Fearless Fleet

We like to find out about things for ourselves, through our own experience, rather than relying on rumors and other peoples' negative perceptions," says David Williams. He's referring to negative perceptions of the 2007 model diesel engines that will be hitting the streets in a few months—negative perceptions that could lead to a repeat of October 2002, when fears about new diesel engine technology led to a precipitous slowdown of new heavy truck sales.

Williams is vice president of equipment and maintenance for Phoenix, AZ-based Knight Transportation, and since June of 2005 he has been overseeing the testing of a 2007-spec' Volvo VN with a 2007-spec' Cummins ISX engine, running on 2007-spec' ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel (ULSD). When he discusses the experience of testing the new engine, with its new blend of fuel and its new aftertreatment system, he gives off an air of confidence: his company will be able to make its 2007 purchasing decisions based on real-world experience, not rumors and fears.


The key to the success of Knight Transportation's testing experience lies in its close relationship with engine supplier Cummins Inc. "Our two companies are joined together at many different levels," Williams says. At the most basic level, Knight runs the vast majority of its 3,500 tractors on Cummins ISX engines. At the next level, Knight hauls freight for Cummins. Beyond that, Knight staffers serve on advisory boards for the engine company, and Cummins has provided its own quality experts to assist Knight in achieving Six Sigma quality standards. To say that Cummins is a presence at Knight Transportation's maintenance operations is an understatement: on the day that Fleet Maintenance visited Knight's headquarters in Phoenix, two representatives— a Cummins Southwest division factory manager and a territory manager, Cummins Rocky Mountain—were on-site, and a technician from the local Phoenix Cummins dealer had his service truck pulled up to one of the maintenance bays to work on a Knight tractor.


"Cummins is very involved with Six Sigma," Williams says. "They have lent their expertise to us, to help us with some of our issues. The first project we did was actually directly related with Cummins, addressing our fuel economy. They came in with some of their Six Sigma experts and helped devise a 'black belt' project that would help us to identify some things that would help us with our fuel economy. It ended up opening our eyes to some things that we hadn't really considered before.

"We've also invested a significant amount of time in helping them develop their products, giving them feedback, helping them understand what we're looking for, what's important," Williams says. "When you're developing a product, there are different choices you have to make, whether you go down this path or that path. We've helped them to understand which path, to us, is most valuable, and they've made decisions based on a lot of that input."

BACK TO 2002

Knight also field tested a new Cummins '02 ISX engine before they went to market, and that experience helped pave the way for the current test. In that earlier test, time considerations led to compromise: most notably, the 2002 engine, with its exhaust gas recirculation (EGR) system, was retrofitted into an earlier model truck. That's not a good recipe for a foolproof test, but it had to do, and both Knight and Cummins learned from the experience.

"You've got to go back to our experience in 2002," Williams says. "We got involved early. With the 2002 engines, that was a fairly significant change to the base engine. In other words, you were adding several components that hadn't been there before. Exhaust gas recirculation (EGR) was something that was new and significant to the engine. New turbos were coming on. There was a lot of new hardware and software that was unproven, and so that was really a bigger deal to us than 2007."

To complicate matters further, 2002 was when Knight switched from the N14 to the ISX engine platform. Unfortunately for both companies, the 2002 testing uncovered problems that continued to be issues after the engines had gone into production. "After '02, we did see our share of little glitches that occurred," Williams says. "A lot of them were electrical; a lot were EGR valves that we had issues with."


For the 2007 engine test, there was no retrofitting involved. "This truck was engineered with the engine, instead of having a retrofit situation where you had to weld a bunch of parts together," Williams says. "So, we've got a current chassis, we've got a current cooling package, we've got the aftertreatment and the engine all combined in a package that should be the same as the package that comes out in 2007.

"There are two things in particular that Volvo has done to their chassis," he continues. "Number one is they've opened up the airflow. In other words, they've widened the opening where airflow comes in. It's a slightly larger front grille; you'd never even notice the difference. And number two, they've got a wider radiator. My understanding is that that's going to be a common solution among the OEMs."

