Mercedes-Benz Actros – The Next Chapter.
The Actros range was first introduced as the flagship of the Mercedes-Benz heavy duty truck family in 1996. Compared to its predecessors, it featured more rounded and “friendly” cab styling, a new range of V8 and V6 diesel engines in place of the former mixed bag of inline and vee-form units with 5, 6, 8 or 10-cylinder configurations, and increased use of electronics including on-board vehicle diagnostic systems. The first Actros was greatly admired, but suffered some early reliability issues and subsequent sales resistance because of its advanced specification. However, Mercedes-Benz bit the bullet firmly and proceeded to carry out continuous development and refinement of the range, which eventually racked up an impressive tally of 700 000 unit sales before it was replaced in 2011 by the second-generation Actros series. The second iteration was the result of a more than € 1 billion development process, and presented as considerably more bold and aggressive than its predecessor, this impression being accentuated by a higher cab profile necessitated, in part, by the reversion to the fitment of 6-cylinder in-line engines from Daimler Trucks’ global Heavy Duty Engine Platform family of power units.
The second-generation Actros was made available exclusively as a long-distance premium hauler, with construction and short-haul applications covered by other model nameplates such as Arocs, Antos and Econic. The concentration on linehaul work resulted in no less than seven cab configurations being offered on the Actros, five of which featured a completely flat floor, to facilitate crew movement within the cab, with both single and double sleeper versions being available. Automated transmissions and a full suite of driver convenience and dynamic control assistance features were included in the specification from launch, and it was clearly evident that Mercedes-Benz had not backed off from positioning the Actros as the state-of-the art offering in the heavy-duty truck arena. Despite the carryover name, the manufacturer insisted that this was a clean-sheet design, with every feature and component optimized, although some were seen as logical developments of aggregates used in earlier models.
Early in September, 2018, Mercedes-Benz premiered the latest generation Actros in Berlin. Although largely unchanged in exterior appearance and mechanical layout, detailed examination of the new range revealed several radical new concepts. Immediately apparent was the replacement of conventional rearview mirrors by slimline camera units, which fed images to two 15-inch in-cab displays mounted on the windscreen side pillars. However the major innovations were encapsulated in the Active Drive Assist package, said by the manufacturer to enable partially automated driving, through active latitudinal control and a combination of longitudinal and lateral control in all speed ranges. This functionality was achieved through a combination and extension of the previous Active Brake Assist, adaptive cruise control, stop-and-go and lane-keeping assistant features, while the cab interior equipment and layout were also optimized to enable Cloud-based connectivity and intuitive operation.
The combined influence of the mirror-cam innovation, improved cruise control and revised final drive ratio resulted in a claimed fuel consumption improvement of up to five percent, and this is sure to be used by Mercedes-Benz as a powerful argument to build further the sales total of the Actros family, which stood at 1,2 million vehicles at the time of the new model announcement. The latest Actros models will continue to be built at Mercedes-Benz’ Wörth plant in Germany, which has been suitably upgraded in terms of equipment and operator training to handle the sophisticated systems of this product family. Deliveries to European customers are scheduled to commence during the second quarter of 2019, and it can be expected that the new and innovative features described above will find their way progressively into export versions of the Actros range during the years ahead.
Ford & Mahindra Strengthen their Alliance.
Ford has ramped up its co-operation with Indian manufacturer Mahindra.
In September, 2017, Ford Motor Company entered a three-year strategic alliance with Indian manufacturer Mahindra and Mahindra Limited. This latest relationship with the Mahindra Group (a previous arrangement had been terminated in 2005), was expected to yield access to lower cost electric vehicle designs and open up Indian component suppliers to Ford, while Mahindra could potentially benefit from Ford’s global distribution network, and additional production capacity at Ford’s Indian operations, located in Chennai, Tamil Nadu and Sanand, Gugarat. Despite producing important and successful export products such as the Figo, Ikon and EcoSport in India, Ford was not happy with its sales performance in that market, which has been reported as being one of the fastest growing in the world.
