The I-Shift shines in Sweden

by James Menzies

GOTHENBURG, Sweden – It may pain us to admit it, but the Europeans are far ahead of us when it comes to adopting certain truck technologies that have the potential to transform the industry for the better. Take, for example, automated mechanical transmissions (AMTs). Volvo Group, manufacturer of the highly touted I-Shift AMT is finally enjoying some well-deserved market acceptance in North America, where close to 45% of trucks sold with Volvo power are now being spec’d with the transmission. (About 80% of the trucks Volvo sells here are now powered by Volvo engines).

Still, it’s a far cry from Volvo’s homeland Sweden and other parts of Europe where practically every new truck is spec’d with an automated gearbox. Certain sectors of the North American trucking industry, as well, are slower to embrace automated transmissions.

There’s a widely held perception that automated transmissions are intended exclusively for on-highway trucking, and that there’s no place in the bush, the pit, or any other off-road destination for anything other than a stick shift.

That’s not so, according to Volvo, which recently invited a group of North American trade journalists to Sweden to see that over there, the I-Shift is being put through its paces in the toughest duty cycles one can imagine. And so began a little Swedish adventure…

A historical perspective

The roots of Volvo’s I-Shift can be traced as far back as the 1980s, when a group of engineering graduates sat down to contemplate ways of automating the shifting of a manual transmission, Sven-Erik Tibb informed us during a briefing at Volvo headquarters in Gothenburg.

The I-Shift project was formally launched in 1997 with the first generation unveiled in 2001, making this the 10-year anniversary for the product. The benefits of an AMT are obvious: it requires less skill to operate than a manual transmission; allows drivers to keep two hands on the wheel and focus on their surroundings; and sophisticated programming enables it to shift at the optimum rpm every time, often improving fuel mileage.

The first generation I-Shift was constructed completely from scratch and features a proprietary Volvo ‘powertrain can’ that transmits data between the engine and gearbox. Because both the engine and transmission software was written by Volvo, “We have all the information we need to make the right decisions,” said Anders Eriksson, software design engineer. The two most powerful microcontrollers on the entire truck were located in the transmission, which allowed Volvo to essentially give the transmission supreme control over the engine in contrast to the historical order of things.

“The transmission is master of the system,” Eriksson said. “It controls the engine.”

The driver interface is remarkably simple. Two types of shifters are available; a basic and premium version. Drivers simply put the truck into the desired gear and go, much like in a passenger car. However, key to gaining the trust of experienced truckers, Volvo has incorporated a ‘Manual’ mode that allows the driver to override the I-Shift – as long as it won’t incur any harm as a result.

A versatile transmission
While the I-Shift is making inroads in the linehaul sector of the North American trucking industry, you won’t find many in vocational trucks where manual gearboxes are still the norm and torque converter-style automatics compete with AMTs for the remaining space.

Surprisingly though, the I-Shift can be ordered with a number of features designed specifically for vocational operators. A ‘Rock-Free’ function, for instance, provides the ability to rock a stuck vehicle back and forth, simply by pumping the accelerator rather than manually switching between forward and reverse gears. It works well in situations where a truck is stuck in the mud and its wheels are spinning, Eriksson explained. When the Rock-Free feature isn’t enough to free the vehicle of mud or clay, a ‘Power Starting’ feature allows a driver to rev the engine as high as 1,300 rpm in the lowest gear and then by pressing the minus (-) button, dump the clutch and use the momentum to pull free.

“It’s not that hard on the truck, but it’s wonderful to have as an emergency feature when stuck in deep clay,” chimed in Ed Saxman, Volvo Trucks’ powertrain product manager.

Also available is ‘Greatest Possible Downshift,’ ideal when approaching a long grade. Drivers can increase engine speed in advance of reaching the hill, press the minus button, put the shifter into Manual mode and then the transmission will complete one large downshift (instead of multiple downshifts), allowing the driver to run the entire hill in one gear without any further shifting.

Finally, there’s the ‘Prevent Upshift’ function, which is also useful on hills and in poor traction situations. Drivers can push the minus button to prevent upshifting and can delay a downshift by pushing the plus (+) button while the engine rpm is low.

