Freightliner Cascadia: a brave new world

By: Steve Brooks


Primed for a red hot crack at Mack and Kenworth, Freightliner Cascadia hit the Australian market early next year as the safest, cleanest, most advanced and perhaps most efficient conventional truck in the business. Best of all, it seems several decades of disappointment have at last convinced the Yanks that Australia is a unique market where durability and quality simply can’t be compromised. Finally!

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It’s not easy to suggest that a model still months away from being launched and even further away from the cold, hard world of commercial and operational reality, will set an entirely new standard for conventional trucks in Australia.

That, however, is the unequivocal conclusion as Freightliner now puts the finishing touches to its right-hand drive Cascadia, a truck that for the first time will deliver to the Australian conventional market the levels of safety and technological leadership normally the preserve of European cab-overs.

Have no doubt, if all goes to plan – and from what I’ve seen, heard and driven both here and in the US, there’s absolutely no reason to suggest otherwise – Cascadia will take a vast, long overdue leap beyond anything currently available among Australia’s conventional brands.

The concern, if not threat, for Mack and Kenworth respectively, and likewise corporate kin Western Star, is as ominous as it is obvious.

Sure, this isn’t the first time Freightliner has developed a truck with the potential to take the market by storm. The now defunct Argosy cab-over, for example, was unquestionably the most innovative and advanced US cab-over to ever arrive here when it hit our shores in the latter half of the ‘90s.

Unfortunately for Freightliner, and more to the point, the legion of truck buyers looking for a modern North American alternative to Kenworth’s long-lived K-series, potential proved to be far removed from fact as durability and quality control issues – created in large part by a ludicrous absence of local testing and dawdling response to subsequent issues – conspired to kill the opportunity and the confidence.

One of two left-hand drive Cascadia’s undergoing Australian testing since mid-way through 2018. Now joined by right-hand drive models, all constantly feeding data back to the US, where testing for Australian conditions has been ongoing for several years

To a lesser but no less evident extent, the same could be said of the factors which have progressively made Century Class, Columbia and even Coronado such poor sellers in a market dominated by Kenworth and Mack.

So, what’s different this time as Freightliner prepares to launch Cascadia, the most successful model in the brand’s history, on the Australian market?

The simple answer is … just about everything, but most notably, attitude!

Despite the American penchant for hype and even histrionics, so prominent during previous excursions to Freightliner’s US headquarters over the past 30 years or so, this time ‘round there’s an almost understated, even stoic resolve. Yes, a resolve built on absolute confidence, but a confidence collared by quiet conviction which is neither brash nor boastful, cocky nor contrived.

In short, an almost profoundly calm assurance that this lunge at the Australian market will not be tarred with shallow pretence, hollow platitudes or wishful thinking, but rather a carefully calculated and totally committed assault strengthened by lessons of the past, bolstered by vastly expanded test facilities and engineering standards, resourced by immense investment, and equipped with best practice safety and emissions technology.

Yet even with these qualities, there was barely a hint of hubris from Daimler Trucks North America (DTNA) executives during a fast-paced, five-day tour of Freightliner and DTNA facilities across America.

Arguably the most bullish, even sanguine statements of all came on day one at DTNA head office in Portland, Oregon. First, when director of international sales and service Luis Vega, said: "There are great opportunities in Australia and New Zealand and we finally feel we have it right [with Cascadia]," followed later in the day when Vega’s boss, senior vice-president of sales and marketing Richard Howard, candidly pledged: "Our long-term commitment to Australia is absolute.

Richard Howard. "Our long-term commitment to Australia is absolute."

"We are putting our money where our mouth is."

And seriously, it must be a mouth like Moby Dick, with reports of $100 million being invested in a marathon, unprecedented push to produce right-hand drive models with the build quality, durability, performance and efficiency to achieve the potential which to date has largely eluded, frustrated and flustered Freightliner followers at every level.  

What’s more, for the first time in Freightliner’s 30-year history in Australia, it appears they’re happy to let the truck do most of the talking, figuratively speaking. And the truck, of course, is Cascadia. Or as the folks at Freightliner call it, ‘New Cascadia’.

The success of this new generation since its US launch in September 2016 is nothing short of outstanding, currently accounting for close to 40 per cent of the entire US Class 8 (heavy-duty) market and now closing in on the production of 200,000 units.


