Continental Divide: The differences between European and North American trucks

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The differences between European and North American trucks are more than skin deep.

TORONTO, Ont. — The manufacturers of North American and European trucks are more closely aligned than ever. Daimler brands include Mercedes-Benz, Freightliner and Western Star. Volvo Group offers Volvos and bulldog-adorned Macks. Paccar’s Peterbilt and Kenworth count Europe’s DAF as a sibling. And now Traton Group, formerly Volkswagen Truck and Bus, has a share in Navistar.

As close as the companies have drawn together, however, the equipment itself can appear a world apart.

The most obvious difference is Europe’s preference for cabovers rather than the hooded engines that travel North American highways. But dig deeper and you can see the results of varied approaches to weights and dimensions, emissions, and even preferences for automotive-like finishes.

“It’s interesting. Things like emissions technologies are really being driven from North America. Some of the safety technologies are being driven from Europe. But, conversely, autonomous operation is coming out of North America,” says Darren Gosbee, Navistar’s vice-president – powertrain and advanced technology.

The trucks have evolved against the backdrops of the different regulations.

Europe’s cabovers, for example, are largely the results of rules that put a greater emphasis on overall vehicle length, says Johan Agebrand, director of product marketing for Volvo Trucks North America. Forty-foot trailers married to individual 4×2 tractors are more the norm on the other side of the Atlantic. Europe’s typical Gross Vehicle Weights of 88,000 lb. are also closer to a Canadian experience than the 80,000-lb. tandem configurations that travel U.S. interstates.

Each configuration comes with its own pros and cons.

Cabovers are easier to maneuver through the tight confines of densely populated urban centers; conventionals offer a more comfortable ride because drivers are not sitting right above the engine. Agebrand also refers to the engine access. Items not strapped down in a cabover have been known to crash through the windshield when everything’s tilted for a repair.

“Look where the axle locations are on the trailer,” Gosbee adds. “They’re somewhere around 2/3 the length of the trailer.” European trailers are more likely to have steerable axles, too. Together, that improves maneuverability at low speeds in tight urban settings.

The power

Engines, meanwhile, have evolved through differing focuses on emissions. European regulators took an earlier interest in reducing NOx, which led to the earlier adoption of diesel exhaust fluid. “SCR [selective catalytic reduction] or AdBlue has been around in Europe for at least five years before it made its way here,” Gosbee says. North American regulators were quicker to focus on particulate matter and soot.

Granted, such differences are less pronounced than they were in the past.

“Over time, the emission legislations are getting closer and closer to each other,” Agebrand explains. But he stresses that it still wouldn’t be easy to use the exact same engine on both sides of the Atlantic because of distinct standards governing things like engine speeds and loads during certification processes.

It isn’t the only way that environmental standards differ. In southern Europe, for example, engineers face stricter rules on any noise that’s produced, thanks to an 80db limit.

Regulated road speeds have influenced truck designs as well.

North American speed limits are typically higher than those in Europe, leading to a different emphasis on aerodynamics, Agebrand says, noting how such gains tend to be realized around 95 km/h. Europe’s trucks tend to have speeds capped at close to 80 km/h.

It hardly means European buyers don’t care about fuel economy gains. Fuel costs in Europe can be four times higher than those in the U.S., after all, leading to an intense focus on saving every potential drop in other ways.

But the increasing focus on reducing greenhouse gases in North America will play a role in promoting the vertically integrated powertrains that have a longer tradition in Europe.

“You can’t really regard the truck as a collection of parts anymore. You have to look at a truly integrated system,” Gosbee says. “It’s just not going to be possible to optimize everybody’s solution in everybody’s application.”

The safety

While each continent has a broad array of safety standards to meet, there are clear differences in the approaches. One distinctly European crash test, for example, slams a bar that weighs about the same as a full grown moose into a truck’s A and C pillars, and the cab then needs to remain rigid enough to open the doors. There’s no such test in North America.

“If you do a generalization, safety standards in Europe are a little bit tougher to abide by,” Agebrand says, adding that there is a greater emphasis on dynamic crash tests. “You have more trucks or cars designed in Europe that would actually pass and get approved in the U.S. than vice-versa.”

There are even differences in the braking systems of choice, with Europe embracing electronically controlled disc designs.

“Before [North America] got to ABS there were really no electronics involved in the air brake system. It was really just a series of valves and primary and secondary systems,” says Fred Andersky, Bendix’s director of customer solutions and marketing – controls. The evolution in Europe was different. “Instead of having a single control unit, like we do for an ABS system, you started to move the control units … closer down to the wheel end.”

“Take a look at the way our trailer ABS and trailer roll stability systems have evolved, where you have this functional unit that has the modulators built in. It gets the input from the wheel speed sensors, and it has a brain or a circuit board that helps it do things,” he says. Europe’s approach has essentially produced smarter brake systems.

“It is the regulatory environment in Europe, too. You’ve seen faster, quicker advancements in terms of ABS stability control and even connectivity with the trailer. The connectivity in Europe is a direct line to the trailer as opposed to going through the PLC … it’s a smarter connection.”

Different buyers

Don’t discount cultural differences behind the spec’ing choices, either.

“We have fleet customers here in the U.S. that are a lot more sensitive to the price of vehicle,” Gosbee explains. In Europe, there seems to be a wider preference for premium fit, finish and content. “You step into a Scania or MAN product, the first thing you see is a carpeted floor,” he says as an example.

But where European truck owners have limited space to outfit a sleeper, there are plenty of opportunities to offer extra amenities in a North American truck.

“They want space to store stuff — and literally, the word ‘stuff’ is the only way I can describe it,” Gosbee says of North American buyers.

So is there any hope for the idea of a truly global truck?

“I think we’re closer,” Agebrand says, referring to the way global manufacturers are taking a worldly approach to developing things like autonomous technologies and electrification. That could even make it possible to rethink what a truck even looks like. “It depends a little bit on what legislation will do.”

But Gosbee remains unconvinced that common trucks will ply the different highways, largely because of the different length laws and typical distances being traveled. Opportunities are likely limited to niche applications, perhaps in urban pickup-and-delivery work that would benefit from tightly turning cabovers, he says.

“I think we’ll struggle to see a global truck in all applications.”


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John G. Smith is Newcom Media's vice-president - editorial, and the editorial director of its trucking publications -- including Today's Trucking,, and Transport Routier. The award-winning journalist has covered the trucking industry since 1995.

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  • Is it legal now to order a brand new say, Kenworth COE from Australia and have shipped to the US and operate it?
    If yes, Can a Trailer also be purchased and shipped and used in the US?

    • No on the K200, KWAU and KWNA have a non compete in place, so they can not knowingly sell truck mafe for one market into another.

      As for trailers, they have never been banned, just lots of taxes/fees, and it will either need converted to 12volt, or you will need a box on your truck to convert 12 to 24

  • Is there a way to quantitize trucking accidents for comparison between North America and Europe? Could that be done in a meaningful way without looking ridiculous?

    Does there exist a database where an incident includes all of the major features of the involved trucking vehicle? Did it have a manual transmission? Was it a crashbox? What was the time of day and conditions of visibility? Were one or both drivers inebriated? If so, the case would have to be excluded.