Volvo’s SuperTruck is part evolution, part revolution

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Updated Feb 23, 2017

Volvo Super Truck 2017 02 23 08 38If you want to drive a $2 million vehicle, you’ve got about two options: Jay Leno’s 1955 Mercedes 300SL Gullwing Coupe with his 1986 Lamborghini Countach in-tow, or Volvo’s SuperTruck.

I took the latter.

Volvo debuted its SuperTruck at the Department of Energy in Washington D.C. late last year, the fruits of a $40 million partnership between DOE and the truck maker.

The result is a black-and-white demonstration vehicle with a $2 million price tag  â€“ not counting the cost of the engine and powertrain, components under $20,000 and anything else Keith Brantley, Volvo Trucks’ lead project manager for advanced complete vehicles, may have forgotten about.

The goal of the initial SuperTruck program was to boost freight efficiency by 50 percent. The Swedish-engineered SuperTruck sailed through that mark, hitting 88 percent while also improving fuel efficiency by 70 percent, which exceeded the 12 mpg target. Some test runs showed more than 13 mpg and powertrain brake thermal efficiency reaching 50 percent.

The baseline for thermal efficiency is about 42 percent, meaning SuperTruck converts about 8 percent more of its fuel to usable power.

SuperTruck is Brantley’s baby. His team spent five years building the truck that eventually would exceed the program’s mission, but did so without completely reinventing the wheel. Brantley says for as much custom fabrication and one-off parts that are on the unit, the majority of the truck is on the market today.

“It’s just like any other Volvo out there on the road,” he says. “It’s just better. About 75 percent of this truck is out there … production components. The other 25 percent we just did better and smarter. The plan was to make it as aerodynamic as possible using a production truck.”

Brantley says Volvo designed its SuperTruck with a “complete vehicle approach” that optimized the tractor, trailer and powertrain working together.

The truck’s side profile is mostly a VNL 670, but its wider stance comes from a rear wall borrowed from a 780, which helped create a rear chassis flare that Brantley says improves air movement down the trailer’s side. The flare is also a feature that was put into Volvo’s production trucks with the 2016 model year, along with enhancements to the bumper and roof fairings of VNL series highway tractors.

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Weight savings and aero

A composite skirt runs the length of the trailer and features liftable panels that allow for tire access.A composite skirt runs the length of the trailer and features liftable panels that allow for tire access.

SuperTruck’s exterior may resemble production model trucks, but underneath the cab’s mostly steel skin lies a different story. An aluminum frame cuts chassis weight by almost half. The only steel used in the chassis are the bolts holding it together. The lighter-weight aluminum frame was the largest contributor to overall weight savings, but from a drivability standpoint, the truck still feels rigid, and you couldn’t tell the difference traveling up and down North Carolina’s Interstate 40.

All told, SuperTruck is about 3,200 pounds lighter than a standard truck, and that is both by design and out of necessity. All the additional technology and fairings added to the truck also added weight.

The roof, hood and side fairings are made from carbon fiber material, which includes the use of recycled carbon fiber in certain areas to save costs. Trailer fairings, developed by SuperTruck partner Ridge Corp., were built from composite materials for maximum stiffness and durability.

Turbo-compounding 11-liter and powertrain

The truck’s overall weight and improved aerodynamic design requires less engine power, which allowed the SuperTruck team to feature a D11 engine versus a standard D13. The program also turned into a validation platform for a new turbo-compounding system designed to recover wasted energy from the turbocharger and apply it directly back into the driveline. Volvo debuted turbo-compounding on its 2017 production model engine, namely the D13, which the company says helps boost fuel efficiency by up to 6.5 percent.

SuperTruck also allowed engineers to test a revised wave piston design and an optimized common-rail fuel system that together help achieve a quieter, more complete fuel burn. Both of these innovations also found their way into 2017 model-year production engines.

Offering consistent torque at a wider band – from about 900 to 1300 rpm – SuperTruck’s turbo-compounding D11 engine not only helps contribute to fuel economy but also runs noticeably quieter. You don’t have as much horsepower on reserve with the 11-liter engine, but you hardly miss it.

The effects that weight savings and aerodynamics have on the truck’s drivability were remarkably noticeable behind the wheel. The truck glides easier on the highway, using the 65,400 pound truck’s own inertia, gravity and low wind resistance to help move itself  forward.  With 42 percent less aerodynamic drag, I was able to coast the truck at around 60 mph up and down a negligible grade for 1.4 miles – for nearly a mile and a half, I didn’t touch a pedal, and we never lost more than 2 miles an hour.

Down even the most moderate grades, the truck can pick up an extra 10 mph easily and quickly, making it simple â€“ depending on traffic – to coast down and back up most moderate climbs.

