The top of the mountain

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Last month we discussed why the Freightliner world down under changed and what living in the DTNA teepee will mean. This month we look more at what’s coming.

Freightliner has a recent history when it comes to naming trucks after their region of birth. Columbia got its name from the famous river flowing through Portland to the Pacific, and Cascadia the Cascade Range of mountains running down through the Pacific North West. Looking back 12 years, it was mildly prophetic naming the new truck Cascadia. If the moot were ‘Name the USA’s most successful class 8 truck ever’, you’d be in a strong position arguing for the Cascadia. It’s been the omnipotent number one now for well over half a decade, thanks largely to one man’s vision.

The long game
When Cascadia arrived in 2007, Freightliner had about 18% of the US class 8 market. Today, Richard Howard, senior vice president for sales and marketing Daimler Truck and Bus North America (DTNA), will tell you back then the morale, particularly in aftersales and the dealership network, was a bit average. When Martin Daum arrived in the big seat to take the role of executive vice president, president and CEO of DTNA LLC in 2009, he set a goal for undisputed market leadership. But it wasn’t the goal itself that necessarily got the wheels spinning; it was his action plan that would bring it to life. He demanded a constant innovation cycle delivering a 5% improvement in TCO (total cost of ownership) every two years. That’ll get any R&D and testing boffin out of bed in the morning!
It’s worth remembering Daum is now global boss of Daimler Truck and Bus. This year he announced to the world that Daimler was ceasing investment in platooning and would have a Level 4 autonomous vehicle commercially available in the US within a decade. So, if you’re a member of the ‘talk is cheap but it costs money to buy whiskey’ fraternity, it would appear he’s your man.

Photo: If you’re happily driving your Cascadia down the road in years to come, spare a thought for poor old Mr Purple and what he went through for you.

Anyway, where did it all end up? We know that well. Cascadia today holds 37.4% of the class 8 market (largely at Navistar’s expense), and Freightliner commands over 40% if you chuck in the other bits and pieces and the Star from the West. The closest challenger is Volvo jammed in and around the 18-ish mark with Pete and Ken. In terms of numbers, unit sales were 190,000 total (HD and MD), in 2018, and New Generation Cascadia, which arrived in Sept 16, has sold 150,000 vehicles so far. “Our most successful product launch ever,” says Howard. “We set out at the start with a vision for the long game. That’s how we are with every market we enter.” Ninety-five percent of Cascadias are today powered by Detroit (it would be higher if they could build more engines), 77% have the DT-12 AMT, 62% are on proprietary front axles, and 35% rear. DTNA in 2019 is a well-disciplined, goalhungry, rock concert.

Of course 5% improvement in TCO ain’t easy, and it’s now pushing them into alternative propulsion – there are class 8 eCascadias (electric) in real world field trials, and of course it now has a mandate to explore L4 autonomy. But what about the here now and drivetrains still powered by combustible crustaceans? Being the US, the pursuit of aerodynamics and fuel frugality is obsessive, and in Detroit the down-speeding phenomenon is being investigated to the extreme, with experimental rear axles at sub 2.0:1 final drives. Roger Nielsen is the top man in the US now and the base goal’s also been tweaked a little. “Undisputed market leadership in every dimension.” You mean the afterlife? No, he means connectivity, aftersales, safety, driveability, economy, socially… you name it. Remember, the KPI is total cost of ownership, and Ron Hall, VP equipment and fuel at CR England, a 6500-strong fleet based out of Salt Lake City in Utah, will tell you things like rear-end crashes have dried up since Active Brake Assist arrived. It’s not just fuel and bits.

Feared by trucks
Of course, if you read last month’s Part 1, you’ll know the really big news in all this is we’re now inside the DTNA teepee and no longer the annoying rural cousin. That means the golden child [Cascadia] will come as a result of DTNA’s full R&D and product development might. And what is it we are getting exactly? Not the Cascadia the US has had since 2016, that’s for sure. We’re getting the 2020 version that won the Transport Technology award at CES in Las Vegas this January, and the first Cascadia developed for right-hand drive markets.

Product Validation Engineering, or ‘PVE’ as Al Pearson, chief engineer product validation calls it, is DTNA’s fancy term for testing. “We are the voice of the critical customer,” he says. Development and PVE for the 28 trucks involved in the creation of ‘down under Cascadia’ has taken place in four locations pretty much. Two LH-drive units were put to work in Australia in the middle of last year, and they were later joined by an RH-drive unit working in a customer business. Five were taken to PVE facilities at the company HQ in Swan Island, Oregon and bashed, shaken, beaten, and tested to within an inch of their lives.

One poor truck went to Madras, high in the desert three hours inland from Oregon – it’s the place all trucks fear – and topping it off, 19 units have been built up as demos, and for marketing by Daimler Truck and Bus Australia Pacific. Basically, this is how development and testing goes. Once all the modelling and engineering are done, Daimler takes the result and conducts its own testing both in specialist facilities and with its own road fleet that runs 24/7. The road fleet is configured in such a way via weight, hours of operation, speed, and gradient, so they wear at a rate three times faster than normal over the road vehicle.

