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May 21, 2013

Daimler DT 12 Auto goes into production

Daimler Trucks new automatic transmission for the Cascadia has gone into production at the German company's Gaggenau plant, ready for use in Freightliner's Cascadia Evolution by mid-year.

To mark the occasion, a small group of North American journalists (me included) journeyed in April to the plant in the heart of Germany's Black Forest to see the commissioning of the production line that will initially supply the 12-speed automated transmission for the North American market. In 2015, production moves to the Detroit facility in Redford, Mich.

Daimler Trucks NA anticipates as much as 30% of Cascadia production will use the 12-speed automated transmission that, coupled to the latest generation of DD15 Detroit engine, offers fuel savings of 5% or more in the Cascadia Evolution. The single countershaft transmission also provides a 60kg (132 lb) weight savings over current competitive Eaton transmissions.

Quality processes
The Gaggenau factory machines and cuts gears and shafts, producing up to 150,000 transmissions annually for light, medium and heavy-duty Mercedes-Benz, Fuso and Freightliner products around the world. The DT 12, a new model for North America, shares the same internals with the automated transmission that was introduced with the cabover Mercedes New Actros, which was introduced two years ago. Thus it’s been in well-proven applications for two years.

Changes for the North American version consist of converting from Europe's 24V truck electrical system to North America's 12V. Software changes allow for communication with the American SAE/TMC chassis electrical architecture instead of the European CanBus.

New Actros, as the highly sophisticate new European cabover is called, was introduced with the OM471 and 472 engines, which are all but identical to the DD13 and 15 engines. This marks the first outside-America application of Daimler's worldwide Heavy Duty Engine Platform, which will also power Fuso trucks from Japan.

North America was the first to see these engines introduced in 2006, so where Freightliner will benefit from the Mercedes-proven automated transmission, Mercedes-Benz benefits from new engines already proven in N.A. markets. Both brands also benefit from the integration of engine and transmission, says Daimler, with the deeper communication made possible by proprietary components, electronic controls and software for greater optimization and a richer feature set than is possible with either a supplier engine or transmission.

Worth the trip
At the factory, we saw how gears are manufactured with tolerances as tight as a half micron for reliability and durability, as well as less noise in operation. The transmissions are warrantied for 750,000 miles, showing Daimler's confidence in its design and production processes. Much of the machining is done on fully automated lines with the plant running at close to 2,000 units per day. Transmissions are assembled at the neighboring Rastatt plant.

Gaggenau is, incidentally, the oldest vehicle and component production facility in the world. Commissioned in 1894, it became the site where Carl Benz produced his early cars in 1907.

Later, we went to the Worth truck plant about an hour away to see Mercedes-Benz trucks being built with Gaggenau transmissions and the inline 6-cylinder HDEP engines, sourced from the engine plant in Mannheim, Germany. Another historical note: Mannheim was also a Benz factory, while Gottlieb Daimler's production was in Stuttgart. In 1926 the two producers combined into Daimler-Benz.

The new Actros is assembled at Worth beside heritage models of the Actros that still use the V6 and V8 diesels and other A-line trucks that include the newly introduced Arocs heavy vocational chassis, the regional Antos and Axor, and the lighter Atego. Worth also produces specialized vehicles for unique markets.

May 3, 2013

North to Alaska. The rush is on!

The Sprinter vans and buses sat out during my first night on the Arctic Drive. It was late January and the temperature dropped to an almost unbelievable -48 degrees F (-44 C). Yet all but one fired up in the morning. Mine was the only one that didn’t – put it down to operator error. So we left it behind in Fairbanks, Alaska, and set off for the appropriately named Coldfoot, Alaska, inside the Arctic Circle.

Sprinters are at work all around the world – it’s one of the most, if not the most, widely distributed vehicles anywhere. This trip was to demonstrate that they can run as well in the frozen North as they do in the soaring temperatures of California’s Death Valley or on the busy streets of New York City. And the North we were to drive them in was deeply frozen in January. It was too cold to snow so we had no trouble with that. And it was cold enough to get traction on roads that were sheet ice for much of the 1,200-plus miles (nearly 2,000 km) of the round trip. But it was COLD!

