Paccar’s Stephan Olsen has spent the past two years in the heart of Silicon Valley, meshing the commercial trucking equipment world with the innovators of technology companies headquartered along the South San Fransisco Bay.
Before running the Paccar Innovation Center as general manager, Olsen spent 23 years at the Kenworth Truck Co.’s Kirkland, Washington, headquarters. Paccar—the parent company of Kenworth, Peterbilt Trucks, and European nameplate DAF—uses its innovation center in Sunnyvale, California, to develop and test commercial vehicle technology.
Open since 2017, Olsen said the Innovation Center allows Paccar “to meet face to face with the tech startup community, folks developing these technologies, identifying and understanding those technologies, and taking the next step of integrating the ones that we think are going to be high value for our future products.”
With engineering workspaces, a truck lab large enough to test a few heavy-duty trucks, a presentation hall—that can open up into that truck lab—and interactive displays showing off the latest Paccar technologies, the center has the tech startup feel of most businesses in the valley. There are unlimited snacks and drinks for Paccar employees, showers for those pulling all-nighters or biking to work, a barbecue grill, and even a smoker.
“We have to bring Paccar to Silicon Valley to help inform and educate folks in this area what we are all about,” Olsen said. “So we’ve got the opportunity to bring in trucks to showcase all the Paccar brands. We have our powertrain components from our transmissions, axles, engines. That really is impactful for folks who, one, may not know who Paccar is; but, two, just generally don’t have an understanding of the truck industry and haven’t been around trucks and heavy equipment. It really helps stimulate discussion.”
Paccar uses the location to develop partnerships with some of the world’s technology leaders and the academic community. “We have a close relationship with the CARS organization—the Center for Automotive Research at Stanford—and that creates opportunities for discussion and research,” Olsen said.
“Ultimately, the very interesting part of what we do is we build projects,” Olsen said. “When we find tech—whether it's the latest sensor technologies or battery-management software—we have the opportunity with our facility and my engineering team, to take that piece of technology, integrate it onto the truck in a very rapid prototype fashion, and better understand the value proposition and the opportunity it can bring to our customers.”
Paccar uses 3D printers to upfit components, such as sensors or other technology employees find in Silicon Valley. “The printer we have here has some very interesting flexibility in that it can print basic nylon, which is very flexible; or if we need something more rigid, we can print composite with reinforced nylon,” Olsen said during a tour of the Innovation Center.
He showed off a 3D-printed camera holder that can mount inside a Level 4 autonomous truck, like the T680 tractor on display inside the center. “This holds four cameras and mounts in the windshield of that Kenworth truck there,” he explained. “This was used a proof-of-concept for our vision system, self-driving prototype.”
Another benefit of 3D printing is it can be a quicker way to get some truck parts, particularly for older equipment. He showed off an original brake-valve bezel from a truck more than 40 years old. “This got very brittle, it’s not in the parts inventory, but the drawings still exist,” Olsen said. “So you can send the CAD file out, put it on the printer, and print it.
“The Paccar parts division is certainly researching and understanding how they leverage that technology in the future,” Olsen continued. “As you can imagine, the volumes of truck parts not like automotive—they tend to run a bit smaller—and the economics of a printer can make sense as opposed to creating tooling and storing that tool to produce parts at low volume.”
Paccar also uses a Stereolithography (SLA) 3D printer. Olsen showed off an eighth scaled Kenworth T680 printed on the SLA to verify aerodynamic performance. This provided data that Kenworth used to certify product performance with the federal government. Paccar was the second entity to purchase such a printer, Olsen said, the first being NASA. “This is a great example of Paccar investing in technology that’s going to provide benefits to our products,” he said.
Paccar also uses simulators to test out advanced driver assistance systems and other technologies such as autonomous driving. “It can be very costly to test those systems on the road every time you want to measure your performance gains,” Olsen explained. “So we use the simulated environment to verify the performance improvements that we’re making on things like lane-keeping assistance or adaptive cruise control functions.”
Once the simulations get the systems to where Paccar engineers want, the company tests it on a track. But before then, it doesn’t have the costs associated with real-world testing, such as fuel consumption, driver wages, truck and tire wear and tear. “A simulation is a great tool for iterating very quickly many thousands or tens of thousands of scenarios before you go out and burn diesel fuel or consume electrons in a battery-electric powertrain,” Olsen said.
The autonomous Kenworth T680, which made its public debut at CES 2020, on display has a large monitor beside it showing off the work of the tractor’s sensors. Olsen toggled the display back and forth between Lidar and camera displays, which showed how the two technologies work to monitor everything around the truck, including identifying people as pedestrians and stationary objects as such.
The innovation center team built the prototype self-driving tractor for Level 4 autonomous research. “It wasn’t an effort to develop technology to take it to market—but rather a research effort to understand what are the challenges that need to be overcome in developing Level 4 technology,” Olsen said. “We wanted to get smarter about the tech, the sensors, the software and also educate us in our ability to evaluate other companies developing self-driving software.”
That research, he added, helped Paccar develop its partnership with Aurora, a self-driving technology provider that is building its technology into Class 8 Kenworth and Peterbilt trucks.
While Paccar prohibits photos of its engineering workspaces and its truck lab, here’s a look at some of the technology on display inside the Paccar Innovation Center in Silicon Valley along with a look inside and out of some of Kenworth's latest zero-emission vehicle offerings. Click "Start Slideshow" at the top of this article.