Navistar Product Development Exec Talks Advanced Truck Technology

November 14, 2018 by Cyndia Zwahlen

Next-generation powertrains and automated truck technologies are at the center of Navistar International Corp.’s drive for continual improvement in vehicle uptime for its customers.

The Lisle, Ill.-based truck and engine maker, which estimates its 2018 revenue will be around $10 billion, produces the International brand of commercial and military trucks as well as school buses and proprietary diesel engines.

Dennis Mooney, Navistar’s group vice president of global product development, sat down with to discuss the company’s advanced technologies aimed at boosting truck safety and reliability.

Dennis Mooney, Navistar (Photo: Navistar)

Mooney, who spent 31 years at General Motors prior to joining Navistar in 2009, also talked about the company’s electric mobility efforts and some of the hurdles facing autonomous trucks.

Here is an edited version of the conversation.

What advanced technologies are your team focused on developing?

The technologies that we are focused on are pretty consistent with what the company is focused on — technology that helps deliver on one of the company’s mantras, which is having our trucks on the road all of the time, or uptime.

Safety technology is very important — collision mitigation, for example. Connected-vehicles technologies are important because in our view, our OnCommand Connect remote diagnostic system is an uptime enabler. Maybe at the bleeding edge is electrification and automated or autonomous driving technologies.

Note: Navistar’s OnCommand Connect system provides fleet manager vehicle performance in real time to monitor problems remotely and stay ahead of any potential issues.

Are customers willing to pay for the added expense of advanced tech options?

I know for a fact that the take-rate for collision mitigation on our heavy trucks has gone from 40 percent to 70 percent in the last 18 months.

How do you juggle actual customer demand for advanced tech trucks — which can be expensive — and investment in future technologies?

I like to think that everything we do from a product development or engineering spend is geared toward developing things that our customers want. One of the things we try to do, and sometimes it is challenging, is try to stay as close as we can to our customer.

Take electric trucks. They think they want them, but they are not quite sure how they are going to use them. We know from a greenhouse gas and emissions standpoint there is a strong drive to get to zero emissions. So, we have to help our customers. There is a fine line.

Like the safety technology. Originally they didn’t know what they wanted, until they bought it, experienced it, used it and liked it.

How has Navistar’s partnership with Volkswagen Truck & Bus, now Traton, impacted your advanced technology efforts?

That has been a big enhancement to our technology efforts because, if you think about Traton, it owns two heavy global truck companies: Scania in Sweden and MAN in Germany. It’s based in Europe and sells primarily in Europe, but also in South America and Asia. [The partnership] opens the door to a lot of global technology and access to things Traton is working on and, in many cases, take a radar or digital camera, it gives us more scale and better capability and performance.

Any new clean-fuel engine developments in the works?

We are more focused on electric mobility than we are clean fuel. We are pretty much focused on diesel. We have propane in our school buses.

We are working heavily on electric mobility and working with our partner, Traton, on that. We have an electric school bus that we’ve been showing school districts. And we made an announcement that we plan to have some production of those in 2020.

What needs to happen to pave the way for widespread use of electric trucks?

There are two big issues that need to be addressed to help make this commercial. No. 1 is the cost of batteries. The cost and the weight of the batteries. To move a big truck or school bus, you’ve got to have a pretty big battery. But battery costs are coming down rapidly. We think for applications like school buses, it will be viable in the next two years.

Then there is the infrastructure. You need to charge all these batteries. Having battery charging readily available so that you can pull in and, with a high-voltage charger, charge your battery in a very short period of time is needed.

Where do you see electric-powered engines being most useful?

School buses. In many cases, they don’t drive many miles. They might drive 60 miles a day. They come back from their morning run and park before the afternoon run. So they can actually charge during the day and overnight. That is a perfect application.

Also, medium-duty trucks and pickup and delivery trucks. A lot of those trucks are working during the day and sit at night.

What about the role of electric trucks at the ports?

Port and drayage is the third area we will develop – you will see something in less than 12 months.

At the California ports – Los Angeles or Long Beach – the sea containers come in and they take them 30 or 40 miles to a warehouse and de-can them. The trucks are driving back and forth and don’t run many miles during the day. They also don’t run at night.

What’s next with Navistar’s advanced technology efforts?

In the heavy-truck business today, lane-keeping assist is probably the next step. We have lane-keeping warning today. If a truck starts to wander out of its lane, part of our safety system is a beeper that will go off and alert the driver. Some of that is to prevent drowsing.

Today we have hydraulic steering on heavy trucks. We are working on what we call active steering where the truck could steer you back into your lane. Passenger cars can do that.

That’s really the next evolution in the truck business. We have to have an electric assist for the truck to be able to steer on its own. Today that is not available in the U.S., but we are working on that.

What are some other hurdles to autonomous trucks?

The real challenge is redundancy of the safety system. If you have an electronic failure today on brakes, the driver can still mechanically hit the pedal. But if that happened on an autonomous truck, how will you stop the truck? You have to have basically a duplicate electrical system, a duplicate braking system, so if you have an electric failure you can still stop.

Is a driverless truck a realistic or desirable goal?

We are not an advocate of taking the driverless route at this point. But when you think about hours of service [rules] and making it easier to drive the truck and safety and some of the hours-of-service limitations, these safety technologies could conceivably allow drivers to drive for longer periods of time and increase freight efficiency.

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