Stian Overdahl hands-on with the new FMX truck in Gothenburg, Sweden
Stian Overdahl had a hands-on test with the new FMX trucks for construction applications in a working hard rock quarry in Gothenburg, Sweden. The FMX range features boosted durability meshed with impressive high-tech solutions for improved driveability.
Volvo Trucks is in the process of a major regeneration of its vehicles, from the FH launched last year (and recent recipient of the Truck of the Year Award for 2014), to the new FMX, FM and FL and FE models – all launched in a single week in September for the European markets, with the Middle East launches coming in January.
Designed for the heavy work in the construction and quarrying sectors, the FMX is the rugged workhorse of the Volvo range, whether to be used as a tipper in a quarry, hauling aggregate to a construction site, or for applications such as concrete transit mixer and other custom options.
In Europe, the model launches have been in response to the new Euro 6 engine cleaner air emission requirements, but since this doesn’t affect the Middle East, the big news for the new FMX isn’t the engine. Rather, Volvo’s engineers have given the truck a solid overhaul, focusing both on brute strength – it features a strengthened cab made from high tensile steel, and includes a cast iron towing eye above the bumper capable of handling 32t – and high tech solutions to improve the driver’s experience.
Much of the interest around the new FMX’s launch concerns the truck’s new smart features, including the new Volvo Dynamic Steering, the air suspension on the rear axles, and of course the growing acceptance of the advantages of I-Shift, the automated transmission built by Volvo, and carefully mated with the D11 and D13 engines.
There’s also a few cosmetic improvements, such as the prominent placement of the Volvo ironmark logo above the bumper grille, while the newly designed bumper is made of tough material offering better crack resistance during low speed impacts, as well as parts that are very easy to remove and replace – the idea being a truck that still looks as good at the end of the day as the beginning.
Configuration-wise, the FMX is available in the usual axle ranges, including the 4×2 to 4×4, 6×2 to 6×6, and from 8×2 up to 8×6, plus the 10×4 with a whopping 66 tonnes GVW.
The range also sees the introduction of the new Tridem option, which offers a hydraulically steered rear tag axle, which can also be raised off the ground when the vehicle is not under load to save on wear, as well as when increased drive axle traction is needed for difficult operating conditions.
Volvo is not a company that does things by halves, and for journalists to get a hands on feel for the new vehicles they opened up two test tracks in a working quarry in Gothenburg, near the Volvo headquarters. The first track was ranged around the outside of the quarry, designed for experiencing typical rough-road conditions with speeds between 30-60km/h. The second track was the extreme driving track – which featured a mix of extreme conditions you might find on poorly maintained haul roads, from negotiating tight turns between high piles of crushed stone, steep hills, extremely broken terrain, and even huge holes filled with water. All the trucks were fully loaded.
The new Volvo Dynamic Steering is easily the stand out feature on the FMX. Think of it as power steering for ordinary power steering – a highly sophisticated addition to the steering mechanism that adds a layer of intelligence to the control of the vehicle. Volvo has produced a number of great movies around the launch of its new vehicles, and one of these shows a hamster wheel fixed to the steering wheel of a FMX in a quarry in Spain.
The hamster is placed into the wheel, and the ‘driver’ uses a carrot to attract the hamster back and forth, to the left and right – and it is the traction created by the small animal’s movement that steers the truck, along a very hazardous road with a 40m drop to a lake on one side. It neatly illustrates the advantage for the driver – far less effort is required to steer the vehicle, while it also mutes the sharp jolts to the wheel that are normally experienced when driving in rough conditions.
The Volvo Dynamic Steering works with an electric motor attached to the hydraulic steering gear. But it’s not simply a case of motorising the driver’s instructions, as the electric motor is regulated 2000 times per second by its electronic control unit (ECU), which receives information both from the driver and the on-board sensors, allowing it to detect and balance out directional deviations. The test conditions were a good opportunity to carry out a direct comparison between with the new steering system and the FMX specc’ed with conventional steering. The Dynamic Steering evidently makes steering a lot easier, with far less elbow grease required. This is most noticeable when driving on a severely uneven surface, of the type designed to test suspension longevity.