Most of the day, we headed for Mt. McKinley, America's highest peak.
The Sprinters were well equipped for low-temperature operation. The most important component was the optional diesel-fueled coolant heater, integrated into the vehicle and controlled through the dashboard driver display. The heater warmed the engine and by circulating coolant, warming up the oil in the pan that had thickened overnight and getting the vehicle heater working much sooner than it would have otherwise. The vans also had the standard ABS braking along with ASR – anti-wheelspin control. And they had ESP stability control, which, through selective wheel braking, keeps the van pointed where the steering wheel says to go. All of these are highly desirable on the polished ice roads of Alaska.

The vans – two 144-inch (3.66-m) and five 170-inch (4.32-m) wheelbase hi-tops with bulkheads between cab and cargo – proved toasty warm. The cargo space has its own heater for cold-sensitive freight. The two 12-seater buses in the convoy were harder to heat. This was in part because the buses carried film crews with enough photography gear to occupy every seat and the floor as well, blocking the flow of heat, especially from the rear auxiliary heater. The side windows iced on the inside. There were minutes of unbelievably bitter cold when a cameraman would fling open the side door at 60 mph to get a shot of caribou or moose off to the right side. And for many, many minutes we shivered as one of the rear doors was opened to get tracking shots of the following Sprinters in temperatures of -37 F to -40 F (-38 to -40 C) on the first two days of our drive.

Our run to Coldfoot was the second wave of motoring journalists to join the joint Mercedes-Benz Canada and Mercedes-Benz U.S. invitation-only drive that originated in Edmonton, Alberta. The first wave spent five long days on the road – most of it on the famed Alaska Highway – through Fort St. John and Muncho Lake in Northern British Columbia, Whitehorse in the Yukon then Tok, Alaska, and finally Anchorage. They had their fair share of icy conditions and bitter cold. Now it was our turn for the next four days to gain the Arctic Circle and then get back to Anchorage.
Now we were on haul roads used by trucks carrying freight to the North Slope.
In Anchorage for our start, the vans sat overnight at -40 (F or C). The first morning, they all fired up, and we loaded our gear for the 358-mile (576 km) run up to Fairbanks. The snow was deep all around us but for the first few miles the roads were relatively clear and the tires were running on asphalt. Initially, the vans felt like they were nailed to the ground. The cold fluids in transmission axles and hubs made them hard to push along. Still, the sights were incredible. All around were snow-white mountains, hemming us in with their beauty. For much of the day, we were heading for one in particular, America’s tallest mountain, Mt. McKinley, right in the middle of the Denali Wilderness National Park.

The roads up here were sheet ice, yet a fair helping of sand and grit afforded additional grip and for the most part we traveled at 50-70 mph (80-110 kph) according to conditions, speeds easily attained with the 188-hp, 3-liter turbo diesels in the Sprinters. Transmissions were the regular five-speed autos with a neat shifter. With the dash mounted lever in D, it was simplicity itself to toggle the lever with a tap to the right to downshift a gear and a tap to the left to return to auto selection. This was much appreciated on the steep downgrades we were to experience on the haul road the second day.

The lead driver in a Mercedes ML called out the treacherous bits on the radio, yet most of the corners were taken at the posted recommended speeds – speeds that are intended for the summer-month motoring. There was no doubt that ABS, ASR and quite often the ESP stability system were in operation but they would kick in completely seamlessly. On some corners, the precise rack-and-pinion steering got a little light and the vans slid a little sideways but were always pulled back in line by the onboard computer controls. No doubt some of the credit for this unbelievable roadholding – on surfaces you literally couldn’t stand on – must go to the Continental ContiCross winter tires.

After several hours at the wheel, we stopped at a viewpoint overlook of Mt. McKinley, and the production crew asked for a few on-camera comments. It was -20 F (-29 C) with some wind blowing. "What feature particularly impresses you?" I was asked. "The heater," I quickly responded.

We resumed, now at the 2,400-foot (730m) high point on the highway across Denali Broad Pass and then caught sight of a herd of caribou at the easternmost tip of Denali Wilderness Park.

At no time during the day did we turn the vans off. The heaters were going full blast at every stop but opening the doors immediately drained any warm air from the cabs. A fuel stop, a lunch stop at one of the few roadside cafes, and then another fuel stop entering Fairbanks, all were completed to the quiet rattling of the 3-liter V6 diesels.

