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July 11, 2011

Mack Moves Mountains

An interesting comparison between trucking in America and trucking in Europe shows that on the continent where the manual gearshift dominates the passenger car field, nearly all heavy trucks have automated gearshifts. Here in America, though, where virtually every car is an automatic, trucks are manually shifted.

That could be set to change if truck manufacturers can offer automatic transmissions as good as Mack’s mDrive, an automated 12-speed that’s smart, slick, and makes every driver a star performer. At the Mid America Show, Mack’s on-highway product planning manager Jerry Warmkessel said that the mDrive has been so well received that it could account for 40% of production within two years.

That is the conclusion I reached, too, after a drive of a Mack Pinnacle from the show in Louisville, Ky., to Mack’s Customer Center in Allentown, Pa.–a distance of close to 700 miles across the rugged West Virginia mountains en route.

I was sharing the driving with powertrain manager David McKenna, who is a 32-year Mack veteran. In his current role as powertrain guru, he was there to explain why the mDrive does such a good job. And since he is a long-time friend and partner in crimes I don’t want to go into, we were looking forward to a drive of around 12 hours.

We were to drop off the Mack at the newly commissioned Customer Care Center in Allentown. This facility used to be the technical center with its own test-track. Now, with the move of Mack headquarters to the splendid Volvo campus in Greensboro NC., the center has become a place where customers can come to see and feel the Mack experience and its products. And drive for themselves this Pinnacle and its mDrive transmission.

Automated Antics
The mDrive is from Volvo AB, Mack’s parent company. It has common mechanicals with the automated Volvo iShift which is used in Volvo trucks in Europe and around the world, including here in America. But mDrive is by no means the same transmission: In its Mack guise it has all new programming to match it to the Mack engines which have far different power and toque curves than the Volvo power.

The Mack Pinnacle I drove featured the Mack MP8 rated 505 hp. It’s the 13-liter version of the overhead camshaft engine developed for the 2010 emissions regulations. It was introduced back in 2006 and has carried Mack very successfully through two emissions changes since. Even though the MP8 is basically the same engine as the Volvo 13-liter, the Mack has its own personality – in this case the Econodyne profile -- that has long been a part of the Mack brand. And a feature of this profile is EconoBoost, which is an on-demand torque boost when the full throttle is held for three seconds. The engine adds as much as 200 lb-ft at any speed from 1300 rpm. It takes an intelligent transmission to account for that.

And that’s why the mDrive has to be so very different from the iShift of the Volvo branded trucks.

As I climbed into the truck, the missing gearlever and clutch pedal were obvious. And the use of a shift pad on the wing dash instead of a tower opens up floor space for the walk-through to the comfortable and inviting sleeper.

But we were not planning any time back there. It was going to be a straight-through blast with only a couple of brief stops. So with Neutral selected, I fired up the Mack motor and we were on the way.

On The Road
Threading our way out of the Kentucky Fairgrounds, I was impressed by the way the transmission would pick up gears yet still idle along in traffic (we were leaving on the Saturday, always a frantically busy time at the Mid America Trucking Show). This made it handy for getting acclimatized. The Pinnacle, though, is easy to get to grips with as the seating gives an excellent view over the sloping hood and good mirrors complete the all-round visibility.

Once out of the Expo we were immediately on the freeway on-ramp and I hit the throttle to get up to speed – a very easy task with an automated transmission. The speed piled on quickly with 505 hp and EconoBoost to get the 80,000 pound going, I dialed in the cruise control and sat back to enjoy the ride.

The mDrive is an impressive piece of technology. It doesn’t just respond to the engine, but instead drives it. Gears are selected according to road conditions – the transmission even has an inclinometer so that it knows if the truck is going up or downhill. It knows what the driver wants through the throttle position so it tells the engine what is needed. Starting out, it gradually closes the clutch for an impeccable response to the first squeeze of the throttle pedal. When it comes time to shift gears, the transmission commands the engine to back off and break the torque flow, the transmission then float shifts to the next gear, exactly matching engine revs to smoothly and swiftly swap gears. I found this at the test track on day two, when accelerating up a 10% test hill from a standstill. The Mack just picked up gears as it accelerated away, block shifting one to three, then four and five to make the most of the transmissions capabilities.

On the highway, this extreme start was never necessary, but the transmission nevertheless often would skip gears, either to make the most of the acceleration, or to bring in the engine brake for the maximum retardation.

And at the same time, it made the most of the fuel economy. One of the big pluses of all automated transmissions is that they can go a long way to equalizing the driving performance of different drivers in a fleet. According to the Technology and Maintenance Council that the difference between a top economy driver and the worst may impact fuel use by as much as 30%. With an automated shift, this can be reduced to only a few percentage points.

As we started out, the numbers on the dash display climbed to a very creditable 7.3 mpg as we negotiated the hills of Kentucky, but as we got into the serious climbs of West Virginia and all the way to Allentown, this crept back till at the gates of the Customer Care Center the reading stood at 6.9. But that’s not at all bad given the maxxed out load and the mountains.

In The Saddle
We had started out around mid-morning, so took a break at around four hours into the journey at the Travelcenters of America stop in Hurricane WV. After a fortifying lunch that seemed to take forever we climbed back into the truck with another eight hours ahead of us, now through the mountains. I wondered if I could make it after the rigors of three days of press conferences, meals and receptions that are the journalists round at the Mid America Trucking Show each year.

But a cup of coffee at the Pilot on Greencastle Pike in Hagerstown, Md., gave the required caffeine jolt and we pulled up at the Customer Care Center gates feeling fresher and more alert than we had at the lunchtime stop. That says a lot for the Mack, and speaks reams for the transmission. With the task of shifting handled automatically, I was far more relaxed through the drive and less physically tired than I would have been wrestling the shift lever through the mountains.

The Pinnacle has pretty good seat travel and an adjustable steering column so it is easy to set the driving position to the pedals and get the wheel just so. The dash is excellent with the top gauges shaped to fit within the arc of the wheel. So with a great view out and information clearly displayed, it really was a cruise with the transmission dropping gears on the long climbs, sometimes one, sometimes two almost never three as the Mack MP8 really gets down and grunts – especially with the boost feature. At times the transmission would grab a gear where I might have held on with a manual to breast a climb. But with a little practice you find that backing out of the throttle will save a shift.

What’s really nice is the way the mDrive handles the unexpected, like a car slowing in front of the truck or an obstacle in a corner. As a driver you can deal with the situation confident that when you walk on the throttle again, you’re going to be in the right gear to step smartly off again.

Journey’s End
We arrived at the Customer Care Center at midnight to find no rental car. So back in the Mack, I had to take the truck and trailer combination back down the road and thread the outfit into the parking lot of the Hilton Garden Inn – and those hotels are not truck friendly.

McKenna had an early flight out the following morning so I had to negotiate my way back out of the tight little parking lot, trying to tiptoe around the flower beds and extricate 60 feet of tractor trailer from a parking lot designed for Fords and Toyotas.

Again, it says a lot for the tight turning of the Mack with its Sheppard steering gear that this was not the impossible task it may have been with some other trucks. After a lot of back-and-forth I was on the way to shoot some pictures at the test track, try a few of the test hills and the handling course, then boogie on out of there to catch a flight to drive the new 2012 Honda Civic. Talk about a contrast!

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