Twin goals shaping future trucks

June 6, 2003
Skip Yeakel believes the driving force behind current and future Class 8 tractor designs can be boiled down to two simple but inseparable goals: greater
Skip Yeakel believes the driving force behind current and future Class 8 tractor designs can be boiled down to two simple but inseparable goals: greater safety and efficiency. Yeakel, director of government and industry relations for Greensboro, NC-based Volvo Truck North America, knows whereof he speaks. He's been helping design Class 8 trucks for over 40 years and was recently elected chairman of the Truck Manufacturers Association. "In the end, we have to do two things," he said. "We have to put a safer vehicle on the road, for the both the truck driver and the other vehicles around him, while making sure that vehicle helps both the fleet and the owner/operator save money compared to previous models." While giving tours of Volvo's VN 780 technology truck -- one of seven prototypes built by the OEM to showcase current and future truck components -- Yeakel emphasized that vehicle safety and efficiency can be two sides of the same coin. "Take transmissions, for example. This [VN 780] truck is equipped with a fully automated transmission -- there's no clutch pedal," he said. "From the safety side, an automated transmission allows the truck driver to completely focus on the traffic around him or her. On the efficiency side, that automated transmission improves fuel economy -- a driver doesn't have to worry about missing a shift, grinding gears, or being in the wrong gear." The onboard personal computer built into the VN 780 provides another case in point. "The computer comes programmed with an automatic driver logbook and fuel tax log," said Yeakel. "On the safety side, the computer automatically records the hours a driver operates the vehicle. On the efficiency side, having the logbook and fuel tax log automated means a driver doesn't have to spend time filling out paperwork -- which gives them more time to focus on other duties." Tire-pressure monitoring systems are another example of safety and efficiency working together. The VN780 rolls on "super wide" single tires on its two rear axles. "The single wides on the rear axles, coupled with aluminum wheels, shaves 900 lbs. off truck -- that's a big gain in efficiency," Yeakel said. "But with just one tire back there, you have to try and get ahead of a problem. You have to be 'prognostic' in case you run over a nail in the road -- so you can prevent a tire failure from happening." Yeakel said roll stability systems are in the works as optional -- and perhaps one-day, as standard -- equipment on tractors. Other possibilities he cited include on-board generators to reduce truck engine idling, rear- and side-view cameras to eliminate blind spots, and improved aerodynamics to reduce the fuel loss associated with new low-emissions diesel engines. These and a hundred other design details can all help make trucks both safer and more efficient in the future, he stressed, while providing a lower life-cycle cost to the truck owner, too. "Life cycle cost is much more critical today, especially in a weak business situation like we have now where no one has money to burn," Yeakel said. "And vehicle life-cycle cost involves everything on a truck, from aerodynamics and forward visibility to crash worthiness and fuel economy. It all adds up out on the road."