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October 9, 2015

Navistar and GM Mediums

During a recent press webinar, Navistar president for trucks and parts Bill Kozek hinted that the medium-duty trucks that Navistar will be supplying to GM may be more than rebadged Internationals from the current lineup.

The announcement in early October 2015 set the seal on negotiations that had commenced well before Kozek came to Navistar to take over the top job, he says. The two companies would benefit with GM being able to offer class 4 and 5 conventional trucks in addition to the rebadged Isuzu models that are also in its line-up from 2016. These will cover class 3 to 5 with low coe models in regular and crew cab configuration.

This, then, sees GM back into medium-duty after withdrawing from the business in 2009, following the bankruptcy bailout by the Obama administration. Back then GM sought to sell this slice of its portfolio to Navistar or Isuzu, but instead shuttered production with the loss of 400 jobs.

Those jobs now shift to Springfield, Ohio, where Navistar will add 300 staff and invest more than $12 million to update and upgrade production of the trucks to be introduced in 2018.

Under the long-term agreement, Navistar will develop the chassis and cab and GM will provide engines and other components. The trucks will be sold by both companies under the Chevrolet and International brands.

There will be diesels in the the new trucks, though from GM rather than from the Navistar MaxxForce line. The class 5 will be predominantly diesel, the smaller class 4 will be gasoline -powered. The new vehicles will be developed co-jointly between Navistar and GM, says Kozek, with each taking the lead in its specific area of expertise.

Navistar will likely gravitate to the heavier models where GM will concentrate on the lighter end, he says. In both cases, the new products will be very much concentrated on vocational markets, construction in particular. And this size truck is widely used in the tow-truck industry where GM likely sees great opportunity.

Introduction of the new models coincides with the next phase of greenhouse gas reduction for commercial vehicles so there is a strong likelihood of a new cab for the conventionals. There likely will not be any low cabover derivatives, given the agreement with Isuzu announced recently. However, Kozek didn’t rule out the possibility if there is sufficient demand down the road.

The agreement replaces the 13-year-old deal Navistar had with Ford that ended early this year. The two companies built trucks in a joint venture under the Blue Diamond banner in Mexico but Ford is taking over production of its F650 and F750. The agreement with GM replaces this business which commentators estimated at $400 million a year. 

October 8, 2015

The Metrics of the Mercedes-Benz Metris

Mercedes bills its new van with the tag line “The next big thing is right-size.”

The mystery of the launch of the new mid-sized Metris van and passenger vehicle is not the name change that the rest of the world knows as Vito, but the fact that the vehicle has been in The Mercedes-Benz lineup around the world for years. 

But it has taken til October 1 this year to make it to American dealerships. The name change of course is to avoid any identification with the Mafioso Vito Corleone, the Godfather immortalized by Mario Puzo and played so well by Marlon Brando.

But for Americans, it likely could not come at a better time.

The cargo van market has been overtaken by “the big white van” from Europe in the shape of Mercedes’ own Sprinter, the fast-selling Ford Transit and the Ram Promaster (nee Fiat Ducato in its native Italy) and in there, too, is the cavernous Nissan NV.  The alternative size is the Transit Connect type of van that is also seeing some new entries from Renault/Nissan and Fiat with GM and Ram badging.

But in the middle, there’s still the aging GM Express and Savanna with their oversize engines and poor fuel consumption. Now come Metris, which offers good capacity, gross weight and towing ability with up to 22 mpg in a package that will fit into any garage or parking structure.

Mechanically, the Metris is based on the Mercedes C-Class platform, sharing the turbocharged 2-liter direct-injection four-cylinder gasoline engine and 7-speed G-tronic automatic from the car side, though with lower commercial ratings of 208 hp and 258 lb-ft of peak torque. While all Vitos are diesels, the Metris will only be available with gasoline power as the product planners see the applications for Metris as urban and stop-start hauling.

But it hauls a fair amount: the payload capacity is a shade over 2,500 pounds and it can tow very nearly 5,000 pounds. The passenger van has seating for eight. And Mercedes-Benz anticipates selling half the production as vans and half as passenger vehicles. In all, Metris is a very capable, right-sized commercial vehicle.

Logistics track is available, as are D rings in the floor for tie-downs.
It’s a versatile vehicle, too, with sliding doors both sides and 270-degree opening rear door or a single lift-up rear door. Logistics track is available as are D rings in the floor fpr tie-downs. The upfitters that provide racks and other internal modifications for the vans use these to mount their equipment, saving drilling through the structure of the van. And a factory-fitted bulkhead is also available.

The bulkhead somewhat reduces the seat slide and results in a slightly cramped driving position for a tall driver. However, without the bulkhead or in the passenger vehicle, the seat slides are generous and tall drivers are well accommodated. It will be interesting to see if an upfitter will come up with a bulkhead that is less demanding of driver space, albeit at the expense of the load space.