While the conventional power steering provides a good work-out for the arms and requires constant steering adjustment, the Dynamic Steering virtually controls the vehicle’s progress, and drivers can literally steer over the most unbalancing surface with only a finger (and no hands at all if travelling straight – the system will simply keep the vehicle on track). The other big improvement is that there’s far less ‘kick’ through the steering wheel when passing over broken terrain, and there’s no requirement to spend significant energy simply to keep the wheel in the correct position when moving straight ahead over uneven ground, as is normally the case.
On the open road the Dynamic Steering reduces any jarring of the wheel from potholes or irregularities, though it’s worth pointing out that the road is not entirely muted – there’s still good sensation of the surface (Dynamic Steering is also available on the FM, and will be available on the FH from next year).
Another driver-friendly feature of the system is that the steering wheel automatically returns to centre position, whether traveling forward or in reverse.
As far as a technology goes, the Dynamic Steering won’t save directly on fuel costs, but it makes for a far more relaxed and comfortable driving experience, leaving the driver with more mental space to focus on safety while driving, as well as keeping them refreshed and alert to the end of the shift – no doubt a boon to work site efficiency.
According to Volvo, the system addresses the most frequent occupational injuries suffered by commercial vehicle drivers. Further driver comfort is offered through the redesigned cab, with an increased angle on the instrument panel for easier access to the controls, and the ignition key moved to the dashboard to free up legroom. The cab is set low relative to the chassis, offering easier entry and egress, and improves driver visibility around the truck.
The new FMX also introduced rear axle air suspension as an option, improving comfort and performance both when loaded and unloaded, but crucially has an automatic ride-height control, with 300mm of ground clearance. And the approach angle has also been improved for the models with a driven front axle, which has been moved 100mm further forward to the same position as a non-driven front axle, while the parallel rod has also been moved up to a more protected location, resulting in a shorter front overhang for the 4×4, 6×6 and 8×6 configurations.
Volvo Trucks is keen that customers consider the advantages of its automated transmission, the I-Shift. While on long-haul road applications there are the obvious improvements in fuel efficiency, in the construction sector there are the added safety advantages of automated gearboxes, since drivers have more attention on their environment outside of the vehicle. It’s a message that’s gotten through to buyers in Europe, where in 2013, approximately 80% of FMX sold have been fitted with the I-Shift. On the new FMX it is now also available on the 4×4, 6×6 all-wheel drive vehicles, while its oil-change interval has been extended to 450,000km. Performance-wise, the I-Shift does its job, with smooth gear changes, so as to be almost unnoticeable by the driver, and excellent low-speed performance. Still, when hauling heavy loads up steep hills there are advantages of shifting into the manual mode and selecting a specific gear for the slope – the I-Shift can downshift if the revs drop too low or if there is a plateau on the hill and the revs climb, leading to a loss of power on the incline.
It’s worthwhile to point out that stalling the FMX on a hill isn’t the end of the world, even when fully loaded – the FMX features hill start assist, with several seconds of automatic braking until the accelerator is depressed, plus automatic braking if the truck starts to roll backwards. The I-Shift features two drive modes for the FMX, the standard Economy mode and the P+ mode, which is designed for extra power when driving with a heavy load in difficult terrain. The P+ mode works simply by reducing the number of gear changes, and only changing gears when in higher engine rev ranges, basically ensuring that engine revs are kept as high as possible, and without frequent gearshifts, ideal for when heavily loaded and on difficult terrain.
There’s no use of a hydraulic engine retarder on the Volvo Trucks, such is their confidence in the braking power of the disc brakes plus the engine brakes, and the engine brake can be controlled with a lever as to whether hard or soft braking is required. With the power of the engine brake, a hydraulic retarder can be considered an unnecessary additional cost.