Shifting happens through a 12-speed iShift like you would find on most late-model Volvo tractors, but the integration of Volvo’s iSee ratchets cruise control up a notch. The iSee system learns the road’s topography and uses that knowledge to automatically determine the best shifting patterns and acceleration points to save fuel when intelligent cruise control is activated.

I used this feature for about 30 miles, and its ability to predict power needs was nothing short of amazing. The system knew when I was coming down a grade, what that would do for the truck’s speed and what was going to be needed to top the next hill ahead.

When no throttle input is needed, iSee slips the truck into neutral, and the computer supplies only enough fuel to the engine to keep it running. In several cases, the truck would descend a hill and crest another in neutral before coasting a short distance. The truck would jump back into gear only briefly to give me just enough momentum to maintain a 3 mph tolerance to my pre-selected 61 mph target.

And all of it happens seamlessly. Acceleration and shifting in and out of gear is smooth. Unless you’re listening to the engine, you barely know it’s happening.

Sight lines

Two screens mounted on the passenger side allow the driver to see down the trailer’s side and in the truck’s blind spot. SuperTruck also features two traditional pillar-mounted mirrors as required by law.Two screens mounted on the passenger side allow the driver to see down the trailer’s side and in the truck’s blind spot. SuperTruck also features two traditional pillar-mounted mirrors as required by law.

One of the first things you notice from inside the driver’s seat is the giant field of view through the huge panoramic windshield.

In the design process, the truck cab was pushed about 8 inches forward – about where a VNM cab would be – and was raised three inches.

That allowed designers to shorten and slope the nose and slant the windshield for a better aerodynamic affect. From the driver’s seat, you can’t see the hood, and with no fender-mounted mirrors, it has a distinct cabover feel despite the roughly 7-feet long nose in front of you.

SuperTruck uses a sophisticated camera system in place of mirrors, which takes some getting used to. The truck still features pillar-mounted mirrors as required by law – a feature Brantley says is the single biggest aerodynamic drag remaining on the truck. Just how seriously did the design team take drag? They eliminated the hood grip because Brantley says its drag was “measurable.”

I found the cameras as helpful as a traditional mirror in almost every case but they do narrow your field of view somewhat, which made backing a challenge. Still, it was easy enough to see down both sides of the trailer and in the truck’s blind spot.

HVAC system

In order to best insulate the truck’s cab, Brantley’s team removed excess glass such as the skylight. It’s been replaced by a sophisticated solar panel and interior LED light bank that reacts to changes in light outside and relays them into the cab.

A large solar panel is built into the roof of SuperTruck and helps provide power to the battery bank that supplies the HVAC system.A large solar panel is built into the roof of SuperTruck and helps provide power to the battery bank that supplies the HVAC system.

“When you’re driving down the road, it gives you the same ambient light you’d get from outside,” Brantley says, “but when you go under an overpass or drive through shadows, it will dim and flicker just like a skylight would.”

A large solar panel is built into the truck’s roof, and that power is used to charge the batteries that run the HVAC. Battery-charging power also is harnessed via a 10kW alternator that syphons kinetic energy from the truck’s drum brakes.

On a full charge, the truck’s bank of batteries can supply all the hotel-load and auxiliary power needs of a sleepy trucker for 14 to 17 hours. All that’s needed is some sunshine and driving – and braking – during the next duty cycle to pump energy back into the system. The truck’s ignition works off an independent super-capacitor, so there’s no worries about running the batteries down so far that the truck won’t start.

The unique thing about Volvo’s SuperTruck is how it finesses so much cutting-edge design and technology in a wrapper that looks more like a highway tractor than a spaceship. It’s genius is in its simplicity – more evolutionary than revolutionary.

SuperTruck has been through a battery of fuel economy validation tests, axle tests, trailer tests and complete vehicle tests, and its work is not over. Brantley plans about 18 months more of testing on SuperTruck before digging in on the sequel.

Even though SuperTruck isn’t a production vehicle, this kind of innovation doesn’t come without its share of skeptics and Brantley has heard it all before.

“The skirts are too close to the ground.” “An aluminum frame isn’t durable enough.” “That wouldn’t work if you ran it in the Rocky Mountains.” And all the other comments that question the truck’s validity and his team’s trucking street-cred.

And he concedes.

“This truck isn’t for everybody,” he says. “It was built for one reason, and that was to validate the technology, and it’s been extremely successful at that.”

Jason Cannon has written about trucking and transportation for more than a decade and serves as Chief Editor of Commercial Carrier Journal. A Class A CDL holder, Jason is a graduate of the Porsche Sport Driving School, an honorary Duckmaster at The Peabody in Memphis, Tennessee, and a purple belt in Brazilian jiu jitsu. Reach him at [email protected].