Subsequent to the initial announcement, the two companies signed five Memoranda of Understanding in March, 2018, and followed up with confirming two definitive agreements on powertrain sharing and connected car solutions in October of the same year. The detail of these agreements included the development and supply of a small displacement petrol engine, compliant with the latest Indian emission standard, from Mahindra to Ford India for use in present and future vehicles, and joint development of a telematics control unit for deployment in both Ford and Mahindra products. Both companies also reported progress with the remaining MoU’s, including leveraging strengths in product development of SUV’s and electric vehicles for India and emerging markets. Notably, Mahindra also owns a majority stake in Korean manufacturer Ssangvong, and claims to have led the utility vehicle segment in India for the past seven decades.
Isuzu Teams Up with Cummins.
Will Isuzu’s new partnership with engine manufacturer Cummins strengthen its position at the heaviest end of the truck market?
Japanese vehicle and engine manufacturer Isuzu Motors Limited has a history dating back to 1937. During its corporate lifetime, it has built a reputation as a highly credible supplier of commercial vehicles and diesel engines to world markets, but with a production total of just 625 000 vehicles in 2018, it is a relatively small player in the global context, where the major industry groupings each rack up volumes of around 10 million units per annum. This situation has been responsible for Isuzu entering a number of co-operative ventures and partnerships during its lifetime, the most significant and long-running of which was with American giant General Motors. Since the initial engagement in 1971, GM built up a significant shareholding in the Japanese company, but had sold all of it off by 2006, and only small vestiges of the previously major commercial relationship are still in place. Since the GM sell-off, a relatively small 6,34% shareholding in Isuzu was procured by Toyota Motor Corporation, a new alliance was established with Russian manufacturer GAZ, and a next-generation pickup supply agreement was concluded with Mazda Motor Corporation.
Surprisingly, the post-GM equity relationship with Toyota has not produced any visible technical or marketing co-operation between Isuzu and its giant compatriot, possibly because Toyota’s Hino subsidiary is a fierce direct competitor with Isuzu in several geographic areas, including Australia and South Africa. This situation has left perception among industry observers that Isuzu still needs a large international partner to provide expanded critical mass and see it through the resource-demanding era of electric propulsion and vehicle autonomy that is now unfolding. Reports in 2011 of talks with a globally expanding Volkswagen in respect of “pickup trucks, diesel engines and larger trucks” seem to have gone nowhere, but we still believe that Isuzu has the capacity to bring multiple quality inputs to any potential partnership, including a particularly strong global position in diesel engines and light-medium trucks, and an extensive Asian footprint.
Notwithstanding the foregoing, we can now report that Isuzu has signed a letter of intent with American engine manufacturer Cummins Inc. to “jointly evaluate opportunities to deliver globally competitive products”. This initiative recognises the investment and resource commitment that will be necessary to take diesel and natural gas-fuelled powertrains, as well as alternative power, connectivity and autonomy solutions, forward into the next era. Cummins, historically an independent supplier of proprietary, or “loose”, diesel engines to a wide variety of vehicle manufacturers, has in recent times found itself in a market which has become increasingly dominated by “vertically integrated” products where the vehicle manufacturer supplies and aggressively promotes its own in-house driveline aggregates. This has obliged Cummins to investigate different business models, including a 50/50 joint venture with driveline specialist Eaton to produce medium- and heavy-duty automated transmissions, and market these products to original equipment customers in North America.
Other elements of Cummins’ new strategic direction include exploiting opportunities for heavy duty engines in emerging markets such as China, Eastern Europe, Turkey, and Russia, with their increasing levels of environmental awareness and tightened emission controls. In pursuance of this strategy, Cummins established joint production or technology sharing alliances with Shaanqi and Dongfeng in China, Kamaz in Russia, Scania, Iveco and New Holland in Europe, and Tata Motors in India. The company also increased its focus on products positioned lower down the mass and displacement spectrum through a 50:50 Chinese joint venture, Beijing Foton Cummins Engine Company Limited, which was set up to manufacture high performance 2,8 and 3,8-litre ISF diesel power units for light trucks, pickups, multi-purpose and sports utility vehicles, as well as the larger ISBe 4,5-litre diesel for sale in the domestic Chinese and export markets. Back in the US, Cummins also supplies the diesel engine options offered by FCA’s Ram brand in its full-size pickups.