As for the rest of the driver comfort, the Metris is exceptional for a commercial vehicle. For one thing, despite the vast empty space in the rear, the vans are quiet and the passenger vehicles whisper quiet. The passenger vehicles, with the weight of the seating, carpeting and other comforts show the ride is firm without the mild bump-thump of the empty van.

As befits a vehicle that will fit in to a regular garage, the handling is very car-like with nice, precise steering, virtually flat cornering and powerful, well-modulated braking.

The dashboard is complete without offering quite the features you may expect in a Mercedes-Benz sedan. But it has others you don’t get in many cars. It comes with crosswind stability, load adaptive stability control, attention assist and up to six airbags. Available as options are collision prevention, lane warning, blind spot detection a rear view camera, parktronic backup warning and, best of all for a city-type van, active parking assist.

This was demonstrated during the Los Angeles-based ride ‘n drive with the van parallel parking itself. In operation, the driver cruises slowly past a parking spot and the system will signal on the dash a space if it spots anything 18 inches or longer than the van or bus. The driver selects reverse and the park assist takes over the steering while the driver eases the throttle to slide back into the space.

When the distance to the vehicle behind has closed, the driver selects drive, the steering turns to the opposite lock and the van and eases forward into the parking space. According to the demonstration driver, the van will also park itself in a regular side-by-side space.

The parking assistant, blind spot and backup camera will be a boon to drivers using these vans and passenger vehicles in crowded city applications and should see a lot less damage to the vehicles.

Damage prevention is just one of the features that makes the Metris top in class for total cost of ownership. Other contributing factors are its good fuel economy, service intervals of 15,000 miles and award-winning Mercedes-Benz retained value when it comes time to trade.

The Metris, like the Vito, is manufactured in a plant in Spain and the passenger vehicles come into the ‘States fully assembled. However, because of the “chicken tax” on imported vans, the van derivative is shipped to the same German facility that takes fully assembled Sprinter and kits them for shipping and reassembly in the Charleston, South Carolina, plant.

Metris actually helps in the shipping of Sprinter as the long wheelbase Sprinter bodies today need a dedicated container where shorter vans ship two-at-a-time. Now, the Metris allows for two-body shipping with one Metris and one long wheelbase Sprinter in a container.

That will change with Daimler’s announcement of a $500 million investment in South Carolina to build a manufacturing plant for both Metris and Sprinter that will see an end to the need − and cost − to kit the vans. Construction of the plant is scheduled to start in 2016 with US-produced Sprinter and Metris vans and passenger vehicles rolling off the line a year later.

October 5, 2015

Trucks to be Smart Platforms

Virtual Technician
Seattle-based Zonar intends to make the commercial vehicle a fully connected, smart platform that integrates with other trucking business solutions. This is in contrast to the smart electronics being incorporated into passenger vehicles, which is really for “infotainment,” says Zonar president and CEO. Brett Brinton. 

The goal is to make the whole commercial vehicle smart, not just a portal for a bring-your-own-device (BYOD)

Speaking at a Daimler Trucks press conference held recently in California’s Napa Valley, Brinton said that customers want choice in the software and hardware they use and the vehicle must talk to “all applications that run the business, so vehicles must be ‘platform ready’.”

Following on the announcement in June that Daimler was taking a minority share in Zonar, Brinton said the closer association will bring greater opportunity for both companies in developing new customer-centric solutions. But not at the expense of other products that Zonar currently offers. “Zonar will continue to build an all-brands product, and contribute where necessary on Daimler products. So both are independent but Zonar can move Daimler along to develop smart trucks,” he said.

Zonar entered the trucking business environment with the introduction of its electronic vehicle inspection report (EVIR). This uses stick-on smart tags that are attached at inspection locations around the vehicle. The hand-held reader prompts with inspection queries and then captures, transmits and records inspection, compliance and maintenance data. 

So mandatory pre- and post-trip truck inspections are automated and verified using Zonar's patented technology. According to the company, this has eliminated errors and inefficiencies involved in the traditional driver vehicle inspection report (DVIR) required of drivers every time they start and finish a trip.

Because data is transmitted via Zonar with more than 400,000 billable vehicles – which will more than double by the end of the year  the company now has years of sampled data. From that initial concept, Zonar has launched the innovative 2020 Android tablet that offers:
  • Driver Hours-of-Service
  • Verified Electronic Vehicle Inspection
  • Two-Way Messaging
  •  Advanced Navigation
  • Visual Driver Feedback
  • Camera and Video for Documenting Defects or Damaged Freight
  • Driver-Friendly Applications Including Navigation, Driver Safety, and Weigh Station Bypass solutions

Additionally, it is an open Android platform for custom applications and integrations.

