“It’s all about gaining a tenth of a gallon improvement in fuel economy over here, another tenth over there, and suddenly you’re saving half a mile or more per gallon – and that really adds up over the ownership period for the truck.” –Kevin Tobin, general sales and service manager-East region, Kenworth Truck Company
It’s been a fascinating process (for me at least) to observe the intensifying focus of truck OEMs on making ever more subtle changes to Class 8 tractor designs in search of just a little more efficiency – and not just in terms of fuel economy. They continue to make numerous small changes to both the exteriors and interiors of their vehicles to make improvements across a number of metrics – especially in terms of comfort and convenience for drivers and maintenance technicians alike.
A recent ride and drive I took with Kenworth Truck Co.’s flagship tractor, the T-660, down here in Orlando -- conducted by Kevin Tobin, the company’s general sales and service manager-East region (on the left) and Jared White, the Great Lakes region manager (on the right), brought home some concrete examples of that to me.
Take the very simple, ho-hum duty of opening and closing the hood. Tobin showed me how Kenworth’s engineers went back and developed a bigger grab handle – one a driver can fit their hand in while wearing a glove – that not only has a drain at the bottom so water or snow doesn’t accumulate but one that’s also integrated into the aerodynamic styling of the hood so it doesn’t create even the tiniest amount of drag. A special automatic locking mechanism also makes sure that once the hood is open, a gust of sudden wind doesn’t knock it closed.
Another small detail, this time under the hood – all the fluid points, from windshield wiper fluid to engine oil, are all on the driver’s side of the truck for more convenience in making their daily checks. “It’s all about ease of use,” Tobin explained to me. “Drivers live with these trucks for days and weeks. Building more convenience into it makes it easier for them to do their jobs.”
[Tobin points out more of the exterior improvements to the T-660 design below.]
Those exterior improvements, of course, aren’t just limited to convenience factors. The hood, bumper, and side fairings are made of composite materials that are strong yet lightweight, shrinking the fuel economy footprint of the truck. Subtle tweaks include a 5% larger front grille to accommodate increased air flow and cooling performance, without compromising the aerodynamic signature of the T-660.
There’s also the “Clean Power” package – a factory-installed, battery-powered no-idle system that can enhance fuel economy by as much as 8% as it eliminates the need to run the truck engine during stopovers. Factory installation means warranty coverage—a big deal in and of itself – and Clean Power is also fully compliant with California Air Resources Board (CARB) idling regulations that went into effect for sleeper trucks with 2007 and later model engines.
The system has the capability to provide engine-off cooling and heating, plus 120-volt power for hotel loads. Once the truck is shut off, a sleeper control panel regulates the temperature range and a variable speed fan circulates chilled air through a duct located near the bunk.
Whatever you think of this technology, one other thing stands out – it’s packaged so discretely behind the cab and under the driver’s bunk that you don’t even know it’s there, yet access to Clean Power’s related components is super-easy for repairs. That kind of engineering detail is a result, I think, of the feedback from drivers, technicians, and fleets alike over the years.
Inside, it’s the same thing: subtle changes and improvements here and there that add up to a better work environment for the driver. Tobin and White showed me how uniquely designed adjustable and fold-away armrests on the seats offer more comfort yet also four inches extra inches of pass-through width to the sleeper berth.
Adjusting the steering wheel is done with a foot pedal so drivers don’t have to bend over and work a lever, with more controls on the steering wheel itself – like the engine brake – to reduce the need to reach over to the dash to flips switches and the like.
Brighter push-on, push lights dot the interior – some in some unexpected places, like a map reading light over the passenger seat. It’s all designed along ergonomic lines, making the interior of the truck a more comfortable and convenient place for a driver to use.
[Here, White gives a more detailed look at the T-660’s interior.]
All of these improvements – outside and inside – may seem simple, but they result from accumulated feedback being tempered and honed in truck OEM engineering departments over the course of several years. All that work, though, adds up to trucks that cost less to operate and are easier to use – and you really can’t argue with those type of goals.