In addition to these vocational-minded options, one of the smartest capabilities of the transmission may be EcoRoll, which decouples the engine from the transmission on gradual downhill grades, allowing the truck to coast along without consuming fuel. About 50% of European customers are now spec’ing EcoRoll, which is equally useful among Canada’s rolling hills. The engine returns to normal operation as soon as the brake or throttle is applied.

Another neat feature is ‘Idle Driving Mode,’ which allows drivers to creep along using the idle governor, adjusting speed by using the plus or minus buttons on the shifter and alternating between the lower six gears without applying the gas.

Collectively, these options amount to what is a very sophisticated piece of equipment. The full capabilities of the I-Shift require a high level of integration between engine and transmission, which is why the I-Shift is available only on trucks spec’d with Volvo engines. Still, despite all the technological wizardry that went into the design of the transmission, it is having trouble finding a home in the more rigorous of applications. Not in Sweden, however.

Handling huge torque

During my visit to Sweden, an assortment of Volvo cabover trucks in a variety of configurations were made available for test drives, first on the track at the Volvo Trucks Demonstration Centre and later along a 120-kilometre route between Gothenburg and, well, the middle of nowhere.

From there, we were to meet up with some real-life Swedish loggers, who have been spec’ing Volvo D13 engines with the I-Shift for operation in a pretty harsh off-road environment. When choosing from the available trucks, I naturally gravitated towards the longest, heaviest, highest-horsepower of them all: a FH16 750 – and yes, the 750 represents horsepower.
Believe it or not, in Europe there’s an insatiable appetite – and apparently a practical need – for a 750-hp engine, according to Carl Axel Hedstrom, who’s in charge of customer activities in Gothenburg.

He told me the 750, which is currently in pre-production with the commercial rollout slated for February, is ideal for applications with gross combination weights of 40 tonnes (88,000 lbs) or more, especially in the hillier regions of Scandinavia.
However, you’d be naïve to think Volvo’s rivalry with Scania wasn’t a consideration when launching the 750. The bitter Swedish rivals have taken turns upstaging one another in an ongoing battle of horsepower. Volvo’s FH16 750 is the decided winner – for now – offering greater horsepower than has ever been offered in a European commercial truck.

But is it possible to get good fuel mileage when managing 750 horses and a staggering 2,600 lb.-ft. of torque? Hedstrom says so: “Because of the hill climbing capacity, it doesn’t gear down, it just keeps in the higher gear, which is fuel-efficient,” he told me.

Before you get too excited, it’s unlikely the 750 will ever make its way to North American shores.
For starters, it’s not EPA2010-compliant. While the FH16 750 uses selective catalytic reduction (SCR), it doesn’t add exhaust gas recirculation to the mix, falling short of North American emissions requirements.

Aside from that, introducing a 750-horse monster would buck the North America-wide trend towards smaller displacement, 13-litre engines; Volvo’s bread and butter.

Still, I wasn’t about to pass on the opportunity to drive the beast.

The timber truck I drove grossed 60 tonnes (132,000 lbs). The truck itself was loaded with three stacks of three-metre logs; one on the truck and two on the drawbar trailer that rounded out the combination.

Interestingly, while popular opinion is that AMTs are limited to lower gross combination weights and mainstream applications, the 750 cannot be ordered with anything but the I-Shift. Frankly, Volvo doesn’t trust the average driver to be able to handle such high power and torque on their own.

“If you are not careful, when you go off the clutch, you put all the torque from the engine straight down into the wheels and you will spin the wheels and use the fuel in an inefficient way,” Hedstrom explained. “It is easier for us to handle the strong engine torque through the I-Shift than through a manual transmission.”

And that’s to say nothing of the number of clutches an average driver would burn through if using a manual transmission. The fact the I-Shift is a must-have on a 750-hp/2,600 lb.-ft. engine says a lot about the capabilities of the transmission.

On my drive, which included a mix of city and rural driving along some hilly terrain, the I-Shift never missed a step when pulling 60 tonnes. I even tested its Hill Start capability at that weight, on a steepish grade at the demonstration centre. That invaluable feature lets you come to a complete stop, and then take up to a second and a half to move your foot from the brake to the accelerator without rolling back (or forward) as much as an inch, even when opposing 60 tonnes and serious forces of gravity.