Zonar also has a suite of telematics products that aid in asset tracking. Ground Traffic Control is a Web-based fleet management software application that provides a real-time picture of fleet operations. 

Zonar’s V3 is a fleet tracking/vehicle diagnostics system that provides next generation GPS vehicle tracking capabilities with real-time delivery of vehicle condition and performance data, in one on=board telematics device. The third product in this group is ZTrak for managing assets that will be deployed for long periods without maintenance needs. With ZTrak, all kinds of equipment can be located easily and reliably.

With its telematics expertise, Zonar also has tracking products in use on school buses to track students getting on and off the bus and even informing parents of the location of their children through smart-phone notification.

Brinton said Zonar is 15 years old, founded 2001. He is proud of the fact that 18% of revenue is reinvested in research and development and growth continues at 30% year over year. The company now has 300 employees and counts several Edison awards for innovation.  In addition, “we have a lot of intellectual property gained from the six-year relationship with Daimler Trucks North America,” Brinton said.

Zonar was the partner in the development of Virtual Technician that was introduced by Daimler Trucks in 2011. In developing Virtual Technician, Zonar tapped in to the network of the vehicle allowing access the CanBus. It has sophisticated monitoring so when something goes wrong, the system can diagnose exactly what is wrong and reports to the Daimler’s Customer Service Center. 

The extent of the problem is analyzed and scored as mission critical, service soon or log service information to be accessed at the next scheduled maintenance. At the time the vehicle owner or fleet contact is notified. In a mission-critical event, dealers nearby are brought into the loop and parts inventories are queried to ensure that parts and service bays are available for immediate repair as soon as the truck arrives.

The relationship between DTNA and Zonar has led to the availability of the 2020 in a dash-mounted cradle on the Freightliner Cascadia Evolution. At the Napa press event, Brinton said that the current version of the product is the fourth generation benefiting from smart device evolution. 

“It is a ruggedized seven-inch tablet, and an open but controlled platform on top of the Android operating system,” said Brinton. “It’s a dedicated-purpose device configured so it’s not driver distracting. Currently built by Zonar and special for Daimler, it gives access to new data streams.” Sampling a lot of data, deciphering it and getting meaningful information is where Zonar and DYNA are going, he said.

“Four areas benefit: uptime, regulatory compliance, fuel efficiency and operations,” Brinton said. “Uptime currently is reactive, but should be predictive. Prototype tests show the system can actually be predictive for component failure.

“The fuel analytics package is coaching device for the driver as well as an aid to predicting proactive maintenance. Sophisticated fuel users can drill down to a driver score and get significant improvements. For safety and compliance, today you can see speeding, brake applications, and so one. The new open platform gives ability to Skype and close the gap with connected vehicle, making it possible to have live conversation over the tablet.“

Brinton said to expect future innovations from Zonar. The driver and technician workforce is aging and in order to attract a new generation of kids who want technology, the execution must be done properly to improve driver experience for young drivers. And new options are opening up with the available data streams. Driver performance-based pay is enabled and there will be a “gamification of business processes,” he says.

October 4, 2015

Bionic Drivers in Daimler’s Sights

Daimler Trucks has grabbed headlines around the world with its autonomous driving trucks. First to debut, in the summer of 2014, was Future Truck 2025, a self-driving Mercedes-Benz Actros tractor-trailer combo that ran with other Benz products on a closed section of German Autobahn. More recently this year and perhaps more spectacularly, the spotlight shifted to Las Vegas where similar Highway Pilot technology applied to Freightliner Cascadia saw two Innovation Trucks drive autonomously across the Hoover Dam.

In early October, the Actros was in the spotlight again in Baden-Württemberg, Germany’s third-largest state and home to Daimler’s headquarters in Stuttgart. The occasion was the granting of permits for trucks guided by Highway Pilot to operate on the state’s highways.

That privilege had already been granted to Freightliner in Nevada, but with the provision that the drivers of these so called driverless truck would be certified in their operation. To that end, a few of the first drivers to gain certification were the members of the trucking press that hold commercial drivers’ licenses.

At the certification event, staged at the Las Vegas Speedway, the seven press drivers were given instruction in the special characteristics of the self-driving Freightliner Innovation Trucks. Nevada tasked Daimler to develop the certification so that drivers who will pilot these trucks get a grounding in the use of the Highway Pilot system. The system allows the driver to take feet off the pedals and hands off the steering wheel as the truck guides itself down the road.

And the reason I mention it in this column is that I was one of the drivers and now, I’m proud to say, have a certificate to frame and hang on my office wall that proclaims I have passed the certification and can drive autonomous commercial vehicles in the State.