Lucas Roberto | Fleet Maintenance
Volvo Trucks Test Track

Smooth test drives debunk trucking's rough persona

Feb. 23, 2024
After test driving a Peterbilt 548 with ZF's PowerLine transmission and all-new Volvo VNL, our new associate editor has gained a greater appreciation for the industry's modernized equipment.

As a newcomer to the trucking industry, trying to speak to the struggles and challenges of fleet managers, technicians, and drivers with decades of experience on me is a daunting task. My previous experience writing for a truck management software brand gave me a general idea of the industry and the people that comprise it, but no concept of what it’s like in a hands-on sense.

That has quickly changed. Two weeks ago, I had never driven anything larger than a U-Haul cargo van. Now I’ve had the opportunity to take two commercial vehicle test drives.

My first box truck experience was at the ZF Transmissions ‘Powering the Future’ event held at their Gray Court, South Carolina facility in early February. The rig in question was a Peterbilt 548, equipped with the new PowerLine 8-speed automatic transmission.

Now, I may have been a bit spoiled as a first-timer, as the PowerLine includes such features as the Motion Drive DRD, which enables a seamless shift from drive to reverse and vice versa without coming to a full stop. It drives like a car with the performance of a truck, ZF says. I’ll believe it when I see it, I thought.

Well, I sure saw it—and it really wasn’t much different from the driving I’m used to doing on a daily basis in my little Volkswagen. This short test drive had already begun to debunk my belief that trucks were cumbersome and difficult to maneuver.

A week later, I visited the Volvo Trucks Customer Center in Dublin, Virginia for the unveiling of their all-new VNL, an updated version of their Class 8 flagship that hadn’t undergone significant change since its introduction in 1996. As I read the press releases and announcements about the new VNL in the weeks prior to my visit, I discerned that this was pretty important. Massive improvements in fuel efficiency, safety, and connectivity seemed like a huge deal to me, but I wasn’t sure if my fellow reporters felt the same way. At the moment, everything was new and was a huge deal.

Even with my lack of experience, that assumption proved correct.

I took two configurations of the truck out for a spin on the test track: the VNL 300 (a day cab) and VNL 840 (a midroof option for longer hauls). Both a step up in size from the Peterbilt at ZF, I was eager to see how they fared in the ‘ease-of-drivability’ department for a first-timer.

The VNL 840 was first, and Chayene De Souza, product marketing manager for Connectivity and Safety at VTNA, ran me through the noteworthy features before we were off. Now, bear in mind that I don’t have years of Class A driving experience to compare it to, but driving the VNL was a breeze. So much so, in fact, that I was astounded when De Souza informed me that I was moving 66,000 lbs. in GVWR, more than 20 times more than my VW.

The truck operated smoothly while accelerating to around 45 mph. It intuitively downshifted automatically on the downhill stretch of the test track. The Volvo Active Driver Assist kept the truck center of lane with minimal effort. This firmly shattered any pre-conceived notions I had of enormous, clunky semi-trucks being a pain to drive. That's not to say I now think driving several thousands of miles a week for many years is easy, even with smooth shifting. (I get restless just sitting at my desk 40 hours a week.) But if the all-new VNL represents the future of trucking, I could imagine getting used to it. 

With driver turnover being an issue, I can also imagine that fleets utilizing this new wave of smoother trucks would have less of a problem with driver retention. There's still a lot I have to learn about the industry before considering myself a true trucking journalist, but with these two experiences behind me and many more ahead, I can say I'm excited for the next opportunity to climb up into the driver's seat. 

About the Author

Lucas Roberto

Lucas Roberto is an Associate Editor for Fleet Maintenance magazine. He has written and produced multimedia content over the past few years and is a newcomer to the commercial vehicle industry. He holds a bachelor's in media production and a master's in communication from High Point University in North Carolina.