Volvo building off-road track at Virginia truck plant to showcase vocational capabilities

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DUBLIN, Va. – Volvo Trucks North America is constructing a road course and vocational track at its New River Valley Truck Plant, where customers can put new vehicles through their paces with or without a commercial driver’s licence (CDL).

Work on the track began in the spring, after plant managers devised a plan to keep costs low while building a “state-of-the-art” facility.

Lars Blomberg, vice-president and general manager of the plant, said “It’s always difficult to get money approved, so we sat down together with the union and it turned out we have six to 10 people – maybe more – in the plant who are really skilled when it comes to driving excavators and graders. So we created a team of six people and we started to make some sketches and drawings of how it should look.”

Next, a call was placed to Volvo’s construction equipment group, and a good deal secured on equipment rentals. Before long, the dirt behind Volvo’s sprawling 1.6 million square foot truck plant was being rearranged and the track began to take shape.

Two months of near-steady rain slowed progress, but the track is now drivable, and on schedule to be completed by next summer. When complete, it will feature a 1.1-mile paved road course (with banked corners so trucks can easily achieve highway speeds) with an off-road vocational truck track within its perimeter. This marks the first time Volvo will have a place of its own to demonstrate the capabilities of its VHD vocational truck in an off-road environment. It also means customers – including fleet owners who may not have a CDL – will be able to get behind the wheel of Volvo vehicles without venturing onto the Interstate.

“We will keep an off-road section for our VHD, because we know we can talk a lot about the VHD and we can talk a lot about the I-Shift (automated manual transmission), but it’s a completely different thing when you use the I-Shift on a fully loaded dump truck,” Blomberg explained during an exclusive visit to the track. “I think you don’t realize the benefits of the I-Shift until you sit behind the wheel and try it.”

Though it’s still incomplete, Volvo recently gave a group of customers an opportunity to drive the track. Their reaction was “very, very positive,” Blomberg said, adding “I do believe this will sell a lot of trucks for us if we can get customers inside the truck and give them the complete customer experience.”

The facility had another important visitor in recent weeks; Olof Persson, Volvo’s global president and CEO, wasn’t apprised of the undertaking until he arrived at the plant for a visit.

“He liked it,” Blomberg said with some relief. “I took him out on it and he got an opportunity to drive it himself, and he really liked it.”

I also had the chance to drive the track, from behind the wheel of a Volvo VHD dump truck, powered by a D13 engine with 500 hp and 1,750 lb.-ft. of torque. The truck was equipped with Volvo’s I-Shift transmission, so I had the opportunity to see first-hand how several of the I-Shift’s features contribute to greater productivity and safety in construction applications.

Among the features I experienced were Power Launch (accelerating up an incline, out of a muddy mess) and a feature that allows the operator to rock the truck back and forth out of a sticky situation. This is achieved thanks to the incredibly quick clutch actuation, which allows for the transmission to alternate between reverse and forward gears almost instantly.

The VHD itself is a vehicle that probably doesn’t get as much attention as it deserves, overshadowed as it is in the construction market by the popular Granite, produced by sister company Mack. Among the VHD’s attributes are a wider cab than what is available with the Granite, and a large, one-piece windshield. The interior of the VHD is spacious and comfortable and it’s a handsome truck when viewed from the outside.

Another of the features that was apparent during my off-road drive was the articulation of the rear axles when crossing uneven terrain. This VHD rode on a 46K Volvo T-ride rear suspension.

The off-road section of the track includes grades of various lengths and pitches, some bumpy, rocky sections, dips of varying intimidation levels and lots of mud – Mother Nature’s contribution.

The I-Shift transmission can handle gross combination weights of up to 164,000 lbs, but Volvo has some reservations if it will be required to handle those types of loads in soft sand.

“You can do almost anything with this, but for dump applications the concern is where you want to take it and how soft the sand is where you want to take it,” explained John Moore, marketing product manager, powertrain. And unlike fully-automatic transmissions, the I-Shift can also be mated to engines that produce 1,850 lb.-ft. of torque.

The VHD has never reached its full potential in the vocational truck segment. But when Goran Nyberg was appointed Volvo’s North American president of sales and marketing last year, the vocational segment was one in which he asserted Volvo must become a stronger player. Volvo now has at its disposal a powerful tool with which it can demonstrate the capabilities of the VHD in a harsh, off-road environment that closely matches – or surpasses – those in which this truck will be asked to operate on a daily basis.

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