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LEADERS: Meritor Wabco president Jon Morrison on 6×2 axles and advances in electronics

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The last six months have seen Meritor Wabco aggressively promoting new and enhanced systems it says can improve truck safety and productivity. Specifically, the company is touting a new generation of its OnGuard collision...

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The last six months have seen Meritor Wabco aggressively promoting new and enhanced systems it says can improve truck safety and productivity. Specifically, the company is touting a new generation of its OnGuard collision mitigation system, its electronically controlled air suspension (ECAS) system for 6×2 axles and most recently, an electronically controlled air dryer (ECAD), which the company says can reduce fuel costs by up to 1.5% by reducing the load on the engine during peak-demand duty cycles.

We caught up with Jon Morrison, president and general manager of Meritor Wabco at the Technology & Maintenance Council meetings to discuss these and other technologies.

TN: Jon, you guys have been busy. You’ve revamped or introduced several new systems over the past year, and this doesn’t happen overnight. Am I to believe Meritor Wabco was busy with new product development through the downturn?

Morrison: Yes, we were. That’s what I’m most excited about. We really stayed on plan, in terms of investing in development through the downturn. We were able to do that as tough as things got.

If you look at OnGuard, for example, we’d been working on OnGuard as far back as 2002, we released it to the market in 2007 and we released the next generation in January of this year. We’ve really kept that constant evolution of investment in the technology.

ECAS is another example. That technology has been very prevalent in Europe. We were able to, within a year’s time through the downturn, convert it to 12-volt technology, which is more applicable to the North American market.

It’s been really amazing how fast interest has accelerated for both 6×2 axles and suspension controls combined. There’s been a rapidly developing interest level and market for that product, and you can see the benefits are pretty obvious.

With the electronically controlled air dryer, that technology has been on the roadmap for many years. Some of that technology is in use in Europe right now.

TN: ECAD is interesting, as it takes load off the engine in peak-demand cycles to reduce fuel consumption. Are there other components as well where this can be replicated to provide fuel savings?

Morrison: Yes, we also will be launching a clutched compressor before the end of this year with a major OEM and the clutched compressor technology is based on the same principle. It’s not necessarily using electronics, but putting the clutch on the compressor allows us to run the charging cycle at optimal cycles for the vehicle, where we can really reduce the amount of parasitic loss. So, you’re not driving the air recharging during an uphill climb when there’s heavy demand on the engine, you’re doing it when there’s lower than peak demands on the engine and that optimizes the time it runs and can save fuel. That’s a major development we’ll be launching this year.

We talked about ECAD. We’re also going to be launching an electronic governor, which has the same functionality but basically converts the governor from being a mechanically controlled governor to an electrically controlled governor and that will do the same thing ECAD does. We can then use that for our 1200 Plus modular air dryer concept. That’ll be next year.

TN: We talked earlier about 6×2 axles and ECAS. There are still a lot of skeptics. What will it take to get buy-in to the 6×2 concept, particularly in Canada where traction remains a concern for much of the year?

Morrison: I think that it’s really going to require demonstrating the benefits. We know it’s providing the benefits, through the test fleets we’ve been working with. We have scheduled orders now for higher volume production, so acceptance is there from the fleets we’ve been testing it with.

A lot of times, we’ll provide test systems in a particularly difficult environment to see how it works and to see if that’s the right application for a particular fleet. We’d probably do that for a Canadian fleet.

We rely on demonstration activities heavily to promote the product. We encourage people to get in the truck and drive it. 

TN: Most of these technologies we’ve been discussing have been widely used in Europe before being introduced here. Why is North America so slow to embrace these systems compared to the European market?

Morrison: That’s a great question. I think one of them is cost. The North American cost threshold is different than Europe. Europe really focuses on the technology. In North America, there is such an appropriately strong payback requirement that we haven’t been able to get the cost/value equation right.

We break up the 6×2 market into two segments: Current 6×2 users who are having problems with tire wear and traction, and ECAS provides an immediate solution for that. In one case in particular, we had a fleet that said the improvement in tire wear paid for the system, so that value equation worked.

The other group of customers are those who haven’t tried the 6×2 yet and have been concerned about traction. Certainly the 400-lb weight reduction and the increase in fuel economy gives them that payback to make it work. So while cost was initially an issue, I think you have enough evidence now and the cost is right, where the payback is there and fleets are able to see that return in a very short period of time.

TN: What is the true market potential for 6×2 axles in North America? Meritor has stated they see this segment growing from 3% today, to up to 18% within five years. Are your expectations in line with that or could the market grow even more rapidly with the advent of ECAS?

Morrison: We’re hopeful, and we certainly see this technology – things like FueLite and ECAS – as enablers for that, but right now we would stick to a more conservative view and see how the market develops and ensure we’re not overstepping. If you go by anecdotes and have conversations here at TMC and other places, you see there’s an awareness that’s occurring. It’s not for everybody. We would like to think the market is bigger than we are planning right now, but we’re going to stick to those numbers and see how things develop.

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