Since June, 2005, that truck has been making a regular run between Phoenix and Long Beach, CA, filling up with ULSD at a British Petroleum facility in Long Beach. The ISX 400ST 1450/1650 engine, mated to an Eaton 10-speed transmission, has a somewhat higher rating than Knight's current trucks. The new CJ-4 engine oil is being supplied by Cummins.

According to Williams, Knight has been concentrating on questions of performance and reliability with the new engine, and, after over a year, the test results for both are almost consistently positive.

"We've gotten very actively involved in understanding what it is, and what it isn't," Williams says of the test. "We've tried it, we've tested it, and at this point we're not afraid of it."

The '07 engine is essentially a "refined" 2002 ISX, Williams explains. "They've moved the EGR valve to the cool side of the engine, which, they're anticipating, should virtually eliminate failures. Other than that, you've got a few little things here and there, but essentially you're talking about aftertreatment. And with the aftertreatment, there's not a whole lot of moving parts, so we didn't anticipate a lot of problems."


The test route between Phoenix and Long Beach, a straight shot through the desert on I-10, is not necessarily typical of the routes Knight's trucks traditionally run. Nonetheless, it is a busy shipping lane for the company, and it allows them access to the BP ULSD supply in California, and lets them bring the truck back home for regular check-ups.

"The availability (of ULSD) has been spotty," Williams admits. "There's really only been one company producing it, prior to the recent date the refineries all had to start making it. So we were limited to finding a site where British Petroleum could supply us with fuel, and we found one right outside of Long Beach. As far as cost is concerned, it's fluctuated with the market. It's been a little bit above the normal price of diesel fuel. Where it ends up I can't tell you at this point. I would anticipate it being between five and 20 cents above what fuel is selling for today. It's been a little volatile."


After over a year, and 150,000 miles of testing, does Williams have concerns about the diesel particulate filter?

"If it works as advertised, then no, I don't believe there's much reason to be concerned," he says. "We still have some questions about how (cleaning the DPF) is going to be done, how long that's going to take, whether there's going to be a core return program or whether you wait for it to be cleaned. But those are things that are probably two years away."

Williams, does, however, have some concerns about the engines.

"The technology is something we're comfortable with. The price is a different issue," he says. "If anything, that is the issue that would be holding us up. But the technology itself is something we've gotten very involved with, and as we've done that we've gotten very comfortable with it."

As far as fuel economy is concerned, Williams reports that, compared to the '02 ISX, the '07 test engine is exhibiting a "slight degradation inclusive of use of ULSD." By spec'ing the gearing on new trucks for increased mileage, monitoring rpm at idle, and offering idle-reduction incentives to drivers, the company hopes to counteract that degradation.

Knight Transportation purchases approximately 1,400 trucks a year, or about 175 a month. Williams hasn't seen any reason why the company would alter their purchasing schedule going into 2007.

"It would not be the technology that would be holding us back from purchasing an '07," he says. "If anything, it would be the cost."


Presuming that Knight dives into 2007 with a purchase of new trucks, the only remaining issue is whether the company's technicians will be ready for the new engine and aftertreatment technologies.

Aside from learning a few new fault codes and changing the new crankcase ventilation filter (which Knight has scheduled for every fourth oil change, or approximately every year and a half), Williams expects the maintenance of 2007 engines to be a "non-event" to his shop staff.

"From our perspective, we don't expect to do (PMs) a whole lot different than we do today," he says. "Really, the piece that's new to us is going to be the particulate filter, which is a simple, static filter. There are no moving parts or anything, so we don't expect training to be significant."


At least on a technical level, the transition to 2007 engines may be a non-event for the entire industry, if Knight's test results prove to be typical.

"People hear things, and they exaggerate them in their minds, and fears get passed along that way," Williams says. "There have been rumors about fires, and combustion events, which are unfounded."

Williams just shrugs off the rumors. He and his company have come a long way by trusting their own experience, and they're destined to go a long way further by continuing to do the same.