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Younger operators, and demand for greater efficiencies drives vocational truck design

By Nate Hendley   

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What have been the biggest design trends in vocational trucks in recent years?

John Felder, product marketing manager for Volvo Trucks, headquartered in Greensboro, N.C., offers a few suggestions. Felder cites new engine exhaust emission devices, growth in telematics, safety system improvements, a movement towards LED lighting and automated manual transmissions (AMTs). Of these trends, the growing popularity of AMTs is arguably the most far-reaching. 

“The biggest change in vocational truck design is the embrace of non-manual transmissions … non-manual transmissions have more than quadrupled in vocational Peterbilts since 2011,” states Charlie Cook, vocational product manager at Peterbilt Motors Company, based in Denton, Texas.

More than half (54 per cent) of 2016 Peterbilt trucks were made with automatic or automated manual transmissions, notes Cook. 


“AMTs continue to grow in popularity, thanks to the numerous benefits they deliver in terms of productivity, safety and performance for the customer,” echoes Tim Wrinkle, construction product manager for Mack Trucks based in Greensboro, N.C.

“Mack just introduced our mDRIVE HD AMT in 2015, and we’re already seeing penetration of about 20 per cent in our Mack Granite model. With the addition of our mDRIVE HD 13- and 14-speed models with creeper gears, we continue to see that percentage grow. The Mack mDRIVE HD 13-speed is now standard in Mack Granite models,” continues Wrinkle.

The move from manual “is clearly a trend and the Volvo I-Shift automated manual transmission is being demanded by many of our customers … automated manual transmissions are gaining market share,” states Felder. “The transmission is a key component and very dependent on the vocational application. Volvo recently introduced crawler gears for the I-Shift transmission, extending the transmission’s capabilities and making automated manual transmissions available to additional vocational applications.”

Demographics plays a major part in the trend towards automated manual transmissions. It’s easier to train new drivers—who aren’t typically keen on using manual transmissions—with AMTs.

“The driver workforce is an aging pool. As younger, less experienced drivers are entering the workforce, the growth of AMTs and automatic transmissions increases. Fleet managers are supportive of non-manual transmissions with the recent improvements in dependability and durability … fleet and owner-operator customers alike have moved toward automatic and automated manual transmissions to improve driver recruitment,” says Cook.

Mary Aufdemberg, director of product marketing for Freightliner Trucks, a division of Daimler Trucks North America, headquartered in Portland, Ore., offers a slightly contrary view.

“While the transition to automated transmissions is a growing trend in vocational trucks for a number of reasons, the biggest trend in vocational truck design are elements that improve the real cost of ownership, such as ease of up-fit and serviceability, enhanced driver productivity and the engineering of increased levels of quality into the truck, which translates into greater reliability and durability,” states Aufdemberg.

Customers are requesting vocational trucks that are more appealing and productive for drivers. “Truck manufacturers like Freightliner are responding by designing the truck to be more conducive to the needs of the driver,” adds Aufdemberg.

Safety first

As far as Cook is concerned, AMTs go a long way in addressing the needs of the driver. “Contractors are pushing for more comfort and safety in today’s vocational applications. Automatic and automated manual transmissions provide increased comfort, as well as interior amenities,” he states.

Despite her views, Aufdemberg agrees that recent vocational truck design changes have been largely centered on high-tech features. “From the powertrain to safety systems to telematics, electronics are dominating all aspects of truck design,” she states.

In addition to driver comfort and ease, design changes to vocational trucks reflect more awareness of driver safety. Safety features such as adaptive cruise control, telematics/camera systems, collision avoidance systems, tire pressure management, etc., are becoming more common.

According to Cook, Peterbilt was the first in the industry to offer air disc brakes on vocational trucks. Along the way, Peterbilt added other safety features such as collision avoidance and tire pressure management.

“Peterbilt recently introduced the Bendix Wingman Fusion system for the Model 567, which is an advanced driver assistance safety system that includes lane departure warning, enhanced collision mitigation and in-lane object recognition,” states Cook.

Peterbilt also offers SmartLINQ technology, which “complements fleet management operations with real-time notifications of a vehicle’s onboard diagnostics system service event. The technology assists with maximized uptime, on-time deliveries, streamlined service management and truck performance,” he adds.

“In terms of safety features, roll stability systems and disc brakes are features that are gaining in popularity. Camera systems are used regularly in our cabover TerraPro and LR models as well,” says Wrinkle.

