Three’s a Charm

Freightliner Trucks says it created two new truck platforms when it decided to split its Century Class line. One, the Columbia, is a rock-solid premium highway tractor aimed at owners who want a flash of chrome and bombproof performance. The second, the Century Class S/T, incorporates high-tech features designed to bring a higher degree of safety and productivity to the truck-and end some of the engineering snafus brought on by a bolt-on approach to these products.

In truth, it’d be more fitting to call the trucks springboards than platforms.

In fact, you can look at the S/T (“safety/technology”) as being an extension of the Century Class, while the Columbia is a brand-new truck. “There will no longer be a Century Class,” said Freightliner Trucks president Jim Hebe at the trucks’ introduction to the press in Dallas last month. “There will be a Century Class S/T and there will be a Columbia.”

There will also be an FLD, the hard-nosed truck Freightliner drove to class-8 prominence throughout much of the decade. It will stay in the stable as the company’s low-cost, no-frills, over-the-road workhorse. It gives Freightliner the enviable position of having three distinct class-8 conventional platforms to sell to the fleet market, as well as the only heavy-duty cabover around in the Argosy, introduced last year.

In that mix, the Columbia seems to be the ideal intermediate truck. It incorporates elements of the old Century Class, notably a large, aerodynamic, aluminum cab; 120-inch BBC, a set-back front axle; and seven cab and sleeper configurations, including a 70-inch raised-roof sleeper. Among the key differences are a new front frame and crossmember assembly that can cradle a 1350-square-inch aluminum radiator and accommodate the industry’s biggest diesels.

Most changes, however, aren’t meant to be so subtle: the Columbia’s nose has a flashy new chrome grille treatment framed by tear-drop headlights inherited from the Mercedes Benz M-Class car.

Beginning production next April, the Columbia is designed to compete in vocation and in price with other premium highway trucks, chiefly Volvo’s VN and Kenworth’s T2000, but at perhaps 2% above the price of an FLD.

“This truck is a dealer’s dream, because it bridges the gap so well between the FLD and the S/T,” says Bob Cariglia, manager of marketing for Freightliner Trucks. “We’re staking out that middle ground with a truck that’s better than the premium trucks our competitors are putting onto the market.”

That should allow Freightliner to steam ahead with some of the safety-related technologies its wants to explore on the S/T without imposing development costs on customers who aren’t interested in those specs.

Positioned as Freightliner’s top-end tractor, the S/T has an array of passive and active safety systems, including a driver’s air bag and an automated transmission (the Eaton Fuller Autoshift) as standard. Freightliner also unveiled a new shifter: SmartShift, a paddle mounted on the steering column which lets the driver change gears by flicking his finger.

Other standard enhancements include a data logger that records operational data, with a snapshot feature that captures operating parameters for a minute before and a minute after a fault code is logged. That way the service technician can retrieve the data most pertinent to the problem.

The driver’s message centre is configured to display fuel economy and performance information from the engine as well as diagnostic alerts from throughout the truck. Customers no longer have to buy separate dash displays for each system, including the optional Eaton VORAD collision avoidance system, satellite-communication alerts, and starter lockouts. An outside air temperature sensor can alert drivers to freezing conditions at the road level.

The S/T, available in 120-inch and 112-inch BBC, will begin production in January 2000. “We’re taking a leadership role here,” says Hebe. “It’s like when we looked at anti-lock braking systems several years ago. We decided as a company that the only way to make advancements in this industry is to bring the price of the technology down. So we took the initiative.”

Hebe cites the decision to make AutoShift, spec’d on maybe 20% of Freightliner’s trucks and not an obvious safety item, as a good example.

“Does an automated transmission help improve safety? You bet. It reduces fatigue and keeps the driver’s hands on the wheel. The problem is, like so much of what we’re looking at, customers believe it’s not immediately affordable. By making it standard across our entire highway product line, we’ll see a bump up in the numbers that will begin to bring the price down, as we did with ABS. If you want to know the real truth of the matter, it’s more of a cultural, corporate integrity decision that one of overwhelming demand in the marketplace.”

Standard items-easily deleted though they may be-will boost the price of the S/T by about 10% more than a current Century Class tractor. It remains to be seen whether customers will pay it. And that raises questions about whether safety alone can be a selling point for truck fleets.

“Let’s be fair here,” says Cariglia. “Everyone builds a safe truck. You can spec a Columbia with many of the safety features available on the S/T if you prefer the look of that truck. It also has a cab that passes all of the European and North American crash-safety tests and offers unmatched visibility. Inherent in the structure of that cab alone you’ve got a very safe vehicle, and you can never change that.”

The key difference between the Columbia and S/T, he says, is that the safety measures being offered are integrated with the S/T’s design.

“Some of our customers appreciate the advances in on-board safety technology, but haven’t bought into them and never will until they’re legislated,” Cariglia says. “Others are in wait-and-see mode.”

Who can blame them? No manufacturer has brought a truck to market that’s been designed with high-tech safety products-and how the driver will react to them-in mind from the start. “These aren’t gimmicks,” Cariglia says. “We’re working with suppliers who provide quality products and the research and engineering capabilities to continually enhance them.”

Now we’ll see how buyers react.

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