As we parked for the night in Fairbanks, the timers were set for the coolant heaters to be fired up in the morning, about a half hour before the engines were to be started. I was sure I had mine set, but come morning, it was the only van with a flat battery – too cold to jump start. And the problem was exacerbated by the driver display being too cold to navigate and fire up the heater – maybe a manual override would be advisable in desperate conditions like these.

My group joined another van and we set off for Coldfoot, 254 miles (409 km) north. Now we were on haul roads that are used by big doubles outfits running over 50 tons, carrying freight to the North Slope oilfields and paralleling the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. At these temperatures, the big trucks trail a huge plume from the stacks as the exhaust water vapor freezes when it meets the cold air. We had been traveling the Elliott Highway, now it was the Dalton Highway. We crossed the Yukon River that for many years had to be navigated by a ferry. Now there is a narrow bridge – much less drama. That is, unless you meet a big doubles outfit coming the other way.

But then shortly after this stop, we came upon a lone cyclist standing with his bike. The dash display said it was -36 F outside. We flashed by pondering how much it must hurt the lungs pedaling up the steep climbs and descents of the highway. But we did see his camp on the return, a tent hunkered down as much out of the wind as possible.

Next stop was at mile marker 115 to view and photograph the sign that marks the crossing point of the Arctic Circle. The temperature was still around -40 F. A few pictures, the chance of what the French Canadians call a pipi rustique, and we continued driving north the last 100 miles into Coldfoot.

Overnight was at the truckstop in Coldfoot, up inside the Arctic, and the last fuel stop before Deadhorse, which is nearly 250 miles (400 km) further north. The parking lot would have been a skating rink if it hadn’t been so badly churned and rutted by the trucks. As it was, it was just plain dangerous even with thick boots.

Taking no chances, we left the engines running through the night while we consumed a hearty meal – “you need to be well fed to keep warm” said the only other occupant at the bar – a local wearing a beaver coat and what looked like 12 layers of clothing. This night it was expected to drop to -50 F (-46 C). He then set off to walk home – 400 yards. Our overnight accommodations were in the truckstop. Basic might be too kind a term for the rooms, but at least they were warm. It’s worth noting that Coldfoot boasts the coldest temperature ever recorded in North America: -82 F (-63 C) in January 1989. So -50 F was a mere bagatelle.

The next two days saw temperatures rise as we returned to Fairbanks and then to Anchorage. Now we faced a new hazard – blowing snow. The winds had risen significantly sapping any respite as temperatures eased. This brought clouds of fine snow and the passing of heavy trucks resulted in a total white-out. Fortunately, the Sprinters had the high-intensity rear foglights that are popular in Europe. With it switched on, the following driver had a good indication of where the vehicle ahead was in the white cloud. The lights really are a big safety feature and were a major help on this trip.

As on the journey north, temperatures fluctuated wildly, now -32 F (-36 C) next -6 F (-21 C) – up and down 25 or 30 degrees for no apparent reason. Stopping at a gas station south of Fairbanks it was +23 F (-5 C), still well below freezing but 60 degrees F (33 degrees C) warmer than four days previously.

It felt quite balmy.

April 25, 2013

Cascadia Evolution sales heat up

Here's the strangest thing. I'm sitting in a bar (that's NOT the strange part) in Cabo San Lucas looking at whales cavorting about 100 yards off the beach. It's 85 degrees and I’m the guest of Daimler. Two weeks ago, also the guest of Daimler but in a different guise as Mercedes-Benz, I was looking at caribou and freezing my ass of at -40 degrees in Coldfoot, Alaska. That's a temperature swing of 125 degrees.

Ask me which I prefer? It's a difficult decision. The beauty of Alaska's Denali Wilderness and its trees totally enveloped in snow and its roads pure sheets of ice is not to be dismissed. But the balmy breezes and whale sightings make Los Cabos would have to be my first choice.

The first event was to demonstrate how well Sprinter vans cope with the coldest extremes on the planet. Quite well, I can report. The second event was to talk about Freightliner’s success at home and abroad – like overtaking International in its previously unassailable position as medium-duty market leader and the drive for more exports. The Class 6/7 win is quite the accomplishment for Freightliner – never a player in medium-duty until it launched the Business Class in 1991.