Mack’s integrated telematics solution, GuardDog Connect, comes standard “on our Mack Pinnacle, Granite, TerraPro concrete pumper and Titan by Mack models. GuardDog Connect allows us to monitor vehicle data in real-time and identify potential issues before they lead to unplanned downtime. If an issue is detected, GuardDog Connect notifies our Mack OneCall agents, a customer’s designated decision-maker and the closest dealer. Parts and service bay availability are also confirmed automatically, all while the truck is still on the road,” adds Wrinkle.

Freightliner is also on the cutting-edge when it comes to dealing with safety issues and vehicle maintenance.   

“All Freightliner vocational trucks are equipped with a Detroit engine feature Detroit Connect Virtual Technician remote diagnostic service. The core functionality of Virtual Technician is valuable for fleets of all applications. Its ability to categorize engine and after-treatment faults help to avoid unnecessary visits to a shop, ensuring the truck continues working at the job site, or deliveries can be made on time,” explains Aufdemberg.

Should a serious issue arise, the diagnostic service alerts the fleet right away, so a decision can be made quickly where to take the vehicle in question to get repaired, she adds.

Such elaborate onboard systems are popular with new drivers, “many of whom are demanding increased connectivity in their vehicles,” notes Felder.

Vocational trucks aren’t generally designed to make long journeys. That said, there is a definite trend towards improving engines and reducing weight to enhance fuel economy.

“Vocational fleets are emphasizing decreasing weight and increasing payload to become more productive. Vocational fleets are also interested in the latest technologies and that may include changing specs as a way to reduce weight. The newer engines are more efficient so vocational fleets don’t necessarily need to compromise on horsepower,” says Aufdemberg.

While fuel economy may be an issue in some cases, “most [vocational trucks] do not travel great distances. The predominant fuel use is during vocational operation and idling. The primary function of a vocational truck is to perform a task, which means engines are sized to the vocation. For customers seeking a smaller-displacement engine, Volvo offers the 11-liter D11 with up to 425 horsepower,” adds Felder.

“Peterbilt’s vocational customers are moving toward the lighter, more efficient engines,” states Cook.

He says Peterbilt offers proprietary PACCAR MX-13 and MX-11 engines that “optimize performance and improve fuel economy while achieving EPA emission requirements. YTD 2016, nearly half of Peterbilt trucks have been spec’d with a proprietary engine option.”

As for Mack Trucks: “the 11-liter Mack MP7 engine is very popular with vocational customers and has been well received in the vocational segment,” notes Wrinkle.

Vehicle 2 Vehicle (V2V) communication is another popular concept in truck circles. V2V systems allow trucks to automatically share operational data with fleet vehicles traveling nearby.

Talking trucks

V2V systems “are not common yet, but we are exploring the benefits customers might gain with this type of technology,” states Wrinkle.

Aufdemberg says much the same, noting Daimler Trucks is investigating the use of V2V technology as the industry tries to develop standards for such communication.

The ideal V2V scenario—which might come soon—would involve vocational trucks ‘talking’ to each other on jobsites with an eye to boosting productivity. A mixer could offer instant updates on the progress of a job, say, laying a concrete foundation and notify nearby dump trucks when additional supplies were required.

The addition of space-age features isn’t the only design trend in vocational trucks.


Asked about ‘low-tech’ design trends, Felder says, “disc brakes are being requested at a higher percentage in vocational models. Twin steer is also becoming more prevalent in North America.”

As for the northern part of the continent, vocational truck makers sometimes receive specialized design requests from Canadian customers. “Our neighbours in the north have different requirements for some vocations. The differences typically are heavier operational loads,” states Felder.

“Peterbilt is sensitive to Canadian requirements. To best serve these customers, we offer a variety of axle placements to meet weight law requirements,” says Cook.

“Our Canadian customers are impacted by different weight laws and climate, which drive different specs but the technologies used are the same,” observes Wrinkle.

Industry experts were asked what forces are pushing design trends in vocational trucks.

“These trends are being driven in part by legislative requirements and a continuing shortage of drivers,” says Felder.

Key forces influencing design trends include “new drivers, safety concerns, regulations and an increase in data-savvy customers,” add Wrinkle.

For his part, Cook cites “fuel economy” as “one of the primary driving forces in the trucking industry.”

As for future design trends, expect a continued emphasis on V2V communication, telematics, lighter, better engines and especially, automated manual transmissions, to accommodate young drivers, increase productivity, save costs and satisfy government regulators.

“Additional technologies will better connect drivers, fleet managers and customers, and will drive the biggest efficiencies as we look forward,” concludes Wrinkle.

Nate Hendley is a Toronto-based freelance writer and editor. Send comments to


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