Peter Blonde has been called "the Godfather of Adaptive Loading." But as Volvo's driveline expert he's quick to point out the 6x2 tandem concept is in no way new. "In Europe, it has been used as long as I've been employed by the company, and that's over 40 years," he says. "It's been existing in this market before in the '50s. The headache at the time was that everything was mechanically controlled, and that created some problems.
Volvo’s new Adaptive-Loading system — with its electronic controls, traction-refining capabilities and integration with other innovative technologies — does far more than overcome those issues.
Built around an electronically controlled suspension, the system switches automatically between 6x2 and 4x2 drive-axle configurations using a forward axle that lifts tires off the ground when a trailer is empty, nearly empty or carrying an extremely light load. The new Adaptive-Loading system is a 6x2, but it is not like any other OEM’s — or component supplier’s — solution. Two things set it apart: the liftable axle and the fact it is a pusher, with the rear axle in the tandem driven.
Adaptive Loading was introduced in March at the 2015 Mid-America Trucking Show amid high praise from selected customers who beta tested the concept technology, helped bring it to market and testified to its safety and fuel-efficiency benefits. Full production will begin in the first quarter of 2016.
But the story really begins back in 2011, with the launch of Volvo’s XE (eXceptional Efficiency) powertrain package that laid the foundation for Adaptive Gearing and Adaptive Loading.
Road to a Complete System: XE to AG to AL
The XE package improves fuel efficiency by lowering engine rpm at a given vehicle speed. Volvo calls this rpm-lowering tactic “downspeeding,” and for every 100 rpm of downspeeding, fuel efficiency can improve by about 1.5 percent.
Blonde says he and his engineering group decided early on that as part of the XE model, there should be complementary drivetrain and chassis changes that would enhance the fuel-efficiency improvements the XE package generated at the engine.
“This was a building-block approach,” says Chris Stadler, manager of product marketing for Volvo. “The concept was there in the beginning: a complete system set up to support the customer’s operation. We introduced it a portion at a time based on what we were capable of doing internally. But we knew it was building blocks of efficiency that we could bring to our customers to support their operations.”
The first part of the drivetrain and chassis involvement was XE Adaptive Gearing, a system launched in 2014 that senses rear-suspension load in real time, enabling the driver to operate using either a direct or overdrive driveline to maximize fuel efficiency.
The XE package utilizes Volvo’s I-Shift automated manual transmission, which captures transmission-related data as well as information including vehicle mass, cargo weight, overall vehicle weight, pitch and yaw, allowing the engine, transmission, axle ratio and tire size to work together, with various components comprehending the demands placed on others.
Adaptive Gearing built on the impressive sensory and computing power offered by the I-Shift. Volvo engineers added load-sensing electronic control modules (ECMs) to the system, giving the XE drivetrain the ability to adjust horsepower and gear selection to match specific vehicle haul configurations.
Like Adaptive Loading, Adaptive Gearing particularly benefits anyone that heads out fully loaded and returns home much lighter — or vice versa. Because it’s optimized for various payloads and terrains, drivers spend less time gear hunting, see better performance on highways with rolling hills and make fewer gear shifts on hilly terrain.
Adaptive Loading also draws on the advanced technology of Volvo’s I-Shift automated manual transmission.
Volvo engineers realized that by adding another ECM and a pneumatic-actuation system, they could create a fully automatic tandem axle that would adjust weight and downforce on the drive axle to provide maximum traction and fuel efficiency even as the vehicle’s cargo weight and center of gravity changed with changing loads. The system balances weight between the two axles when the truck is heavily loaded. At a certain point, the non-drive front axle automatically lifts up, removing the tires from the road.
A manual side of the system also allows drivers to adjust downward force on the drive axle or lift the front tandem by pushing a button.
Adaptive Loading: A Customer-Connected Product
As they have done with previous technologies, Blonde, Volvo engineers and managers formed customer partnerships that enhanced the development of Adaptive Loading and played a key role in bringing the product to market. Customers provided continuous feedback throughout the development and testing phase.
After the team realizes a need for a feature, members begin the customer-selection process by first identifying operational behavior in which the proposed technology makes sense, Blonde says.
They took Adaptive Loading to customers with the type of operation that could take advantage of its fuel-saving features.
“Roughly May 2011 is when the conversation started,” Blonde says. “I had some customers out there with very, very distinct operating profiles, so I approached them and asked: ‘Have you been thinking about this?’ I got some pretty good feedback. So I said, ‘Let me put something together and I’ll come back to talk about the benefits from your end.’”
During the subsequent October 2012 meeting, one customer said after five minutes that he was definitely interested. “He said: ‘It would solve this, it would solve that,” Blonde relates. “‘And yes, I will order a trailer and we’ll put the two together as a married couple and evaluate the potential.’”
