At home with Hino

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As far as I was concerned, Hino Trucks might as well have screeched its corporate nails on a blackboard – like Robert Shaw in “Jaws” – when it announced last year that it no longer would supply North America with its signature, low-cab forward trucks, but would offer a new line of Class 4-7 conventionals.

Moreover, the company said it soon would begin building those trucks here. And, sure enough, the first American-built Hino recently was assembled in Long Beach, Calif., at Toyota’s TABC manufacturing facility, under the Hino Motors Manufacturing USA banner.

These guys are up to something. Consider that conventional truck sales in Hino’s home-market Japan are nil; that Toyota – whose cars are worldwide top sellers – has controlling interest in parent company Hino Motors Ltd.; and that Midas-touch Penske Corp. has a considerable stake in Hino’s North American efforts. You have to conclude that the company is serious about selling a helluva lot of trucks here.

Still, Hino’s research and development capabilities are in Japan, leaving North Americans to wonder how future products will evolve, as they must to remain competitive. To offer a preview, Hino recently invited a few of us press-types to the Tokyo Commercial Motor Show, where it displayed its latest ergonomic, safety and environmental technology. Twelve concept vehicles, including advanced-safety and hybrid trucks, vans and buses, showcased Hino’s technological developments.

For example, the spacy-looking Advanced Safety Vehicle Concept L, long-haul truck incorporates a shock-mitigating front structure to lessen damage to cars in front-end collisions. Other vehicles showcased additional technologies, such as: stability control; driver monitoring; nighttime pedestrian monitoring; front-view recording; adaptive cruise control; lane departure warning; tire-pressure monitoring; side- and rearview cameras; and front under-run protection.

Of greatest interest to the North American contingent, however, was a Model 165 conventional truck, much like the one sold here, except incorporating a hybrid powertrain. We surmised that this would be the most likely vehicle at the show to reach our shores in the near future. “Definitely,” said Michael Donohue, manager of national business development for Hino Truck Sales, North America. “There will likely be two demo units in the U.S. in January.”

We asked about technical details, and – faster than you can say “hai” – assistant chief engineer Kenichi Kobayashi excitedly produced drawings and specs. With translation assistance from senior executive coordinator Yoshio Baba, we learned that the Class 4 truck is a parallel hybrid.

The 165 incorporates a 175-hp diesel engine and a 23 kW electric motor, with either or both capable of propelling the vehicle, and regenerative braking to return some energy to the 250-pound, NiMH battery pack. The resulting fuel-economy improvement, says Kobayashi, is about 14 to 27 percent, with the highest improvements gained in stop/go driving. And if exhaust emissions are reduced proportionately, the truck could well rival the hybrids already in use here.

Look for one soon, cruising a package-delivery route near you.