Volvo VN780 Road Test: More than the sum of its parts

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GREENSBORO, N.C. — In the months leading up to the launch of EPA2010-compliant engines using selective catalytic reduction (SCR), much was made of the driver’s role in ensuring compliance by monitoring and maintaining diesel exhaust fluid (DEF) levels.

As if to apologize for imposing that minor inconvenience on drivers, Volvo has added several enhancements to its EPA2010 truck and engine combo that will more than compensate for the time and energy spent periodically replenishing DEF. Several new features will introduce new efficiencies into the driver’s day while also benefitting the owner’s pocketbook.

Chief among them is a handy new Pre-Trip Assistant, which automates cumbersome parts of the pre-trip inspection process, making it a simpler one-person job.


Pre-Trip Assistant

When activated, the Pre-Trip Assistant first checks the tractor and trailer’s entire lighting system for any electrical faults. It then notifies the driver if a problem is detected via the in-dash driver message centre.

The system will also notify you if a lamp is out, but not the specific bulb – the driver will have to get out of the truck to determine which bulb needs to be replaced.

The Pre-Trip Assistant will also cycle through the lights so a driver doesn’t have to return to the cab multiple times as he or she completes the walk-around. Activating the system will cause it to cycle through (left signal, right signal then four-ways as well as high and low beams) so the driver can check all the lights in a single lap around the vehicle. It’s important to note, the Pre-Trip Assistant is just that – an assistant. It’s not designed to replace a walk-around and complete inspection, just to help streamline the process.

The new feature also includes an air leak monitor that helps the driver complete an air brake system check. It instructs the driver to depress the brake and then it provides a one-minute countdown and displays the pressure and the pressure drop between the primary and secondary systems, Volvo Trucks’ Frank Bio explained before we headed out on the highway for a test drive in North Carolina.

“It would show you how much the pressure went down in that one minute and whether it passed or failed the test,” Bio said as he demonstrated the system. “You don’t have to watch the gauge, it will tell you all that information.”

Before we hit the road, I noticed a couple interesting items on the exterior of the VN (a VNL64T780, to be precise).

One item of interest was a new integrated fifth wheel from Fontaine, available as an option exclusively through Volvo- at least for the next year. The fifth wheel saves about 100 lbs by eliminating parts and using the existing truck frame for support. Volvo helped develop the fifth wheel (hence the exclusivity), which turned out to be a nice marriage since Volvo’s frame has a consistent stiffness from front to back, Bio pointed out. The integrated fifth wheel is suitable for on-highway applications and is one way to gain back some of the payload lost to the new SCR-related components.

Another interesting feature on the exterior was an adjustable trim tab roof fairing extender mounted to the back of the cab which can be raised or lowered to optimize air flow over the trailer. Bio explained the system is designed for companies that can’t optimize their trailer gap, which in a perfect world would be less than 40 inches.

“As the air passes over the roof of the vehicle, this pulls the air down and matches the top of the trim to the top of the trailer,” Bio explained. A diagram on the back indicates which groove the trim tab should be set at, depending on the trailer height and the gap between the cab and trailer.

“A lot of people think what you’re trying to do is push the air over the top of the trailer, but in reality what you’re trying to do is bring the air down to the trailer so it flows evenly across the top of the trailer,” Bio explained. “If you push it up high, it goes up and then tumbles along the top of the trailer and that creates drag.”
The adjustable trim tab is an inexpensive option, costing about a couple hundred bucks. It would be rendered pretty much ineffective on our drive, however, since we were pulling a lowboy trailer with a Volvo loader that was not exactly aerodynamic, or lightweight, for that matter. We grossed 80,000 lbs on the button as we pulled out of the Volvo parking lot.

Inside the cab, the Volvo we were driving was equipped with an optional battery-powered no-idle cab comfort system that provides heating and cooling. It also came with the Bendix SmarTire tire pressure monitoring system which has been integrated into Volvo’s driver information display.

The VN also had a heated windshield, designed to prevent snow and ice accumulation while driving – another option that’ll be useful in Canada if not on our five-hour drive through the rollings hills of North Carolina.


On the road

From a performance perspective, the transition to EPA2010 will be pretty much seamless for the driver. There VN I was driving had a gauge on the dash that displayed DEF fluid levels. If not for that, it would be impossible to determine it had a 2010 engine under the hood.  The needle on that gauge, incidentally, barely budged over the course of several hours of driving.

While Volvo engineers were busy developing their EPA2010 solution, they still found time to build some new enhancements into the engine.

Volvo engines now come with a feature called Eco-Torque, which automatically switches between two torque outputs in the top two gears, depending on driving conditions.

The 500-hp D13 I was driving, for instance, was rated at 1,550-1,750 lb.-ft. torque.  In the lower gears it always had the full 1,750 lb.-ft. of torque but in the top two gears where the upper range was no longer required, the engine utilized only 1,550 lb.-ft. of the available torque. When driving situations necessitated a boost, like when pulling a long grade, Eco-Torque kicks in, providing a 200 lb.-ft. boost and making the full 1,750 lb.-ft. available.

Volvo’s powertrain manager Ed Saxman, describes Eco-Torque  as a “new software personality.” An attentive driver will be able to feel when Eco-Torque has been engaged and may even notice the needle jump slightly on the boost pressure gauge. Saxman said Eco-Torque saves fuel by keeping allowing the transmission to remain in top gear under conditions that would normally warrant a downshift.

When the extra torque is no longer required, the engine reverts back to its normal operating characteristics; in our case it once again becomes a 500-hp, 1,550 lb.-ft. engine.