Idaho Milk Transport in Burley, Idaho, and Ploger Transportation in Bellevue, Ohio, were the first customers to test Adaptive Loading. Both are located north of the Snow Belt, and that’s significant because traditional 6x2s have been criticized for their lack of traction. Stadler says Volvo’s dynamic-weight-transfer capability addresses that issue.
“I think the most enjoyable part of early conversations was that I got more interest in the 6x2 from guys north of I-70,” Blonde says. “That means all the snow states. They are the ones who really want to jump on it.”
Joel Morrow, senior driver and
vice president for fleet equipment procurement with Ploger Transportation, says improved traction in adverse weather is one of the strongest features of the Adaptive Loading suspension. “As an everyday driver who logs about 150,000 miles a year, I can tell you without hesitation these trucks will go in the snow,” he says.
Drivers can swiftly raise and lower the front tandem within preset vehicle speeds, Stadler says. In addition, “if a driver hits snow or rain, he can quickly adjust the axle to apply maximum available downforce to the drive tires to get the best traction possible simply by pushing a three-position button on the dash,” he says.
Before Adaptive Loading, Volvo already had a tag axle 6x2 and offered a type of dynamic loading, Blonde says. “But here is the catch: If you have the current tag 6x2 in a typical fleet with fifth wheel just around the center of the bogey [tandem], in the dynamic situation that requires transfer of load to the drive axle, it means you proportionally unload the front axle,” he says. “That’s not a good combination for adverse weather.
“You really have to step up the truck to carry more of the load in the back and more load in the front. To accommodate this, we went up with one front axle size. We also pushed the disc brakes to the front to ensure the truck was going straight, not right or left if you had to slam the brakes. So when you operate in really, really, bad weather, you have traction at both ends of the truck.”
To get production staff on board, a team was invited to look at a prototype from a hardware standpoint in March 2014.
“We saw the benefits,” says Michael Martin, a Volvo engineer. “Yes, it’s somewhat different than the trucks we [typically] build. It has different plumbing and different applications. Every time you introduce a new product into the line, you have a training platform that has to be developed for the trucks. As Peter asked, we did step out of the box, out of our boundaries, out of our comfort zone to produce these trucks pre-project.”
Blonde says one customer tested a truck with Adaptive Loading on 300 miles of black ice. “He said, ‘I would never, ever try with anything else,’” Blonde recalls. “‘But I felt extremely comfortable. It proved to me that loading the end points was superior to anything.’ He’s been in the business for 40 years and has 6.5 million miles. This was one of the details that sealed the concept.”
Brothers Robert and Gene Brice, who own and operate Idaho Milk Transport, say Adaptive Loading improves maneuverability and ride as well. “According to our drivers, the handling is substantially better, especially when empty,” Robert Brice says. “By having the axle up when empty, it creates more weight on the steer axle for better drivability. Also when empty, and the axle is up, it creates a longer wheelbase, which results in a smother ride. With the weight transfer, we also get good traction by having more weight on the drive axles instead of being spread evenly over a standard [6x4] configuration.”
So this unique 6x2 offers superior traction, a smoother ride and fuel savings. But there is more, Stadler says. “The lifted axle means lower maintenance and tire costs as well as some additional incremental fuel savings,” he says.
"We knew it was building blocks of efficiency that we could bring to our customers to support their operations."
Chris Stadler, Product Manager
Another plus for the Adaptive Loading concept: with a flip of a switch from inside the cab, drivers can lift the fifth wheel height up to two inches to unload the landing gear and make it easier to couple and uncouple a trailer.
Parameters for lifting the front axle aren’t set in stone. They can be customized for each customer’s operation.
“We didn’t singly focus on one lift mode,” Blonde says. “We are offering the customer a menu of lifting options to suit their operating profile.” He gives the example of a fuel hauler with a number of trucks set up for a gravity drain of gasoline or diesel. “We can have a lift mode at 12,500 pounds,” Blonde says. “That’s when the axle comes up. That customer may also have liquid propane tankers. That trailer is nearly 3,500 pounds heavier on the kingpin, so to achieve the same thing, I need to put in a different lift mode. In theory, I can set up the truck to do both jobs, so I can say to a customer, ‘You can have a number of trucks set up for propane. They can also work gasoline and diesel fuel. There is a huge, huge opportunity to optimize the solution, but it all comes down to one thing: understanding the business of the customer.”
Stadler sums up the significance of the innovative feat Volvo engineers have achieved: “The 6x2 concept has been around for years. The benefit here is the evolution we have brought to the technology of the vehicles in the last 10 or 15 years. The technology can automatically sense the loads and understand what’s going on with the vehicle. We’re building that technology on the trucks so they can adapt to various situations. This is a game changer for Volvo Trucks.”