Wednesday 13 December 2017

On the road with Volvo and Renault

Steve Banner caught up with Arne Knaben, managing director at Volvo Group Trucks UK & Ireland, and Nigel Butler, UK commercial director at Renault Trucks

At the time of writing Britain’s truck market was healthy; but the effects of Brexit cannot be ignored. So says Arne Knaben, managing director, Volvo Group Trucks UK & Ireland, and responsible for both Renault and Volvo.

“For the moment it’s so far, so good so far where truck sales are concerned,” he says. “The market is ticking on well and we’re selling well.

“We’re hearing some expressions of uncertainty however,” he continues.

“I spoke to one of our big customers recently who told me that in his view Brexit would be very good for the UK in the medium and long term,” says Knaben.

“I asked him what it would be like in the short term and he replied that he thought it would be a bit bumpy.

“Then I asked him what he classed as the short term. He said ‘five years’.

“That’s a long time in my business,” Knaben remarks.

Does that mean 2018 will witness a major downturn in truck registrations? He doubts it.

“I think the market will be stable and not do anything dramatic,” he says. “It will tick over rather than grow or accelerate with customers saying ‘let’s wait and see’.”

It is a view shared by Nigel Butler, UK commercial director at Renault Trucks. “It remains relatively buoyant,” he says.

“Things haven’t slowed down, our customers are buying and if anything demand has ratcheted up, although we expect Brexit to have an impact at some point,” he adds.

Significant orders for Renaults over the past few months include one from Wincanton for 100 Range T 6×2 tractor units. The 75 11-litre T460s and 25 13-litre T480s were funded by Renault Trucks Financial Services on a three-year operating lease and are maintained by Pullman Fleet, part of the Wincanton Group.

Working on a variety of construction and general haulage contracts, they are all equipped with Renault’s Optifleet Fuel Eco+ Pack. It includes Optivision which uses road topography to optimise gear shifting, reducing fuel consumption.

Butler believes demand will begin to soften over the next 12 months but suggests that any decline will be a gentle one rather than a sudden collapse.

Yet while the new truck market may be in rude health, that is not the case so far as the second-hand market is concerned.

“There are too many used trucks in stock around the UK,” Knaben says.

Some of the long-established destinations for used exports cannot readily take second-hand Euro 6 models because they find the technology difficult to get to grips with. “That’s a concern,” he remarks.

“They’ve struggled to cope with Euro 5 too,” Butler remarks.

Nor are export customers always happy about buying vehicles that have clocked up a high mileage over a short space of time because they have been double- or triple-shifted by a UK logistics company, Knaben says. That is despite the fact that modern trucks that have been regularly maintained can clock up a phenomenally high mileage without giving trouble.

Used exports are also being affected by fierce competition from new Chinese trucks, says Butler.

“They’re simple and they’re cheap,” he remarks.

As it happens, Knaben is quite pleased with his own company’s performance in the second-hand sector.

“We’re happy with our sales levels although the prices aren’t so good,” he comments. “But that’s a natural effect of there being too many used trucks around.”

Turning to London’s Direct Vision Standard (DVS), Knaben says that while he appreciates what Transport for London is trying to do – “we’ve worked closely with TfL,” he adds – it will always be a challenge for a manufacturer to produce trucks that comply with rules that apply in just one city.

It is difficult, too, for regulators to devise rules that are systematic, he adds, and they can sometimes end up with unexpected outcomes if they try.

In some of the DVS’s preliminary star ratings, trucks were falling into different categories according to height differences measured in millimetres, he points out.

“Is that what was intended and is that a good outcome?” he wonders. “I don’t think so and I would like to caution politicians, and remind them that it is important that things are properly thought through.”

London’s politicians – and their counterparts in other major urban areas in the UK for that matter –  are of course eager to cut particulates and NOx and increasingly have their sights set on NO2 (nitrogen dioxide) as well.

Over the past year-and-a-half, Renault Trucks has embarked on a variety of zero-emission trial initiatives, including a battery-powered Range D 16-tonner and a 4.5-tonne Maxity Electric fitted with a hydrogen fuel cell.

Renault has also come up with versions of the Range D Wide rigid, including a 26-tonner, which will run on compressed natural gas.

“We only bring vehicles to market when we are confident about the technology, though, and we’ll have an electric Master available in the UK by the end of 2018,” says Butler.

As reported in the October 2017 issue of Transport Operator, Volvo is busy launching a concept long-haul hybrid truck. Also appearing are gas-powered versions of the FH and FM, which it says will be suitable for trunking with outputs of 420hp or 460hp.

Their CO2 emissions are said to be 20 to 100 per cent lower than those of diesel depending on the fuel that is chosen. They can be run on liquefied natural gas (LNG) or bio-LNG

The biggest onboard LNG tank that can be fitted holds enough fuel for a 1,000km run.  Fuel consumption is said to be on a par with that of Volvo’s diesel engines.

Despite Knaben’s strictures about the difficulties of building trucks with the needs of one city in mind, efforts have been made to meet London’s requirements.

A prototype low-cab-height Renault Range C tridem 32-tonner has been developed powered by a 320hp 8.0-litre diesel.  A few months ago a low-entry Range D 6×2 26-tonner appeared devised in conjunction with Veolia as part of a £5m two-year project.

Volvo has come up with two FM-based construction trucks intended to meet TfL’s proposed safety standard permit scheme. Trucks with a zero-star vision rating will have to comply with its requirements, which could include cameras and sensors, in order to qualify for a permit to operate in London from 2020 onwards.

Features fitted to the FMs include a factory-installed lower window in the passenger door.

Eager to add a halo to its UK line-up, Renault was about to launch the flat-cab-floor Range T High tractor unit in Britain at the time of writing.

It offers a maximum 520hp. Renault has no intention of marching up the horsepower ratings thereby mirroring Volvo, which offers up to 750hp.

“If we did so it would be very much a vanity project,” says Butler. “In fact if I were offered a 16-litre 700hp model by the factory I’m not sure I’d take it.”

There is of course a trend towards engine down-sizing and down-speeding, but down-sizing is not appropriate in all circumstances, says Butler.

“So far as 6×2 tractor units are concerned we’re in fact seeing a movement away from the 460hp 11-litre engine in favour of the 480hp 13-litre because the latter is a bit less sensitive to driving style than the former,” he says.

“If you’ve got a good driver then he’ll get good fuel economy from the 11-litre,” he contends. “If he’s not so good then it might make sense to give him a 13-litre – the extra torque provides a bit more flexibility.”

Transport Operator spoke to Knaben and Butler on a visit to the Renault factory at Blainville in northern France. Opened in 1957, it has just built its millionth truck.

A Range D, it was presented to Phil Thurston, joint managing director of UK operator Pace Logistics.

“We stay with Renault’s because our drivers like them,” he says.

With 2,000 employees, the plant also builds cabs for Volvo and DAF.

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