MEDIUM DUTY: The Powertrain Package

April 1, 2005
If you talk to medium-duty fleet managers like Rick Galliher and Shan Breneman about powertrain specs, there's a good chance their eyes will glaze over. But if you talk to them about making their trucks more productive, powerful, fuel efficient and easier to drive, they'll pay close attention. I had a short list of the things I wanted when I went looking for new trucks: I needed to haul heavy items,

If you talk to medium-duty fleet managers like Rick Galliher and Shan Breneman about powertrain specs, there's a good chance their eyes will glaze over. But if you talk to them about making their trucks more productive, powerful, fuel efficient and easier to drive, they'll pay close attention.

“I had a short list of the things I wanted when I went looking for new trucks: I needed to haul heavy items, I needed power to handle the mountain roads out here in the Rockies, and I didn't want anything that required a CDL,” says Breneman, operations manager for Denver-based Carlson Systems. “I also didn't want to get too deep into specs; I just wanted a truck that met those needs.”


About four years ago, Carlson, which sells fastening supplies and equipment for the construction market, began shifting its fleet makeup from a Class 8 tandem-axle rig, two flatbed pickups and a cargo van to three leased Class 6 Kenworth T-300s, two with flatbeds and one with a cargo van.

With the old equipment, “drivers had to make several deliveries each day and put in many extra hours,” Breneman says. “Now we're making two-dozen deliveries per truck per week — that's 150% more deliveries but in fewer trips. We have dependable trucks that are easy to drive, making us more productive.”

Galliher had a very different set of issues when he started a 1-800-GotJunk franchise in Northern Virginia in August 2003. He had a choice of three medium-duty trucks: an F-350 conventional, a GM/Isuzu cabover and a Nissan Diesel UD cabover.

He purchased three diesel-powered cabovers because the turning radius made them easier to maneuver in the dense urban and suburban neighborhoods of Northern Virginia and the diesel engine gave him twice the fuel mileage of a gasoline engine.

“It comes down to productivity and ease of operation,” Galliher explains. “These trucks need to be rolling to make money, so they have to be durable above all else. But they also have to be easy to drive.”

Getting medium-duty trucks ready to produce maximum results for a very wide variety of customer needs is the main challenge facing OEMs today. One solution is tighter integration of the powertrain components — engines, transmissions, axles — so they can better tailor trucks to specific operating conditions, while still keeping costs down.

“Everyone believes powertrains are going to become more and more integrated in the future, simply because so much of an OEM's resources are being spent on validating the engine-transmission-vehicle combination,” says Anthony Nigro, development engineer for powertrain systems integration at DaimlerChrysler.

“Having vertical integration [between engine and transmission] makes for a more cost-effective product and, in principle, it can be a better-engineered product,” he continues. “You have the luxury of engineering the whole system, not just individual pieces [where you'll have to] smooth out the edges so they'll work together.”

“It's not just about the transmission anymore; it's how it fits into the whole truck. It's about getting an automatic with torque converters, how its clutches, solenoids and external cooling systems function within the package,” he adds.


“The challenges are to gear the vehicles correctly with the right ratios, be able to have enough power to perform the task at hand and at the same time get reasonable fuel consumption,” says J.K.S. “Joe” Johansson, senior applications engineer at Allison Transmission.

“Yet those are two almost opposing conditions,” he says. “We are trying to set the transmission up to handle multiple conditions.”

For example, says Johansson, when fully loaded, the truck would operate with gears one through six activated; when empty, it would only operate with gears two through six. “Second is a good gear to start in if you don't need that low, heavy torque band,” he points out. “It's easier to drive, and you save fuel,” he adds.

Jim Devore, senior product engineer for ZF, points out that now you can achieve these different operating parameters without changing-out expensive driveline components. “The software manages everything, to the point where we can support 25 different engine configurations with one transmission software package,” he explains.

“Ten or 15 years ago we had to change the hardware to impact response time, shift parameters, etc.,” says Devore. “Now more than likely we can do that simply by altering the software.”

“We also try to make software that helps the transmission react when conditions change,” he adds. “For example, since most trucks are sold without driveline retarders, the part of the software that manages retarders remains inactive. But if the system starts seeing retarder messages, that part of the software would automatically activate.”


That also helps make medium-duty trucks easier to operate, adds DaimlerChrysler's Nigro. “You often don't have [professional] truck drivers operating these vehicles. You have people used to driving cars now selling beer, delivering water, or dropping off groceries via a truck,” he explains.

“You have people who can't even drive a manual in a car, so you can't expect to put them in a manual Class 7 truck,” Nigro continues. “Having an automatic tailored to the demands of the job makes for a more efficient and more comfortable operation, while also protecting the drivetrain from damage by bad shifts.”

Having two hands on the wheel — especially in heavy traffic — can improve vehicle safety, too, Nigro points out. “Instead of looking down at the shift lever, thinking about what gear you're supposed to be in, you are looking at your mirrors with both hands on the wheel,” he says.

Integrated powertrains are also more durable, which helps maximize productivity. “What we're aiming for with powertrain integration is better life cycle cost,” explains Bill Gross, manager of North American medium-duty products for Eaton. “We want the integrated powertrain to give medium-duty fleets that keep their trucks eight to ten years both maintenance and fuel savings, reducing their cost of operation.”


