Think of all the things you could get in Sweden. What I got was my mind changed.
Sweden is a clean, beautiful country with a vital trucking industry. Swedish highways running north from Stockholm and in the industrial south would be called skinny two lanes by the American truck driver. But they are in good repair and devoid of the congestion under which much of Europe labors. Here the Volvos and other European brands pull enormous weights in trucks configured well beyond five axles and 40 tons.
The longest and most common truck and trailer combination is what Swedish drivers call the 25.25. It is a cabover with a rigid trailer body, a straight truck in American parlance. A single drive axle tractor stretched to accommodate the van body attaches to a trailer by a draw bar. The draw bar swivels on a fifth wheel that is permanently attached to the trailer. The whole rig is 25.25 meters long – 83 feet. The weight limit for such a vehicle is 40 tons.
Trucks are speed limited by law and come from the factory governed at about 90 kilometers per hour or 56 mph. Trucking outfits need high average miles per hour to be competitive and get the most from hours-of-service rules limiting drivers to 48 driving hours a week. This means trucks need to maintain speed on grades. So the trend in Europe, to judge from Volvo’s newest entry into that market, is high horsepower and a drivetrain engineered to motivate all that torque as efficiently as possible. Smooth as silk synchromesh transmissions are found in all applications.
Volvo’s new FH 16 is definitely a European truck. It is a cabover and not meant to see the light of day here. Equipped with the equally new D16C motor, the FH 16 is an impressive vehicle. Having driven it in Sweden’s High Coast region, I can vouch for its performance. Pulling 60 tons with the 550 D16 was surprisingly effortless. It felt like 40. Pulling the same weight with the 610 proved even more surprising.
We had stopped at a little 40-space truckstop and had to pull out, making a left uphill. The rise in the berm at the stop sign made getting started a challenge, particularly with 60 tons. I might have wanted a 15-speed with five in deep reduction in the U.S. and did not know what to expect from a 12-speed synchromesh tranny. I didn’t know then I had deep reduction in four speeds. I didn’t need them to pull that little hump and get out on the big road.
Volvo officials told me that synchromesh transmissions would never make it in the North American market. They have been tried before and did not catch on. Perhaps the American truck driver guards his drivetrain management skills a little too jealously to want a transmission that requires single clutch movement and is extremely difficult to shift without the clutch.
There are three shift positions rather than four, with each position having two gears in both low and high range. The clutch and button are used for every shift, and low is always selected prior to shifting out of a lower position to the next higher gear.
Going down through the gears, there is no need to hit the top of the rpm range with throttle pressure, a real plus when you have to grab a lower gear in a hurry.
Most endearingly, this transmission takes to skip shifting flawlessly. Gear selection is effortless, and the driver can use his new toy to have a little fun while still doing his job efficiently.
Driving the new Volvo trucks and engines demonstrated to me how a person can have his mind changed. I had this idea about European trucking. I knew next to nothing about it, but I had formed an idea that it must be far behind the industry here. I had made a judgment based entirely on ignorance.
But one thing is strikingly similar about our two industries. In both, truck drivers make good money but are thought of as low-level workers. My guess is the Swedish long-haul driver experiences the same frustrations and the same desire for respect as we do. Despite excellent equipment, good wages and strict regulation, the public judgment about drivers – based on ignorance – remains.