As well as their own data gathering, they amass data from real world customers in every corner of the market and in every operation – that now includes us. That data is then analysed and when compared with their own testing data, a picture of what a 90th percentile customer truck looks like emerges. Interestingly, the Australian RH-drive programme revealed a 90th percentile truck deep into the heavy vocational end of the US metrics. In fact, a truck that needed to be ‘heartier’ than a US heavy haul spec. “It’s great information,” said Daniel Whitehead, president and CEO Daimler Australia. “It’s what we’ve been saying for years, that we’re different. And there it is, in cold hard numbers.” What it meant for the poor purple RH-drive Cascadia that drew the Madras proving ground straw doesn’t bear thinking about. At the end of a US$18 million upgrade Madras is now a state-of-the-art truck test facility with multiple tracks, both high and low speed, and equal in terms of left and right loading on the vehicle. There are hills, and interestingly intersections, to allow for autonomous vehicle testing.

Discrete tests are gone too, meaning, the judder section followed by the cobble section and so on. Huge plates set into the ground and grouted together form one carriageway and are actually 3D images of real roads. No two plates are the same, the idea being to work stresses into the truck continually. “It’s the cumulative effect we want,” said Sean McKenna, Madras test track manager. In lay terms you could say that instead of banging their thumb once with a hammer, they wind the vice up slowly until… well, you know. Gradient/descent testing is done using the cumulative agony also. It takes between three and six months to prep a truck with all the transducers, accelerometers, and wizardry required to undertake testing, and once ready it embarks on a programme using a concoction of the facility’s apparatus, correlating to the destination market. In terms of weight the trucks are loaded in line with the correlation; Mr Purple was running 100,000lb (45 tonne).

“We load the tractor and first trailer here to max GCM of the lowest rated part,” said McKenna. “We only need that first trailer load to induce the required forces on the tractor.” Full load tests for gradability and tuning the AMT are done at a test facility in Germany, with weights of up 300,000lb (136 tonne). So does it all work? Napolyon Isikbay, director vehicle durability and reliability, said, “With new Cascadia we wanted a fault rate of 1.1 per vehicle per year. Management were upset and said ‘how are you going to get there, original Cascadia never came close?’ We achieved it in the first year with this product.” In case you’re wondering, in terms of development, the front underrun bumpers required some addons, and from the field testing it’s been about fuel tank straps and battery mounts.

Photos: Left: Brace for impact. Right:‘Lock, unlock, lock, unlock, lock, unlock’… set them going and come back weeks later.

Resetting the bar
For all that, Cascadia’s real party trick is likely to be the case it proposes on the desks of fleet purchasers in particular, and insurers. Yes, they’ll be slippery, economical, and, according to Freightliner Asia/Pacific director Stephen Downes, “deliver the lowest emissions in the market. Better than Euro 6”. Yes, there’ll be a 13litre, and a big banger. But more importantly, they’ll be the first US bonneted truck to come with proprietary Level 2 autonomy and all the safety and connectivity you’d expect from the swankiest Euro. Detroit Assurance 5.0 means Adaptive Cruise, Active Brake Assist – 5, Side Guard Assist, Lane Departure warning, and possibly Lane Keep Assist, although according to Downes the jury’s in recess on that last one given the delights of antipodean carriageways. The trucks will be the most connected US truck ever seen, whether that’s driver monitoring, voice, third party logistics applications, or its virtual technician. As we found with the new Fuso Shogun, there’s a Daimler familiarity about the dash and surrounds once you’re inside, and space galore, particularly around the driver. In terms of smoothness, the brief blats we’ve had at Las Vegas in January, and then in Mr Purple at Madras, demonstrate demonstrably that a challenge has most certainly been issued to the market when considering a safe, smooth, comfortable, bonneted, US truck.

Photo: This Cascadia has wind.

Don’t open that window envelope!
“We’ll be in the hole to the tune of $100 million when we launch. That’s what it’s cost to get this truck here to everyone’s satisfaction,” said Whitehead. “If you ever needed proof that DTNA is committed long term, that’s it. And believe me, we’re aiming for significant market share. We know it’s not the same here, but we’ve got something special to bring to market. We can now offer what the others can’t.” The challenge will be to communicate to the market what it is this truck represents. Yes, its performance, economy, safety, and connectivity are impressive, but it’s the restructuring of the DTNA relationship that houses the big gains, both now and in two years’ time. In that context Cascadia’s arrival is great news for noncustomers as well. Lethargy on the part of competitors will mean market share issues for sure.

Photos: Left: Napolyon Isikbay, director vehicle durability and reliability at DTNA looks at a cab grab handle that has some explaining to do. A ‘million miles’ in a highly corrosive environment is no excuse. Right: Daniel Whitehead, president and CEO Daimler Australia. A big bill to pay but even bigger ambitions in terms of market share.

And the answer to the big question is, “Yes”
Of course, only we know what the big question is. ‘Will there be an 8x4 Cascadia?’ New Zealand Trucking put the question to Downes. “Yes there will. Not right off the bat, but yes. New Zealand is an important market to us, and we’re absolutely committed to developing the 8x4.” New Zealand probably is an important market for sure when you have a bill like theirs; every sale counts. The timeliness of the 8x4’s evolution will no doubt be helped by the weird and wonderful world of PBS potential in Australia too. But one thing we do fervently hope is this: that they learn from their Benz brethren and when it does come, it’s not short on ‘assurance’ compared with its 6x4 stablemate.