonnes gross vehicle mass (GVM) and is then split at the 4,5-tonne GVM mark into “light” and “medium-heavy” classifications.

The absolute size of the market for the first half of 2013, at 190 390 units, was substantially smaller than the equivalent market in Thailand, at 362 922 units. However, this is a reflection of the huge Thai demand for one-tonne pickups, which constitute nearly 90 percent of that country’s market. This pickup category is not such an important player in Japan, being largely substituted by the aforementioned micro vehicles.

The total commercial vehicle market volume recorded in the first half of 2013 was 0,6 percent less than the equivalent return for the January to June 2013 period. This is interesting, considering the recent interventions, through quantitative easing, by the Japanese government to restore inflationary forces to an economy that had previously experienced 20 years of deflation.

The result has been reduced foreign exchange values for its currency against those of major trading partners. This outcome is clearly intended to increase the competitiveness of Japanese products in export markets. If this policy is succeeding, it has not yet been reflected in domestic commercial vehicle sales.

The light commercial category, with GVM ratings between two and 4,5 tonnes, at 117 339 units, makes up 61,6 percent of the total market and is mainly populated by forward- and semi-forward control one-tonne vans and derived products.

During the review period, Toyota led this segment with a share of 53,4 percent, followed by Nissan at 28,6 percent penetration, and Mazda, which captured 5,8 percent of the available sales. In the heavier medium/heavy goods vehicle segment, which contributes 35,3 percent of the total market, Isuzu was the dominant player with 32,3 percent penetration, followed by Hino at 27 percent, and Mitsubishi Fuso at
16,6 percent.

This result confirms the ongoing success of Isuzu’s recently refreshed N and F Series product line-ups in both its domestic and export markets, while Hino’s latest 300-series has also made its mark. It should be noted that the sales volumes of Hino and Toyota products are listed separately in the Japanese statistics.

In the bus category, Toyota’s leading position with 35,7 percent share proves that this segment is dominated by midibuses, as the Coaster is the manufacturer’s only product in the class. Affiliate Hino, which also covers the heavy bus segment, is in second spot with 24,9 percent penetration, while Mitsubishi Fuso occupies third place with 19,2 percent share. Bus sales make up just more than five percent of the commercial vehicle market total.

In recent years, two of Japan’s specialist commercial manufacturers have been drawn into giant global groupings. In 2005, German truck giant Daimler AG raised its Mitsubishi Fuso shareholding to 85 percent, and subsequently integrated its operations into the global Daimler Trucks family.

In 2006, Volvo AB started the process of acquiring the whole of Nissan Diesel Motor Company, and subsequently changed its name to UD Trucks. UD has now been fully absorbed into the Volvo Group’s international operations. This “internationalisation” of Japanese companies may have a substantial impact on their global competitiveness.

Traditionally, Japanese export trucks have been strongest in the payload categories below 10 tonnes, although some success has been achieved higher up the scale in particular markets. It now seems that the activities of Fuso and UD are being fine-tuned to dovetail with their global partners, and it will be interesting to see how this process rolls out.

While Hino is firmly contained within the Toyota sphere of influence, the future position with regard to Isuzu’s international linkages is less clear. In recent years, the former strong ties with General Motors have been considerably loosened, but with the changing currency situation mentioned above being very much in Japan’s favour, who would bet against a reversal of this process going forward?

Automatic versus automated: the gap narrows.

Ever since its launch in September 2011, we have followed the progress of the Allison TC10TS transmission with great interest. This fully automatic unit is unconventional, in that it combines a torque converter with a 10-speed mechanical gearbox, and transmits its power through wet clutches in the main five-speed gearbox and a two-speed planetary range section.

In our initial analysis we predicted that, if this transmission lived up to its manufacturers’ claims, it would deliver superior performance and economy to conventional manual or automated mechanical (AMT) gearboxes and could present a significant challenge to both these types. Later, Allison said that TC10-equipped test vehicles were returning average fuel consumption benefits of five percent, but, up to now, there has been little news of this transmission outside of North America, apart from its recent appearance at the Brisbane Truck Show.

Allison’s objective in developing the TC10 was clearly to expand the appeal of its torque converter automatics beyond their traditional market in stop-start, relatively low-speed applications, and gain access to longer haul customers who have been increasingly adopting the AMT option as an easy-to-drive alternative to manual gearboxes.

However, there has also been a reverse trend, where AMTs have been chosen as viable alternatives to traditional torque converter/planetary gear automatics in stop-start operations. In Australia, for instance, concrete agitators (truck mixers to you and me) and refuse collectors have been long-time users of full automatics, but just recently, AMTs have started to make inroads into these “vocational” fields of operation.

In order to meet the demands of mixer applications, including the need to crawl when working on kerbs or gutters, and extricating the vehicle from chopped-up and muddy construction sites, Eaton has developed the VMS version of its Ultrashift-Plus automated transmission.

This is an 11-forward speed unit with a ratio spread from 26,08 to 0,73:1, and three reverse gears with gearing between 20,84 and 3,43:1. Input torque capacity limits range from 1 966 to 2 373 Nm, and additional features include stall prevention, engine overspeed protection, clutch abuse protection, auto gear select, and hill start aid.

Eaton reportedly claims that users are achieving fuel consumption benefits of up to 28 percent over full-automatic “agitators”, mainly because of lower engine speed operation on the longer runs between loading and delivery points. Despite a slight gearbox mass disadvantage against equivalent automatics, this type of fuel saving makes a strong argument for AMT consideration by mixer operators.

It will be interesting to see how the full-automatic manufacturers respond to this threat. One possible way may be to follow the example of Japanese supplier Aisin with its A860E six-speed, close-ratio, double-overdrive transmission currently used in the Hino 300-series. Although much smaller than the units typically used in truck mixers, this gearbox differs from “conventional” automatics in having a torque converter lockup facility operating on all five of its higher ratios, thus providing a direct mechanical connection between engine and transmission between gear changes. This transmission has reportedly returned very convincing fuel economy outcomes, and a higher torque version with appropriate ratio availability may be welcomed at GVM ratings above seven tonnes.


Global FOCUS is a monthly update of international news relating to the commercial vehicle industry. It is compiled exclusively for FOCUS by Frank Beeton of Econometrix.

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FOCUS on Transport and Logistics is the oldest and most respected transport and logistics publication in southern Africa.
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Torbjörn Christensson and Claes Nilsson with the new Volvo FH – one of the vehicles they hope will help drive the company to a 15 percent market share.