A phantom truck rolls across the mountains of Norway. The hush-hush cab, camouflaged in white, sparks interest and excitement wherever it appears. One group of people know all too well what it is like to drive: field-test drivers the world over have been putting Volvo TrucksÂ´ new Volvo FH truck through its paces over hundreds of thousands of kilometres.
June 2012. In the small town of Ã…rjÃ¤ng in north-western Sweden, a carefully disguised truck with polished pressurised tanks is parked, topped up and ready for the road. Today, Kenneth Levin, driver and owner of the ProTank haulage firm, will drive 600 kilometres across the Norwegian mountains to Bergen on the countryÂ´s west coast. Kenneth generally shares these long trips with his 23-year-old son, Christian. Â¨For reasons of security, we canÂ´t say exactly what we are transporting,Â¨ says Christian and nods towards the pressurised tanks.
Â¨The fact is weÂ´re becoming quite expert in the field of chemistry, as we haul many different chemicals, all of which are protected by their own special regulations.Â¨ Kenneth Levin climbs up into the disguised cab and starts up the truck. The road takes him west at 80 kilometres an hour. The first stop is at the Swedish-Norwegian border. The customs regulations are stringent, despite the fact that the very same form-filling procedure has been performed countless times before, so it is a while before the truck crosses the border.
Â¨This is one of the reasons Volvo Trucks wanted us as a field-test partner three years ago. We cover the same route, time after time, hauling the same load. All our journeys are comparable with one another,Â¨ explains Kenneth Levin.
He points to a camera in the windscreen. Â¨If I press a button, the camera and microphone are activated. I can then describe any faults IÂ´ve discovered or record my thoughts while the road is being filmed. These data are then collected in a computer and we send them on a USB drive to Volvo TrucksÂ´ field testing department in Gothenburg,Â¨ explains Kenneth.
Â¨Over the past 30,000 kilometres, weÂ´ve only had the odd fault code – which actually came from the computer software not from the truck itself. The truck has simply eaten up the miles without the slightest problem,Â¨ he adds.
Katarina Fredholm is team manager at the Volvo TrucksÂ´ field testing department in Gothenburg at Volvo Group Trucks Technology (GTT). The department in Gothenburg employs about 30 engineers. Field tests are also conducted in France, Denmark, the UK, North America, Brazil, Australia and Japan.
In the run-up to the launch of Volvo TrucksÂ´ new Volvo FH, 60 field-test trucks have been tested at various locations the world over.
Â¨The main purpose of the field tests is to verify the function, reliability and quality of complete vehicles and components,Â¨ says Katarina.
Â¨This takes the form of testing by customers in the course of their daily operations, because it is not enough fully to simulate reality in computers and laboratory rigs and out on the test track. Input from customers is vital, as they see and note things that the designers and engineers may have missed. Customers are carefully selected for field-testing duties by dealers,Â¨ reveals Katarina Fredholm.
Â¨In this way, we find customers with the right attitude and the ideal operating conditions. Personal contact and close communication are important in our relationship with our field-test customers.Â¨
That is why Stefan Carlsson from the field testing department has joined Kenneth on this trip. He wants to see for himself how the new front suspension system performs on the twisting, hilly roads of Norway.
Before setting off, he checks tyre wear and air pressure. All the readings are OK and he looks satisfied.
Â¨This truck has covered almost 30,000 kilometres and it feels absolutely perfect,Â¨ he says. Kenneth says that the front axle with its new individual front suspension, IFS, really is a revolution.
Â¨You donÂ´t notice it so much on straight, good-quality roads, but, when the surface is a bit rutted and the road starts twisting, thereÂ´s an enormous difference. The entire truck rides so much more gently, yet holds its course more firmly. I also like the all-new steering wheel adjustment system, which gives a much better driving position, as well as the electrically adjusted sun visor – no gaps! – and the roller blind on the driverÂ´s side, together with the new rear-view mirrors.
Should a mechanical fault occur with the truck, help is just a phone call away. In Kristinehamn in central Sweden, mechanics Anders BergstrÃ¶m and Peter Fridberg are ready to take care of the field-test trucks.
Â¨We are so well located and can handle the servicing for a number of field-test trucks in central Sweden. They come here for service and assessment. We also have an agreement with a vehicle recovery firm that brings the test trucks to us if they encounter any major problems,Â¨ says Anders BergstrÃ¶m. So far, Anders and Peter have not needed to provide any assistance to Kenneth Levin and his ProTank truck. Â¨WeÂ´ve never had that truck here, because itÂ´s never had any problems. However, it will soon be time for its service and weÂ´re approaching the launch date. So weÂ´re going to get better acquainted with that truck and thatÂ´s something weÂ´re looking forward to. WeÂ´re really keen to find out about the new front suspension system,Â¨ says Peter Fridberg.
Kenneth continues on his trip through Norway. The task of the field-test driver involves assessing the truck in overall terms from a Â´complete vehicle perspectiveÂ´. Kenneth has to perform his regular haulage assignments, yet keep it all as secret as possible – and be as invisible as possible – yet always prepared for curious looks and inquisitive questions. He is not allowed to reveal anything to anyone. The new model has to be kept under wraps until the launch and the legal protection for new engineering designs lasts just twelve months after a product comes onto the market.
As the truck is still so secret, he chooses less public spots for his compulsory stops. Even so, a few other Volvo FH trucks draw up alongside at his first stop after Oslo. A cheerful Norwegian approaches Kenneth and asks when the new model will arrive. Â¨Look at my Volvo FH 660. It has a Euro 4 engine, itÂ´s five years old, it has covered 500,000 kilometres and has had its fair share of close encounters with rocks on some pretty poor roads. I want to replace it with a new truck,Â¨ he says. He tries to take a peek through the passenger door, but Kenneth quickly shuts it.
He has been driving trucks for 42 years and bought his first Volvo just over 25 years ago. Â¨From that day on, I was able to leave my tool-box at home instead of always carrying it with me in the truck. I would never dream of switching truck make. Volvo is a true Â´haulierÂ´s truckÂ´. When I want a Â´driverÂ´s carÂ´ with a powerful growl from its tailpipes, I get behind the wheel of my yellow Corvette Z06….Â¨
Today, the company has five trucks, including the field-test truck. They will keep it for another six months after the launch of the new Volvo FH.
After Oslo, the road starts going gently downhill. The landscape is beautiful, with forest-covered hills and sparkling lakes. After a short break in the little village of Gol, we turn north and up steep gradients once again. The phantom truck cruises on without any difficulty. Here, high above the treeline in skiing paradise Hemsedal, the snow lies thick on the slopes even though it is early summer.
Kenneth LevinÂ´s field-test truck
Model: Volvo FH Wheelbase: 4.2 m, eight-tonne front axle, 19-tonne bogie Gross weight: 44 tonnes Engine: D13, 500 bhp, Euro 5 Transmission: I-Shift Other equipment:
– Individual Front Suspension, IFS
– Volvo Engine Brake, VEB
– Lane Changing Support, LCS
– Driver Alert Support, DAS
– The Volvo FHÂ´s new cab