Despite all the industry buzz today about autonomous technology and futuristic designs, trucks still need to work hard in tough surroundings. That's a theme clearly on display with Volvo's new VNR tractor, unveiled earlier this year at the ExpoCam show in Canada.
The truck targets the rapidly evolving regional-haul business model, but this is not a radical design by any means. Rather, the truck is more of a distillation of everything Volvo has learned over decades of vehicle design, combined with the latest in ergonomics, connectivity, and advanced technology. The result is a highly capable urban delivery system that is optimized for uptime, productivity, and safety.
I'm writing this having just completed a route through the center of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, in a new VNR to see for myself how Volvo is approaching the changing demands of completing inner-city deliveries.
The truck itself is loaded with new technology. But the new tech isn't overwhelming or even all that evident while you're driving. It's more accurate to say Volvo engineers have scaled the technology in a way that consistently complements or aids drivers, as opposed to demanding their attention or attempting to do tasks for them.
Volvo engineers started with the basics. The VNR features outstanding sight lines anywhere a driver looks. Normally, when I talk about sight lines, I'm referring to exterior views to the front, sides and rear of a truck. But Volvo has taken this a step further with the introduction of a new, tilt-neck steering wheel.
It's a pretty slick system all the way around. Depress a foot pedal at the base of the steering column all the way to the floor and the wheel assembly easily pivots up or down, as well as in or out, in an infinite number of positions for optimal driver comfort. Bring the pedal up to the halfway point, and the wheel also breaks at the neck, allowing you to pivot to it up or down in relation to the dashboard. The result is an extremely comfortable steering position and an unimpeded field of view to the main instrument cluster and driver information display.
The new "Position Perfect" steering wheel also features 18 controls that give drivers quick and easy access to a multitude of functions, from cruise control to the stereo to making phone calls.
The driver information systems and controls have been rethought as well to make them easier and more intuitive to use. Gone are the days of endlessly backing out of a rabbit hole of menu choices to get back to a home page. And drivers can now easily configure the center-dash screen to display whatever vehicle systems they prefer to monitor and check at a glance.
There are seven new seating options for the VNR, including a refrigerated option. But even the entry-level seat choices provide excellent ride cushioning and lumbar support. And the cab itself is wonderfully quiet. Partly this is the result of a lot of powertrain and cab tweaking by Volvo engineers. But sometimes the most effective fixes are also the simplest ones: A surprisingly thick, new, rubber floor mat is standard on the VNR. In additional to providing an extra degree of cushion under the driver's feet, the mat serves as an impressively effective sound barrier that knocks out much of the ambient powertrain and road noise that usually bubbles up from underneath a truck into the cab.
The VNR is a big truck, yet surprisingly nimble on its feet in tight city traffic. It darts around construction crews, trash trucks and parked cars with surprising ease. And its deep 50-degree wheel cuts handle tight, right-angle turns with ease.
Volvo says an amazing 90% of its new trucks are going out the factory door these days with I-Shift automated manual transmissions, and it’s easy to understand why. Combined with a 425-hp D11 diesel, the powertrain delivers a surprising amount of low-end pop that easily got the 46,500 pounds in the pup trailer behind me up and moving.
Out on the road is where the old and new blend together seamlessly in the new Volvo VNR. The truck has a light touch at both highway and city speeds and is an outstanding example of how technology can be put to work enhancing the practical, real-world demands made on both trucks and drivers day in and day out.
More driving impressions from Senior Editor Jack Roberts and Equipment Editor Jim Park will appear be in the July issue of Heavy Duty Trucking magazine.