Our exclusive video from Freightliner facilities in the US, here


It is, however, interesting to note the changes in US market standings over the past few years, effectively since the arrival of ‘New Cascadia’. Like, just a few years ago, there was a neck-n-neck tussle for Class 8 leadership between Freightliner and Navistar (International). Today, Freightliner’s nearest challenger is actually Paccar (Kenworth and Peterbilt collectively), with around 30 per cent of the category while Navistar has fallen to near 15 per cent. Then there’s Volvo, seemingly stalled around 10 per cent while corporate brother Mack shows no sign of rebounding off the floor, despite the arrival of Anthem.

Funny thing is, though, while Freightliner’s efforts in Australia have for several decades teetered on dated models such as Century Class, Cascadia first hit North America way back in 2006.

So why has it taken so long to reach our market?

Right-hand drive day cab unit on test at Madras. Test standards for Australian models are significantly more severe than their US counterparts

During an exclusive interview with Richard Howard in Melbourne last year, just a day before the preview of Australia’s first Cascadia test unit, he conceded that, despite the sudden and severe economic constraints of the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) in 2007-08, it was indeed a mistake not to introduce the original Cascadia to Australia and New Zealand in the first few years after its ’06 release in the US.

Looking at the positives, however, the economic hiatus created by the GFC at least gave Freightliner ample time to meticulously plan a right-hand drive program built around the most extensive engineering and test exercise ever undertaken by the brand for
a market outside North America.

Moreover, the plan would allow Australian and New Zealand markets to not only capitalise on the latest developments contained in ‘New Cascadia’ but to provide immediate access to any future advances, be it emissions, safety, efficiency or whatever. So, what America gets, we will get, providing it suits our market, of course.

In effect, our neck of the woods would be no longer a second-string ‘Special Project’ market always in catch-up mode, but rather, an intrinsic part of Freightliner product development. Or as Howard commented last year: "So when it comes to product, we’re all on the same page with ‘New Cascadia’, whether it’s the US, Canada, Mexico or Australia.

"That means Australia will get the best we have in on-highway trucks, as well as being specifically designed for the Australian market. That’s critical when you consider the advances we’re achieving with engines, transmissions and drivelines."

The Madras test facility in Oregon’s east has been vastly upgraded to dramatically enhance the extremes and analysis of durability testing, with right-hand drive units copping extra attention

NEW GENERATION

What’s now referred to as Classic Cascadia, the original model quickly became the springboard for Freightliner’s ascendancy to Class 8 leadership.

Riding the crest of a bountiful wave, nothing much changed on the product front until 2013 when aerodynamic enhancements created Cascadia Evolution. Even so, Evolution was a prelude to something far bigger aimed squarely at further securing Freightliner’s perch at the top of the tree.

In a massive upgrade which reportedly saw around US$400 million invested in a swathe of new design, drivetrain and safety features, ‘New Cascadia’ went into production at the start of 2017 and as sales figures verify, success was immediate. Or as one high-level Freightliner insider put it, "The original Cascadia got the ball rolling. This new generation sent it into overdrive."

A critical part of the reason for the new model’s take-off was increased efficiency and a short hop across the road from the Portland head office, engineers at DTNA’s full-scale wind tunnel – the only one of its type in the US – leave no doubt in anyone’s mind that ‘New Cascadia’ is not just more aerodynamically efficient than its immediate predecessor, but smoother through the air than anything else on the American market.

"And believe me, we test all competitor models, often," vouched one insider.

A few days later in Salt Lake City, Utah, senior executives at major privately owned refrigerated freight carrier, C. R. England – with around 4,200 prime movers, upwards of 6,300 trailers, and annual turnover this year expected to top US$2 billion – confirmed that its own ongoing trials of different makes and models consistently put ‘New Cascadia’ ahead in overall efficiency. So far ahead that it now holds 90 per cent of the fleet’s business, with little likelihood of any change despite the ongoing efforts of competitor brands to crack the England account.

