Matt Markstaller knows a thing or two about testing trucks, and not just in the laboratory or on the test track, either. As manager of vehicle performance testing for Freightliner LLC, Markstaller is in charge of making sure that the trucks his company builds — from medium-duty models all the way through the Class 8 tractor lineup — are put through their paces out on the highways and local roads of America to prove they can handle the loads they'll face.
“Road tests give you a chance to see and catch things you might not notice in the laboratory or on the test track,” he says. “It's a very different experience when you, as an engineer, go out for two weeks on the road driving trucks 10 hours a day, versus spending maybe one or two hours behind the wheel at the proving grounds.”
Markstaller also helps manage two other vital parts of the road testing process: monitoring the performance of company-owned trucks hauling freight for Freightliner's far-flung manufacturing plants in the U.S.; and overseeing the pilot testing being conducted by customer fleets.
“We have over 900 test trucks out there right now with customers. We put vehicles in their hands for a year with new transmissions, engines, axles and other components because over that time they run into just so many conditions we can't foresee or dream up,” Markstaller explains.
“Then we see what really happens to these trucks, giving us valuable drivability and ride ability information. There are all kinds of things they experience that we just don't foresee on this end.”
Freightliner has 12 company-owned fleet test trucks running legitimate freight between its Portland, OR, and Charlotte, NC, factories. They accumulate 285,000 miles a year as part of a long-term mileage evaluation and testing program.
For shorter-term analysis, information is gathered from two-week test runs the engineers conduct — one in the summer and one in the winter — with vehicles they put together themselves to test particular transmission and engine combinations, axle configurations, cab comfort and visibility, etc. The vehicles are not released to Freightliner's fleet testing partners until the OEM has validated them in the lab and in its own field-tests. Markstaller, notes, however, that when it comes to the real-world pilot tests, fleets don't tend to “beat down the door” asking to join up.
“We have very particular standards for the partners we use in field tests. For example, we need to use recording systems to collect a variety of data,” he says. “We may run into things we don't expect, so then we may have to shut down the test truck and work on it for a couple of days,” explains Markstaller.
“That can complicate a fleet's day-to-day operation, so we look for particular customers that are understanding about that kind of situation,” he says.
Markstaller notes that the customers who do agree to this kind of inconvenience tend to be the higher-end technology-driven fleets. “They have already put a lot of technology into a truck to monitor fuel economy and other performance parameters,” he explains. “That's because they are genuinely interested in having the best of everything to maximize vehicle productivity and profitability.”
The alternative, of course, is simple: Hire 900 trucks to run around the country gathering real-world data. But that would be far too expensive.
“[Pilot tests] with fleets are a much more efficient way to get the miles on our vehicles and have them exposed to different conditions,” Markstaller says. “As a result, we have worked with many partners for as long as 20 years. But in the last few years, we've really doubled our field test group since we've changed to new engine emissions rules, requiring new technology on our trucks.”
He also says that more than just test data gets gathered from fleet tests in the end. “We get statistical confidence in the durability of the components and parts we're using,” Markstaller notes. “The recording systems give us data, yes, but we also get to interview drivers, maintenance people, and owners to get their perspective on how the vehicle operates. It helps us make sure the data we're getting is pertinent.”