On an Eco-Roll

During my drive through the beautiful rolling hills of North Carolina, there were plenty of opportunities to experience the Eco-Roll feature built into the I-Shift transmission. Eco-Roll, active only when cruise is set, saves fuel by allowing the engine to free-roll in certain situations, such as when descending a long, gradual grade. It’s ideal in terrain with rolling hills and kicked in frequently during my drive.

You can tell Eco-Roll is functioning when the needle on the tach drops and the engine noise cuts out. Miles run with Eco-Roll active are basically free miles. Volvo likens the feature to riding a bicycle downhill – why spend energy pedaling when simple physics will work in your favour and get you down the hill effortlessly?

With Eco-Roll active, I sometimes had to avoid the temptation to get back on the throttle a little sooner than the engine wanted to kick back in. It seemed to me that we lost a little too much momentum before the engine re-engaged. I mentioned this to Saxman and he assured me otherwise. A great deal of engineering went into determining when the engine should re-engage, he told me.

Why must we always try to outsmart the electronics? Another noticeable improvement is that the Volvo’s cruise is less aggress
ive than it once was. It used to charge back up to the set cruise speed quite aggressively, now it makes the climb more gradually, saving fuel as a result.


Safety features

The truck I was driving was equipped with several safety systems, including Volvo Enhanced Cruise (VEC) – Volvo’s version of the Bendix Wingman Active Cruise with Braking system. VEC provides audible alerts when following a vehicle too closely. The warning point can be customized, but the default following distance is 2.8 seconds.

I admit I triggered a few alarms, but it wasn’t my fault – I swear! It was mostly due to aggressive motorists pulling in front of me. I can see how VEC would improve truck safety, especially when the driver is drowsy, the eyelids are getting heavy and the attention span is waning.

The high-pitched alarm is enough to jolt a driver from a restful state – and probably even a sound sleep. The shrill beeps may not be appreciated by the sleeping member of a team, especially when the alarms are inevitable such as when navigating heavy traffic. It would seem VEC is best-suited for single drivers at this point. In addition to providing audible alerts, VEC can also intervene with active braking when a collision is immiment.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to put that particular functionality to the test.

The VN I drove also came with the Vorad radar side-detection system that sounds an alarm if the right turn signal is activated while there’s a vehicle alongside the truck or trailer. This blind side detector provides peace of mind just by being there, provided of course, that the driver is signaling lane changes.


SCR inducement strategies

The fact I was driving an EPA2010-compliant vehicle was, quite frankly, forgettable, since the SCR system went about its business completely transparently.

Much has been made about how regulators would ensure truckers keep their DEF tanks filled, thereby allowing the SCR system to do its job. Volvo has gone to great lengths to ensure that when an engine is derated due to insufficient DEF levels, it will only do so where there’s DEF available.

But if you ever find yourself in a derate situation, you may be better served parking the truck and throwing the key into the nearest river, because you probably shouldn’t be driving in the first place.  You’d have to willfully ignore a whole lot of audible and visual warnings before the truck is actually derated.

The first line of defense comes in the form of that new gauge on the dash that displays DEF levels at all times. The VN780 we drove was fitted with an 18.5-gallon DEF tank that weighs about 160 lbs when full and should last about 4,000 miles before requiring a refill. A blue cap ensures drivers don’t mistakenly fill the DEF tank with diesel fuel and in case they should try, the neck has been designed so it’s too narrow to fit a standard diesel nozzle. Someone, somewhere will inevitably put diesel in the DEF tank but there’s really no excuse.

When DEF levels dip below the quarter tank mark, drivers will receive an alert via Volvo’s standard in-dash message centre and a lamp on the dash will light up.

The pop-up alert on the driver message centre can be programmed to appear in French or English and will be accompanied by an audible alert, making it difficult to miss. It will remain there until the driver acknowledges it by pressing the Escape button on the control stalk.

If the driver chooses to ignore these warnings, the engine will eventually be derated by 25% – enough to get the driver’s attention but not render the vehicle undrivable. The driver will also be warned that a 5 mph maximum speed will be imposed if DEF isn’t soon added. But even when the 5 mph major inducement is armed and loaded, it won’t be activated until triggered by the addition of diesel fuel, Saxman explained, so in theory DEF should be readily available.

“The mere fact you just put diesel fuel in the truck means you are either at a truck stop or perhaps at your home facility. Either way there’s likely DEF on-site,” Saxman explained. “Not only do we not shut the truck down, when we get a major inducement on a Volvo truck, it happens at a truck stop. But by this time, the driver has ignored a whole lot of clues that he needs to add this stuff. So far, we haven’t had anybody run out of DEF on a highway.”



Somewhere along I-40 near Greensboro, it occurred to me that this was more than just a test drive, it was also a lesson in the benefits of vertical integration. Some of the more advanced features offered in the I-Shift are only possible as a result of the high level of integration between engine and transmission.

And the safety systems such as Volvo Enhanced Cruise, or for that matter the tire pressure monitoring system on the truck I drove, were also fully-integrated into the vehicle with messages appearing on Volvo’s in-dash message centre, thus reducing the potential for driver distraction.

Even the fifth wheel, built by Fontaine but fully integrated into the Volvo chassis, provided benefits such as weight savings, which will be ever-important going forward as manufacturers try to claw back payload lost to the hefty SCR system, which, while packaged cleanly, still adds several hundred pounds.

Now that Volvo can finally move beyond preparing for 2010 and focus on developing new enhancements and exploring how they can mine further benefits from the sophisticated integration of their powertrain products, I’m excited to see what they’ll come up with next.

– Want a chance to drive the same truck I drove? You’ll get your chance when the Volvo Driving Success Tour reaches Canada later this year. For a complete schedule, visit

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