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Logging? There’s an I-Shift for That

With the latest technology on offer from Volvo, our truck expert questions why automated mechanical transmissions are not more popular with Canada’s loggers.

There’s a widely held belief in Canada that automated mechanical transmissions (AMTs), while well-suited for highway trucking, have no place in the bush or anywhere else off-highway.

June 28, 2012  By James Menzies

According to Volvo, maker of the slick I-Shift automated transmission, that couldn’t be further from the truth. The manufacturer pointed to its homeland Sweden as evidence, where it recently hosted a small group of North American truck editors.

The I-Shift, now in its 10th year, is available only on Volvo trucks with Volvo engines. About 80% of Volvo trucks sold in North America now come with Volvo power, and of those nearly 45% are being spec’d with the I-Shift. But while popular with the highway crowd, very few of those automated gearboxes are finding their way into vocational trucks used by loggers.

In Sweden, nearly all Volvo timber trucks are being ordered with the I-Shift, even in applications where 60-tonne (132,000-pound) gross vehicle weights are the norm. Surprisingly, a number of features have been built into the I-Shift specifically for these rigorous applications.

Our truck expert James Menzies took this loaded 750 HP Volvo FH16 750 timber truck on a 120-kilometre test drive in Sweden.

A ‘Rock-Free’ function, for instance, provides the ability to rock a stuck vehicle back and forth, simply by pumping the accelerator rather than manually switching between forward and reverse gears. It works well in situations where a truck is stuck in the mud and its wheels are spinning, explains Anders Eriksson, a software design engineer with Volvo. When the Rock-Free feature isn’t enough to free the vehicle of mud or clay, a “Power Starting” feature allows a driver to rev the engine as high as 1,300 rpm in the lowest gear and then by pressing the minus (-) button, dump the clutch and use the momentum to pull free.


Also available is “Greatest Possible Downshift,” ideal wen approaching a long grade. Drivers can increase engine speed in advance of reaching the hill, press the minus button, put the shifter into Manual mode and then the transmission will complete one large downshift (instead of multiple downshifts), allowing the driver to run the entire hill in one gear without any further shifting.

Finally, there’s the “Prevent Upshift” function, which is also useful on hills and in poor traction situations. Drivers can push the minus button to prevent upshifting and can delay a downshift by pushing the plus (+) button while the engine rpm is low.

In addition to these vocational-minded options, one of the smartest capabilities of the transmission may be EcoRoll, which decouples the engine from the transmission on gradual downhill grades, allowing the truck to coast along without consuming fuel. About 50% of European customers are now spec’ing EcoRoll, which is equally useful among Canada’s rolling hills. The engine returns to normal operation as soon as the brake or throttle is applied.

Another neat feature is “Idle Driving Mode,” which allows drivers to creep along using the idle governor, adjust speed by using the plus or minus buttons on the shifter and alternate between the lower six gears without applying the gas.

A fleet of Volvo FH trucks owned by Sundbergs Akeri AB, a family-run business that hauls logs to mills in southern Sweden, lines up for unloading at a mill.

Despite all these options designed to make life easier for customers in logging and other off-highway applications, there’s been very little uptake in Canadian forestry applications. Not so in Europe.
While in Sweden, we had the chance to visit Sundbergs Akeri AB, a family-run business that hauls logs to mills in southern Sweden behind a fleet of Volvo FH trucks with D13 engines ranging from 520 to 540 horsepower.

Owner Johans Sundbergs said all his trucks are equipped with the I-Shift, even though the trucks pull heavy loads over some very hilly terrain.

I rode along with driver Magnus Andersson on a run deep into the bush, where we picked up a load of three-metre logs to be delivered to a paper mill. Andersson said the automated transmission took some getting used to, but now he wouldn’t have it any other way. When I told him automated transmissions have yet to catch on with the majority of Canadian timber haulers, he shot me a quizzical glance and asked “Why?”

“It’s very convenient, I don’t have to think about gearing on roads like this,” Andersson explained as we wound along a paved logging road, which would later give way to a dirt road and then to little more than a trail through the woods leading to the loading point, which was marked by a red triangle on the in-cab GPS.

While Andersson has become a convert, he still keeps the shifter in Manual mode most of the time in the bush and is constantly taking advantage of the I-Shift’s capabilities that allow him to maintain control and at times make decisions that overrule those of the transmission itself. The one thing the I-Shift lacks is a set of eyes, so Andersson will at times manually downshift earlier than the I-Shift, knowing what terrain lay ahead.

The Sundbergs logging trucks themselves are loaded with a stack of logs and the drawbar trailer they pull holds two more stacks. Johan Sundbergs has spec’d both the trucks and trailers to be lightweight, providing him an impressive 42 tonnes of payload. Overloading is a no-no in Sweden; the mills won’t pay for anything above 60 tonnes gross so there’s little incentive to haul more and Sundbergs has designed his equipment to handle no more than 60 tonnes of total gross weight.

Skilled Drivers
The Swedish loggers are highly skilled, able to offload 42 tonnes of logs in less than 10 minutes and turn the trucks around on narrow logging roads in spaces so tight it defies logic. European laws limit trucks with trailers to 80 kilometres per hour and drivers can’t exceed nine hours of driving per day. However, Andersson said including other non-driving duties, he works about 12 hours a day and the trucks themselves are run around the clock.

Drivers must insert their operator’s licence into a slot in the cab, which records all their driving activity and can be reviewed by enforcement officers at any time. There’s zero tolerance for violating hours-of-service rules. Many European trucks also contain Alcolocks, which require the driver to blow a breath sample before starting the engine. Volvo says about a third of the trucks it sells in Europe have the devices, which cost about $1,500 and are increasingly being required by shippers (or sawmills) to ensure the drivers hauling their product are sober. The log haulers use in-cab GPS displayed on a large dash-mounted monitor to find their pick-up points. They co-ordinate with other truckers by CB and cellphone to ensure they don’t meet oncoming traffic on the narrowest of logging roads.

The view from the passenger seat of one of the Sundbergs trucks on a logging road as they head out to a block to pick up logs.

Even the paved roads are narrow. I point out to a Volvo official that we wouldn’t want to meet any oncoming trucks on a road leading to a sawmill.

“This is not bad,” he said. “The road is five metres wide and the trucks are just 2.5 metres wide, not including their mirrors.” OK, then.

The Sundbergs drivers take an incredible amount of pride in their equipment. The trucks were well maintained and clean inside and out, despite their dirty surroundings. One driver even asked visiting editors to remove their shoes before stepping into the cab. Sundbergs is clearly doing something right. Perched in the middle of the woods, surrounded by tall evergreens is a new, meticulously maintained shop that would be the envy of any trucking company owner. This is where the trucks are serviced and washed before being sent back into the bush.

James Menzies is executive editor of Truck News and Truck West magazines. He produced this report for Canadian Forest Industries.

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