A Cascadia or two! New trucks ready to go to work in the C. R. England fleet at Salt Lake City, Utah. Cascadia safety and efficiency give Freightliner a 90 per cent stake in the high-profile fleet

Yet according to Ron Hall, C. R. England vice-president of equipment and fuel, the reasons for Cascadia’s dominance in the high-profile fleet certainly aren’t limited to a slippery design. As he plainly indicated, the attributes of a fully integrated powertrain headed by Detroit engines feeding into the DT12 automated transmission, operating in concert with a suite of integrated safety systems through the ‘Detroit Assurance’ package, simply make Cascadia the safest and most cost-efficient truck to operate.

And critically, drivers generally like the truck.

In many respects, Ron Hall’s comments were verification of earlier assertions by DTNA’s Howard, not least the fact that up to 70 per cent of ‘New Generation’ Cascadias are specified with elements, either full or in part, of the ‘Detroit Assurance’ active safety system which in standard form includes such advanced features as active brake assist and adaptive cruise control.

The system’s impact (no pun intended) on the bottom line for truck operators has been considerable, Howard declares.

"There are large US customers who tell us that before the introduction of the active safety systems, they had a 1-in-4 incident rate which is now down to 1-in-19.

"It has also led to a huge reduction in repair costs due to the system’s ability to react in anticipation of a collision, lessening the impact to the point where in one fleet’s experience, the average repair cost has dropped from $7,000 to $300.

"Other customers tell us they’ve eliminated rear end collisions altogether."

Meanwhile, back at Freightliner HQ in Portland, chief test engineer for product validation and engineering Al Pearson is a man not only prominent in ensuring Cascadia’s ultimate reliability but well aware of problems of the past with right-hand drive derivatives. Even so, it’s an entirely confident Pearson who insists that ‘New Cascadia’ provides a significantly stronger platform for all markets, not least Australia. 

Detroit drivetrain. No longer just an engine factory, the Detroit, Michigan, plant now produces entire drivetrains with DT12 automated shifters now easily the preferred transmission behind DD engines

Asked if Australian conditions have in the past been under-estimated, he cautiously answered: "Perhaps slightly … but we are certainly not ignorant of the problems of the past," before emphasising that Cascadia is a unique design with inherently higher levels of strength in every area. Nonetheless, he was quick to emphasise that test cycles for right-hand drive models are significantly tougher than those for North American conditions. As they most definitely should be and need to be, he agreed.

Along with extensive electrical validation work on right-hand drive versions, cab strength has been put under the microscope, with exceptional results according to several Freightliner sources.

Yet while there is said to be no Mercedes-Benz architecture in the actual design of the cab shell, the Daimler influence in the structure and strength of the Cascadia cab is not difficult to appreciate. Furthermore, as Al Pearson was quick to point out, cab strength was a significant part of Cascadia development from day one.

Predictably, perhaps, he would not be drawn on just how much stronger the Cascadia shed is over Century Class or Coronado except to say: "We’re very proud of this cab."

However, when it came to testing and development standards for our conditions, it was an adamant Pearson who said, "We’ve set the bar higher with Cascadia for Australia than ever before," citing the decision to send test trucks to Australia for the first time as a major factor in ensuring the model’s durability.

Daimler Trucks North America chief test engineer Al Pearson. "We’ve set the bar higher with Cascadia for Australia than ever before."

In what could be easily judged a frank admission, Pearson casually added: "Customers are not the test bed anymore."

There are, he continued, a total of 28 trucks involved in the right-hand drive test program and while most are in the US, constant feedback from units running in Australia is a critical part of the exercise.

What’s more, a further 20 pre-production right-hand drive units will be built and shipped to Australia for trial before Cascadia’s official launch towards the end of November, with full production to start at the Cleveland, North Carolina, plant in early January, 2020.

Best of all, Cascadia is said to be demonstrating levels of engineering resilience both in US and Australian testing far beyond those of its right-hand drive predecessors, with few issues to speak of.

"Right now," said Pearson, "the only issue we have is with the fuel tank straps, adapted from Mercedes-Benz Actros." The inference was that it won’t be an issue for long as engineers continue to develop and test a strengthened design.

Similarly, he conceded that adapting Australia’s mandatory front under-run protection bar (FUPS) to Cascadia was initially difficult to achieve, with the end result that while the FUPS bar will be fitted on the production line, front bumpers will be fitted once trucks arrive in Australia.