Part of that effort is reflected in the move to sealed-for-life components within the powertrain, as well as extended-service fluids and filters, particularly for transmissions. “Longer-lasting synthetic fluid costs more up front, but it lasts longer, lubricates and protects better, and has a longer service interval,” Gross points out. “It relates to boosting seal and gear life, especially for the transmission; it's why we require synthetic fluid for our automatic transmission product.”

With integrated powertrains, fleets have many more options than they used to, points out Bob Douglas, vp-maintenance for Penske Truck Leasing. “They can better govern road speed, program shift points to match engine rpms for ideal fuel economy and [make use of] automatic engine shutdown to reduce idling. They can also extract more information for the truck to better manage their fleet, [monitoring] engine operation/idle time, fuel mileage, etc.”

The more complex electronic controls needed to manage the engine-transmission integration can also lead to maintenance headaches, however.

“More wiring bundles, sensors, and software also can leave us chasing fault codes due to intermittent ground and connection issues,” Douglas explains. “And if our customer has a problem, they are bringing that truck to us, which reduces the productivity they expect from the vehicle.”

Yet the consensus seems to be that the benefits of integrated powertrains far outweigh any maintenance drawbacks. This is especially the case when automatic transmissions are involved, since they are much easier to integrate into the powertrain than manuals are. In addition, shift points can be optimized, resulting in better fuel economy and more power.

According to Douglas, more medium-duty fleets are using automatic and automated transmissions because they contribute to safety and driver retention. “The driver has two hands on the wheel; automatics are less fatiguing to operate, especially in urban areas; you can better protect the drivetrain from the shock of poor shifting while maximizing fuel economy; and it opens up a much wider pool of driver candidates to the fleet by having automatics available.”

For 1-800-GotJunk's Galliher, however, all of the development going into optimizing medium-duty powertrains must add up to one thing: a truck that produces better results for his business.

“If I had to boil it down to just one thing, I'd say ‘give me a truck that works,’” Galliher concludes.

“Give me enough power to get up to highway speed while hauling a full load. Give me an automatic transmission that makes driving our trucks more like driving a car. Give me fuel economy, too. But most of all, give me dependability. At the end of the day, what matters most is that my truck doesn't break down and gets the job done. Period.”

Hard lessons from a small fleet

Keeping medium-duty trucks up and running is no easy task, but it's especially tough for the small operator — the fleet with a handful of trucks that doesn't have the resources to provide its own maintenance support structure or the clout to get priority service at a dealership.

Rick Galliher, a 1-800-GotJunk franchisee since August 2003 knows this better than anyone. With only three (soon to be four) cabovers, he has learned a thing or two from the school of hard knocks about how small fleets can minimize the maintenance hassles that can lead to unwanted downtime.

Network, network, network

Galliher constantly networks with other GotJunk franchisees to find solutions to common and not-so-common problems. “For example, regulations require us to cover our loads with a tarp,” he explains. “We used to buy bigger tarps, cut them down and re-sew them with fishing line to fit over our special dump bodies. But a fellow franchisee told me a company in Missouri made tarps in exactly our size for only $40, saving us a lot of time and expense.” In turn, Galliher found a local parts store that stocks hard-to-find hitch pins for securing the rear doors of his dump body and regularly supplies them to fellow franchisees that can't locate the parts.

Keep spare equipment

While having spare trucks on hand can be an anathema for larger fleets, it can be a big benefit for a small fleet. “Spare capacity is a huge advance to the small operator like me,” he says. “If a truck breaks down, we can redistribute the workload on the other two until we get the third back up and running,” Galliher explains.

Find a maintenance partner

When Galliher got his first truck, he had very little success getting the local dealership to service it. “I had to schedule an oil change two weeks in advance and they kept the truck for a week and never changed the oil,” he says. By sheer luck, he discovered G & C Express Auto Service, a local fleet maintenance shop that offers both preventive maintenance and warranty work. Most importantly, it's a one-stop resource when problems occur. “If we have a breakdown, my crews call G&C and they line up a tow truck for us,” Galliher says. “That helps us keep costs under control.”

Keep the dealer in mind

Though small fleets can have a tough time getting regular service from local dealerships, they can still serve as important resources. “Finding someone to solve a truck issue, e.g., straightening a frame, body repair work, etc., isn't easy,” Galliher points out. “You can spend hours going through the Yellow Pages. Our dealer has provided us with those contacts, saving us a lot of time. That local connection is vital.” Galliher notes that some GotJunk franchisees are trying to go out of network, buying trucks from the local dealer instead of through GotJunk's corporate channel, because that local connection has proved invaluable in solving maintenance issues.

Plan ahead

Galliher serves a four-county area in Northern Virginia and has paid handsome dividends to locate suppliers of truck parts and tires in each area in case his crews run into a problem. “The nature of a small fleet is to address a problem only when it happens,” he says. He points out that this can be a problem because “truck parts and tires aren't sold at the Trak Auto around the corner.” So now Galliher has lined up four or five parts providers so if his crew loses a tire, they know where they can go to get a replacement without having to scramble. “It just makes it easier to have places like these mapped out in advance,” Galliher says.

About the Author

Sean Kilcarr | Editor in Chief

Sean previously reported and commented on trends affecting the many different strata of the trucking industry. Also be sure to visit Sean's blog Trucks at Work where he offers analysis on a variety of different topics inside the trucking industry.

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