Built for the bush
After a leisurely, scenic drive from Gothenburg to Kalleryd in southern Sweden, we stopped for coffee and met up with some loggers from six-truck timber fleet Sundbergs Akeri AB. Sundbergs is owned by Johans Sundberg and the fleet is comprised of Volvo FH trucks with D13 engines ranging from 520-540 hp, all with the I-Shift. Sundbergs’ drivers checked out my 750 with envy and needled their boss to put in an order for one, but he smiled and countered the D13s do just fine in southern Sweden.

Sundberg has earned a reputation for carefully specifying the most efficient timber trucks possible. His efforts seem to be paying off; the company recently opened a beautiful new shop that would be the envy of any fleet owner. The pristine shop was an extraordinary sight, surrounded by tall evergreens in the Swedish countryside.

Sundbergs runs 23-metre (75-ft.) combinations grossing 60 tonnes, not unlike my own ride from earlier that morning. I joined driver Magnus Andersson on a run deep into the Swedish bush to pick up a load of logs for delivery to a nearby paper mill.
Asked if he liked the I-Shift, Andersson admitted it took some getting used to, but said he wouldn’t have it any other way.

He still works the shifter constantly, overriding the transmission’s decisions at times, depending on the terrain. The I-Shift’s predictive capabilities are remarkable, but the one thing it does lack is a set of eyes.

When I tell him the I-Shift isn’t very common in North American forestry applications, he shoots me a quizzical glance and asks “Why?”

“It’s very convenient, I don’t have to think about gearing on roads like this,” Andersson explained as we wound along a paved logging road, which would later give way to a dirt road and then little more than a trail through the woods leading to the loading point, which was marked by a red triangle on the in-cab GPS.

During our drive, Andersson provided a glimpse into the life of a Swedish logger. The truck he drives is operated around the clock; in Andersson’s care from 4 a.m. till 4 p.m., though European laws only permit nine hours of driving per day.

The Volvos are meticulously maintained and clean inside and out, which is impressive given their surroundings. Another Sundbergs driver who hosted us even asked visiting editors to remove their shoes before climbing into his truck.

Trucks with trailers are limited to 80 km/h in most of Europe, though many of Sundbergs hauls are over logging roads where they’d rarely reach highway speeds. Sundberg favours fuel-efficient D13s, but Hedstrom told me 16-litre engines are still the norm in most logging operations.

All driving activity is tracked by computer; drivers must insert their operator’s licence into a slot in the cab when they begin their shift and the information can be downloaded by enforcement officers at any time. It’s not unusual for Swedish trucks to be equipped by an Alcolock device, which requires drivers to blow a sample before starting the engine to ensure they’re sober.

About a third of Volvo trucks sold in Sweden are equipped with the option, which costs about $1,500, according to Carl Johan Almqvist, traffic and product safety director with Volvo. Increasingly, he noted, shippers are requiring their trucking providers to spec’ the device.

Depending on the customer, Sundbergs is paid either by the volume or weight of the load. Either way, overloading beyond 60 tonnes is strictly forbidden.

“When he delivers to the pulp mills, they pay for the first 60 tonnes,” explained Volvo’s Hedstrom. “If you transfer anything else, it’s on your account. You don’t get paid for it. (Company owner) Johans has been very careful about how to reduce the total weight of the truck itself. He has over 42 tonnes of payload, which is a very good figure for timber trucks. He doesn’t allow the drivers to be above 60 tonnes (gross), as he has optimized the design of the truck and trailer to carry 60 tonnes and not more.”

For all the subtle differences, a logging operation in Sweden is not entirely unlike those here in Canada.

The terrain is similar and the Sundbergs drivers are highly skilled; able to unload 42 tonnes of logs in less than 10 minutes, turn a truck around in a space so tight it defies logic, and demonstrating constant situational awareness and a vigilant attitude towards safety. They’d fit right in over here, but they may not want to trade you trucks.

The I-Shift has become a welcomed part of their daily lives and I don’t think they’d be willing to return to the old ways of jamming gears all day long. Will the same eventually be true on this side of the pond? After all, the I-Shift sold here is the same as the one used in Europe, aside from some small programming modifications.

Yet, here in Canada, we cling so desperately to our traditional way of doing things. But you can only keep progress at bay for so long.

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