As for the ability to mount the quintessentially Australian bull-bar, a succinct Al Pearson said: "No, that’s not an issue at all."

First right-hand drive Cascadia in Australia, running top-weight B-double fuel deliveries out of Brisbane. Early reports are highly positive

Yet, along with the inherent strength of Cascadia over its predecessors, DTNA’s investment in more modern and demanding test facilities has been a substantial asset in product development, according to Pearson and several senior colleagues. Most notably, the antiquated South Bend, Indiana, test track, originally developed back in the 1940s by Studebaker, has been sold off, while the Madras, Oregon, facility has undergone an US$18 million upgrade to dramatically enhance the extremes and analysis of durability testing.

RATTLERS AND RUTS

Several hours drive east of Portland, Madras is little more than a pin-prick in the Oregon countryside and, on several previous visits over the past few decades, it was easy to be underwhelmed by a facility which was little more than a few strips of corrugated ruts and rocky roads in the middle of a windswept plain home to heaps of rattlesnakes.

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Word has it the rattlesnakes aren’t quite as common these days, due in large part to a redevelopment which has created a thoroughly modern test facility with surfaces scientifically designed to put trucks through the reliability wringer and shake the absolute stuffing out of man and machine. Whatever drivers get paid to endure some of these surfaces, they earn every cent and then some.

Yet, after a few laps in left-hand drive Cascadias on various gut-busting surfaces, a run in a slimline right-hand drive unit on a particularly gruelling strip normally reserved for severe-duty applications at least highlighted the extra punishment being dished out to trucks for our market.

Best of all, however, a few fast laps behind the wheel of a right-hook sleeper model that had already endured long spells at Madras revealed a truck which was surprisingly free of squeaks, rattles or squawks, and showed no signs of cracks or warps in interior fittings.

One of 106 trucks that daily roll off the end of the Cleveland, North Carolina, production plan. According to senior insiders, Cascadia creates an entirely new level of quality for right-hand drive

In short, time at Madras simply further verified the growing opinion that Cascadia is an inherently stronger and significantly more resilient truck than anything to emerge out of the Freightliner fold over the past two decades and more.

Still, there was one personal disappointment about the visit to Madras. It was quickly apparent that the vastly upgraded facility is now far more capable of keeping prying eyes from future product plans, so the secret hope of a sly peek at a new Western Star design rumoured to be under development in the US failed to materialise. Such is the price of progress, I guess!

There were, however, no disappointments and plenty of surprises to emerge from the next stop on the Cascadia trail. Detroit! 

While Madras has undergone a major rejuvenation to become the centrepiece of DTNA’s physical testing, the changes that have taken place within the Detroit engine plant reflect a massive investment in current and future plans.

Having visited the plant on at least four earlier occasions – starting in the late ‘80s in the days soon after Roger Penske bought Detroit Diesel and the rights to the revolutionary Series 60 engine from General Motors, and which he sold years later to Daimler – it was immediately obvious that things have changed dramatically over the past five years or more.

Detroit Diesel was, of course, the spearhead of Daimler’s global heavy-duty engine platform (HDEP), which today sees the same core engines powering Freightliner, Western Star, Mercedes-Benz and Fuso models.

America’s only full-scale truck wind tunnel at Daimler Trucks North America headquarters in Portland, Oregon. The word from within is that nothing matches Cascadia’s aerodynamic efficiency

However, on the back of huge investment and expansion, the Detroit facility is now producing entire drivetrains – DD13, DD15 and DD16 engines, the DT12 automated transmission, front and rear axle assemblies, new medium-duty engines known as the DD5 and DD8, and even turbochargers to replace Cummins-owned Holset turbos on some models.

"We now do the whole shootin’ match," as one devotee quipped. 

According to high-level insiders, the plant is on track to this year produce 110,000 heavy-duty engines, 45,000 transmissions, 10,000 medium-duty engines, and 110,000 rear axles, which are running increasingly tall diff ratios (commonly down to 2.16:1 and even lower as new axle technology comes on stream) as operators look for the lowest engine cruise speeds to enhance fuel economy and, in the process, reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

There also came news of an entirely new rear axle design which will effectively allow a tandem-drive unit to convert to a 6x2 when running unladen or with a light load. Details were scant but, from all indications, it’s definitely happening.