More recently, Cummins has launched a new global heavy-duty engine platform, the G Series. This takes the form of an in-line six-cylinder diesel power unit, derived from the QSM12 industrial engine, with displacements of 10,5 or 11,8 litres. Production for global markets was initiated at the Beijing Foton Cummins Engine Company. Cummins has also developed the ISV5.0 5,0-litre V8 diesel for North American pickup, delivery vehicle, medium truck, school bus and motor home applications. The rolling out of its revised corporate strategy has resulted in Cummins being able to offer a global automotive engine range spanning the displacement spectrum from 2,8 to 18,9 litres. In the alternative fuel arena, Cummins has been associated with Canadian specialist company Westport in developing and marketing natural gas-fuelled versions of its engines since 2001, and has also entered the arenas of hybrid and electric platforms, and battery systems.
At present, we can only speculate on how the Isuzu/Cummins partnership will roll out. The “fit” between a whole vehicle manufacturer that makes its own driveline elements, and a dedicated powertrain specialist is not easy to imagine, although we can see an opportunity for Isuzu to strengthen its position at the upper end of the payload spectrum with the aid of Cummins power. We will be watching further developments with interest.
Is this the Utimate Lunacy?
On September 26th, 2017, the Competition Commission South Africa published proposals for a Code of Conduct for the automotive sector. In simplified terms, the extensive list of intended outcomes included enabling small and historically disadvantaged independent service providers to carry out in-warranty mechanical and bodywork repairs, removing OEM restrictions on the distribution, sale and use of parts, increased price and product options for parts, and increased consumer awareness of costs related to vehicle purchases. A substantial number of submissions were received by the Competition Commission in response to these proposals, with the majority from the supply industry being, understandably, not in favour. A revised proposal for a “voluntary COC” was subsequently issued on August 1st, 2018, with intended outcomes including “widening the pool of approved service providers who can undertake in-warranty service and maintenance work, in-warranty mechanical repairs, and in-warranty motor-body repairs; ensuring that independent service providers can undertake in-warranty service and maintenance work and in-warranty motor body repairs; allowing for greater consumer choice and product competition in the retail of service plans and/or maintenance plans; and ensuring the fair allocation of motor-body repairs amongst approved service providers”.
The National Association of Automobile Manufacturers of South Africa, better known as NAAMSA, was less than impressed with the original proposal, but has reportedly come out broadly in support of the second version. However, its support was qualified, saying that the code should be developed and rolled out in “an orderly, structured manner, taking into account legitimate commercial interests, international best practices, and the viability of franchise dealers and automotive companies in the South African automotive value chain”. We say “Amen” to that, but must express our concern that this agency of the South African government appears to be digging into matters of which it has insufficient knowledge purely for the purpose of making political capital.
The evolution of this COC is a process which is still rolling out, so we do not know how it will end up. However, we need to say the consequences of forcing this type of protocol through could be extremely dangerous for a number of reasons. Modern motor vehicles of all shapes and sizes are extremely complex machines, incorporating exotic materials and multiple electronic management and control systems. Mechanical interventions, whether in or out of warranty, by anyone who has not been properly trained in dealing with their complexities, the use of any parts not fully matched to their requirements, or compromising the performance of their management systems can result in outcomes ranging from poor performance to loss of control and massive accidents. The fact that South Africa has a far from satisfactory road accident and related fatality history should be reason enough to tread very warily when advocating any loosening of vehicle repair protocols. To even suggest that the local corner garage will be equipped and capable of dealing with warranty repairs to a highly sophisticated, multi-million Rand German luxury car, or even the most modern entry-level machine, is clearly preposterous.
If the Competition Commission thinks that the “widening of the pool of approved service providers” can be effectively managed by vehicle manufacturers, importers or distributors, we disagree. That process, even when applied to a limited number of franchised and qualified dealers, is challenging, and requires constant monitoring of facility, equipment and training levels. Widening the pool will expand the manpower and infrastructure needed to manage it, which will have inevitable consequences for vehicle pricing, which is already high enough. Then there is the question of the multitude of brands and the vast variety of models now on offer to South African buyers. Will our corner garage be expected to handle all of them efficiently? We don’t believe that is a reasonable expectation. Finally, we see any action that can encourage the adoption of a “bloudraad” or “boer maak ‘n plan” approach to the repair of modern motor vehicles as irresponsible in the extreme, and has no place in a South Africa that has any ambition to improve its image in the wider world.