Assignment: Tokyo

by Lou Smyrlis

For one memorable week in early November I and a handful of U.S. trade magazine editors were the guests of Mitsubishi Fuso Truck of North America (MFTA) in Japan. Meetings with top management officials of Mitsubishi Fuso Truck & Bus Company, MFTA’s parent corporation, a day spent at the 34th annual Tokyo Motor Show, and a tour of the Mitsubishi Motors’ Kawasaki plant, made for an eye-opening experience into the depth and breadth of the Mitsubishi organization and the way it and other Asian-headquartered manufacturers are dealing with technological challenges similar to those faced by our own trucking industry.

For Canadian medium-duty truck buyers, the Mitsubishi Fuso name is relatively new. Although the Mitsubishi name has become commonplace for electronic products and to some extent cars, it has been little more than a year since the company announced it would bring its Class 3 to 7 truck lineup to the Canadian market and about eight months since it formed a strategic alliance with Volvo Trucks of North America to use its established dealer network as the conduit for putting its trucks in front of Canadian truck buyers. But in Asia the Mitsubishi name carries a history that rivals that of the longest-standing automotive manufacturers in North America and a breadth that would impress even the largest of our conglomerates.

The Mitsubishi company traces its roots back to 1870, when Japan was just emerging from centuries of feudal isolation. An ambitious young man called Yataro Iwasaki proved an integral part of Japan’s drive to catch up to the West when he launched the first Mitsubishi company – a shipping firm with three steamships chartered from the powerful Tosa clan. Over the next five decades Yataro Iwasaki and his son Hisaya grew the company into a conglomerate that would see its trademark “three diamonds” emblem extended to industries as diverse as banking, real estate, mining, shipbuilding, marketing, administration, paper mills, glass making, electrical machinery, home appliances and, of course, passenger and commercial vehicle manufacturing. After the Second World War, the Allied occupation forces demanded that Japan’s big industrial groups disband and many of the Mitsubishi companies split into smaller enterprises.

Today the automotive manufacturing arm, Mitsubishi Motors Corp., is also directly linked to two of the largest automotive manufacturers in the world – Germany’s Daimler Chrysler and Sweden’s Volvo. Its ties with Volvo go well beyond the alliance formed in Canada to sell Mitsubishi trucks through the Volvo dealer network. Similar arrangements have been in place in certain European markets for years and in the U.S. there is a study being conducted to determine the feasibility of shared distribution and manufacturing strategies for the two companies. Late last year Volvo and Mitsubishi also looked at a plan to boost the truck business for both companies. Mitsubishi would establish a separate commercial vehicle unit in 2001 with Volvo taking a 19.9 percent stake and Mitsubishi controlling the remaining 80.1 percent. How that would play in the long term with Volvo rival DaimlerChrysler, which owns a 34 per cent share of Mitsubishi Motors and recently concluded an agreement to shave seven years off the original 10-year prohibition on its option to purchase unlimited equity in Mitsubishi, remains to be seen ofcourse.

But that’s stuff for corporate executives and lawyers to fret about. Truck buyers’ are more interested with the product they’re buying and where its designers and engineers plan on taking it in the future. The trip to Tokyo revealed a wealth of information on technological innovations that could soon find their way into Mitsubishi trucks in the Asian market and maybe eventually the North American market.

Similar to the North American and European situation, the Japanese government has been passing increasingly stricter emissions regulations for commercial trucks forcing OEMs to push the envelope on new engine technologies.

One of the higher-profile projects Mitsubishi’s engineers are working on is the HEV (Hybrid Electric Vehicle) system. HEV, which has been tested on a Mitsubishi public service bus and a Canter series aerial work medium-duty truck, is a system whereby vehicle drive is provided by an electric motor supplied electricity by an engine-generator. The engine-generator is powered by diesel in the case of the bus and gasoline in the case of the Canter truck. The system’s ability to use the two most common fuels available means that it doesn’t require the establishment of any special infrastructure for it to go into widespread service as a low-emission vehicle throughout Japan.

The engine generator is used solely to generate electrical power, making it possible to also use liquid petroleum gas, compressed natural gas and other fuels. Mitsubishi is also looking at fuel cell technology. The engine-generator runs at a fixed speed that is independent of vehicle speed or running loads. This makes it possible to configure the system so that electricity generation occurs at a point midway between the high-efficiency combustion and emission zones. Mitsubishi says this makes for major reductions in emissions compared with conventional systems, which use the engine over its full speed range. It’s claiming that the HEV system used on its public service bus is cutting fuel consumption by 70 per cent and emissions by over 50 per cent from current norms.

Power from the engine generator is stored in a new type of lithium-ion battery developed for HEV use. It has high input/output and energy density properties and uses the traction motor as a generator to convert inertial energy into electrical energy when the brakes are applied. The braking systems on the bus can convert braking energy at even the slowest speeds. In concert with the electronically controlled braking system, this enables over 80 per cent of braking energy to be used in power regeneration, according to Mitsubishi. When extra traction is needed for hard acceleration or uphill driving, power is used from both the engine-generator and the batteries.

Another emissions technology project under development on the truck side involves a low-pollution engine equipped with a continuously regenerating DPF. Exhaust particulate matter (PM) is captured by a ceramic filter and subjected to continuous combustion, which is claimed to eliminate the PM. Also under development is a nitrous oxides (NOx) catalyst, which when fitted on the engine adds a urea water solution as a reduction agent to the exhaust gas to reduce and purify NOx.