It was at this point that the growth of the integrated powertrain as a major factor in North American truck purchases became abundantly clear, and increasingly a powerful factor in Cascadia’s continuing hold on North American market leadership.

According to several senior sources within both Freightliner and Detroit, 95 per cent of all Cascadias sold in 2018 were powered by either a DD13, DD15 or DD16 engine, with DD15 easily the most popular among North American buyers.

For Australia, Cascadia will only be offered with DD13 and DD16 engines – currently being tested here at 505hp (377kW)/1,850 lb ft (2,508Nm)and 600hp (447kW)/2,050 lb ft (2,779Nm)respectively – and there will be no Cummins option as there is in the US. Importantly, our engines will run the same stringent SCR emissions system as their US counterparts, reportedly making Cascadia the cleanest heavy-duty diesel truck in Australia and certainly several generations ahead of the DD15 EGR engine powering existing Freightliner and Western Star models.

One of 20 right-hand drive units bound for customer trials in Australia. An alloy bumper will be fitted when it arrives here but on the inside, this truck had several surprises, including an upgraded steering wheel design and ultra-modern digital instrumentation screen (below pic)

Perhaps the biggest surprise of all, however, particularly given the US market’s initial scepticism of automated shifters, has been the uptake of the 12-speed DT12 transmission, now specified in almost 80 per cent of all Cascadia purchases and still climbing, according to DTNA executives.

While specification details for Australian models were still being finalised as this report was being written, it seems certain there will be an Eaton manual transmission option but the expectation (no doubt backed up by commercial incentive) is that DT12 will be the preferred choice in the vast majority of cases.  

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AND FINALLY

As it should be, the final stop on the ‘Cascadia for Australia’ program was the Cleveland, North Carolina, production plant where right-hand drive Freightliners have been built since 1989.

Again, I’d been here before. And again, the changes since the last visit almost seven years earlier are considerable, not least the fact that Cascadia now totally dominates production, which currently runs at 106 trucks a day.


How Freightliner announced the Cascadia to Australia, here


More to the point, though, there’s the total conviction at almost every corner of the factory that it’s actually easier to make Cascadia in right-hand drive than any model past or present. Why? Because unlike Century Class, Columbia or Coronado, Cascadia was designed and developed as a symmetrical cab from the outset and as senior vice-president Jeff Allen commented: "That makes it so much easier to keep quality at a consistent standard rather than having to make adjustments for right-hand drive."

"Cascadia has simplified production in every sense (and) there’s a great confidence here that Cascadia creates an entirely new level of quality for right-hand drive.

"It’s a truck that has made life easier for everyone because a lot of great design went into it from the start."

Soon after the obligatory plant tour, in a small showroom and office complex a block away from the factory, some of the first pre-production units for Australian customer trials were presented for a quick overview.

Other than confirming that sleeper models will come in 36-, 48- and 60-inch sizes, and again verifying that initial versions will be based on 116-inch and 126-inch bumper to back-of-cab dimensions, Daimler Trucks Australia managing director Daniel Whitehead (pictured below) and Freightliner Australia director Stephen Downes weren’t shy about sharing their justifiable enthusiasm for Cascadia and its potential on the Australian market.

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According to both, Australian models operating on much the same platform as their American counterparts, with the same access to developments as they occur in the US, is the vital factor for Cascadia’s success and indeed, Freightliner’s future.  

Even so, neither man was shy about acknowledging the scale of the task ahead. Downes particularly!

"We’re very conscious that in the past we haven’t ticked all the boxes on quality and reliability," he said, before quickly adding, "but the Australian (Cascadia) product has gone through everything the domestic product does, plus a heap more, and our goal is that what we bring to Australia is 100 per cent fit for purpose.

"But the big leap is safety. It will revolutionise our market," Downes (pictured below) declared.

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However, it’s not all about the truck. "Product will only get us so far. Service and support, the network, are the critical contributors to overall success and we will be driving dealers to deliver the best possible product support," he said bluntly.

When it’s all boiled down, though, Freightliner’s future all comes down to burying the past, capitalising on the voids that exist in the current conventional market, and perhaps above all else, maintaining the fortitude to prove that fortune does indeed favour the brave and the bold.

 

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