Freightliner is after a much bigger share overseas, too. With its Vision 15, the company plans to go from a fairly small 4,000 units in export markets in 2010 to 15,000 in 2015. Its big successes to date are Australia and South Africa, where the cabover Argosy has become a firm fixture. In Australia, the recently launched Coronado 114 has made a big hit, according to Mark Lampert, sales senior vice president. Latin America, too, has strong potential, he says.

Down in Los Cabos at the very end of the Baja Peninsula, the Mexican market was obviously a topic for discussion and it was interesting to hear that Daimler Trucks regards Mexico as a major market comparable to the Brazilian juggernaut. Brazil, said Freightliner Mexico President and CEO Gerhardt Gross, is undoubtedly a huge target, but Mexico has a far greater potential with a faster economic growth and an average age for the truck population of 21 years.


My comment was that there must be an almost limitless market for duct tape and bailing wire in Mexico. So the potential replacement truck market is enormous as the Mexican economy gains momentum. Gross says Mexico is seeking to shake its dependence on the U.S. economy, diversifying into other Latin American markets. But the reality is that it will be tied to the U.S. economy for at least two decades more and so it's important to Freightliner.

And Freightliner is important to Mexico, producing Class 8 Cascadia trucks in Saltillo, near Monterrey, and mediums alongside other Freightliner heavies in Santiago Tianguistenco, near Mexico City.

Mexico has been a strong Kenworth market with the KenMex local manufacturing and brand. But Freightliner also had a strong January, says Lampert, gaining a 44% share against Kenworth’s 46%.

Closer to home, Freightliner’s 2014 Cascadia Evolution is seeing strong representation in the product mix, says Lampert. This is the spec that debuted mid-2013 and by careful matching of components, it offers better than 5% fuel efficiency gains. The DT 12 automated Detroit transmission will add to these fuel savings through optimization of the powertrain.

Yes, there is an upcharge for the automated transmission, but it’s one that has a realistic payback in fuel savings. In fact, the purchase price of the vehicle these days represents only 15% of the total cost of ownership so the premium is relatively small.

Because of this, Daimler is anticipating a major swing to the Detroit DT 12, going from zero in 2012 with about 75% of Cascadia production currently Eaton manuals with a smattering of Eaton automateds to a position where Eaton manuals and Detroit DT 12s are running about the same with about 42% each. Allison will make up the rest. That may take something of a hit with the Eaton announcement of the Advantage Series, an overhaul for the old manuals

So what about those Sprinter vans in Alaska? Post to follow…

January 6, 2013

General Motors Debuts All-New 2014 Pickups

It may be the most important introduction in GM history. The full-size pickup is so important to GM fortunes that the launch of the 2014 Chevy Silverado 1500 and the GMC Sierra 1500 is critical to the future of the company.

The 2014s, recently unveiled at a press gathering, show a range that is big and bold, although hardly revolutionary. It may be, however, that when they go on sale late in the second quarter, they’ll fulfill the dual tasks of work and play just a bit better than the competition and help assure GM’s future.

The trucks at the Detroit launch didn't look particularly distinctive. They have big grills sporting lots of chrome and huge wheel openings, displaying the usual 20- or 22-inch wheels. The conventional four-door extended and crew cabs are the stuff of modern, full-size trucks. But the execution may be enough to pull it off.
Those doors, for instance, now fit flush into the openings with triple seals. Along with an all-new frame and cab structure featuring hydroforming for the former and high-strength steel for the latter, they should produce the super-quiet interior promised at the launch.

All-new engines, albeit with the familiar displacements, promise to offer more performance and economy. Plus the latest in connectivity with as many as five USB ports certainly presents a new product to eager GM truck buyers who have been tempted with equally fully featured competitors as GM gets these new models into the pipeline.
Still, it won't be smooth sailing for GM. The company has overstocked dealers with its waning models in an effort to keep the standard flying as it readies the new models for the market. Those trucks have to be shoved through the system before buyers get the new Silverado and Sierra. The danger is that prospective customers will take the inevitable deals on the old stock, meaning slack sales for the new products when they come on stream. GM says the 2500 and 3500 heavier-duty models will continue, as they were refreshed for the 2011 model year.