Other Asian-headquartered truck manufacturers, of course, are also making considerable strides towards producing cleaner engine technologies. At the Tokyo Motor Show Toyota was displaying a technology it called Diesel Particulate and NOx Reduction System or DPNR. It claimed that the technology purifies NOx and PM simultaneously. It works by combining a catalyst with a porous ceramic filter for use in a Hino JO5C-TI diesel engine.

Hino’s exhibit at the Tokyo Motor Show, meanwhile, included a diesel-hybrid system vehicle developed through Hino’s low-pollutant diesel technology, Toyota’s experience in hybrid systems and the DPNR catalyst system. The hybrid system employs two motors to drive the vehicle and generate electricity. The system offers electric vehicle driving in low-speed or light-load situations and engages the engine in normal driving conditions or when accelerating. During deceleration, the two motors act as generators, turning kinetic energy into electricity. When this technology is married to a stepless electronic transmission the diesel engine is engaged only during revolutions when exhaust gas is cleanest and most fuel-efficient.

Leveraging technology to improve truck safety is another key development area for Mitsubishi and other Asian-headquartered manufacturers.

The ASV-2 truck, part of a safety research program promoted by Japan’s ministry of transport, represents Mitsubishi’s statement on the future of truck safety for the Asian – and possibly the North American – ma
rket. The Mitsubishi ASV-2 truck is loaded with safety systems designed to provide the driver with safety-enhancing information and to lessen the fatigue-inducing strain that can occur when operating commercial vehicles. Much of the technology employed on the ASV-2 truck was first developed and tested on passenger cars earlier in the 90s. Phase two of the project involves bringing this technology truckside.

The ASV-2 truck’s principal onboard systems include a 5.8GHz scanning laser radar that monitors inter-vehicle distance; sensors; displays and warning systems supplying the driver with information; and a number of actuators that help the driver physically operate the vehicle. Following is a description of the key components under development on the ASV-2 truck.

M-DAS – II: This preventive safety technology constantly monitors the driver’s alertness level and, when necessary, issues voice warnings to restore his attention. The system determines if driver attention is diminishing by using a camera to detect the centre line or lane markings, as well as sensor-data on steering wheel movements and direction to assess factors such as meandering rate and the degree of variation in vehicle operation. In deciding whether alertness has dropped to a predetermined level, the system relies on fuzzy logic technology to determine when to issue an alert so that it matches the behavior and traits of individual drivers. For example, if the system determines that driver alertness has reached a low level, it issues its headway distance warning earlier when it starts to detect that the distance to vehicles in front is decreasing. And when the system judges vehicle operation to be monotonous – as it can be on many highways – it can emit a refreshing aroma at intervals to spark driver alertness.

Light Distribution Control Head Light System: Forward visibility at night is enhanced by altering the area of illumination and vertical angle of the headlight beam to match various factors such as vehicle speed, steering wheel angle and cargo weight. For example, the system improves down-the-road visibility by illuminating the direction of travel through curves. The system also prevents the truck from dazzling oncoming traffic with its lights by adjusting beam height for vehicle load.

Autocruise with Distance Control: Using distance sensors and a camera, this system automatically operates the brakes to slow down the vehicle and maintain a suitable distance between it and the vehicle in front.

Forward Obstacle Avoidance Support System: Used in conjunction with an intelligent infrastructure system that sends data to the truck about road obstacles, the system can issue voice and visual warnings to the driver. The system can also automatically apply auxiliary braking to slow the vehicle.

Corner Entry Speed Support: Crunching data on the distance to and the radius of a corner (the data is again sent to the truck from an intelligent infrastructure system) it determines the appropriate speed at which to enter a corner. If it deems that a reduction in speed is necessary, the system issues voice and visual warnings. It can also apply auxiliary braking to slow the vehicle if necessary.

Although not installed on the ASV-2 truck, Mitsubishi is also working on a Stability Control System and an Automatic Following System. Stability Control exploits the characteristics of ABS and ASR systems, using steering wheel angle, wheel rotational speed and other sensor information to independently regulate the braking force applied at each wheel. The system also regulates engine output to prevent the vehicle from spinning, drifting out or rolling over. The Automatic Following System involves research and development of an automated truck convoy system to be used on automated highways. The following vehicle uses course and steering data telemetrically received from the vehicle ahead. GPS technology is used to determine the relative positions of the two vehicles.

Hino’s ASV-2 truck at the Tokyo Motor Show included similar features. There was a driver snooze warning system which could prod a driver to alertness with a voice alarm, a visual image or even by vibrating his seat. Its lane deviation system emits a visual and audio alarm when the vehicle is judged to be deviating from the lane in an unsafe manner and if no correction is made by the driver the system can automatically correct the steering by applying torque to the steering wheel. Also included are a rear following distance-warning system with a camera mounted on the driver’s rearview mirror to show him how close vehicles are following and a distance cruise system that maintains a uniform distance between vehicles.

The regulatory challenges faced by our industry in emissions control, truck safety and other key areas are substantial. But it’s comforting to know, as my week in Japan quickly revealed, that they are the same challenges faced – and met – by truck manufacturers around the world.

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