Secretive Cummins and Mack Trident trial uncovered

By: Steve Brooks


News has emerged of a Mack Trident punched by a 15 litre Cummins X15 engine starting long-term trials with high-profile Queensland company Followmont Transport. While a cone of silence has descended on most people involved in the exercise, history has a profound habit of repeating itself and a successful trial over the next year or two could have a far bigger impact than simply turning Trident into a dog with more bite.

Uncovered: The Followmont Transport Triden housing a Cummins 15-litre X15 engine.

It’s more than a fair bet that right now, somewhere on the Bruce Highway, there’s a Mack Trident belonging to Followmont Transport running B-double shuttles between Brisbane and Far North Queensland.

Nothing particularly unusual about that, except for one rather pertinent and compelling detail: Instead of Mack’s 535hp MP8 13 litre Euro 5 engine under the snout, typically married to the 12-speed mDrive automated transmission, there’s a 580hp Cummins X15 Euro 6 engine coupled to Eaton’s automated Ultrashift-Plus 18-speeder.

The truck is being trialled in what is effectively a shared project between Cummins and Followmont Transport principal, Mark Tobin. Meantime, Volvo Group Australia (VGA) and its Mack management insist they are in no way connected to the exercise light-heartedly known within Cummins and Followmont as ‘Project Wilson’, named after Tobin’s pet bulldog.

Despite the fact we’ve known for the better part of two years about Cummins plans to trial an X15 in a Trident, details remain decidedly scant as insiders at Cummins and Followmont stay steadfastly tight-lipped. Even so, if Cummins field tests over the past decade and more are any indication, the trial will run indefinitely, most likely over the life of the truck and over a range of routes, combinations and power ratings. According to one ‘outside’ source, for instance, the engine will be uprated to 620hp for A-double (roadtrain) runs between Townsville and Mt Isa after first accumulating high kilometres on B-double shuttle work.

Yet despite the lack of official comment on the exercise, it’s not difficult to appreciate the attraction of the project for Followmont Transport. The company is a consistent customer of VGA and Mack, and the combination of Trident’s relatively short 2960mm bumper to back-of-cab (BBC) dimension with the bigger, stronger and subsequently less stressed X15 in place of Mack’s MP8 offers a number of potential benefits in some of the company’s heavier workloads.

For Cummins, the long-term benefits of showcasing the X15’s performance and commercial attributes in the Trident chassis are even more profound as the engine maker unequivocally strives to ignite the interest and involvement of Mack and its corporate master – and no doubt, a swathe of existing Mack customers – with the obvious end goal of adding a major new account to its customer portfolio.

It’s early days of course, but the start of the trial is the culmination of a Cummins engineering initiative two years in the making, resulting in an engine installation and cooling package said by one astute observer to be as neat, practical and effective as any in the business. There’s also a whisper that first impressions on performance and efficiency are highly positive.

Nonetheless, it could prove to be a hard sell for Cummins. From the outside looking in, there’s not the slightest sign or suggestion that Mack has current or future plans to offer an X15 in Trident, or any other model in the Mack range for that matter.

Mack is obviously well aware of the trial – with rumours abounding that a number of middle and senior managers have been to Followmont for a very close look at the engine installation – but in a brief phone discussion, bulldog boss Gary Bone was quick to refute any suggestion of Mack or VGA involvement.

"What Followmont is doing with a Cummins in a Trident is an interesting prospect … but as far as we’re concerned, it’s a project between the customer and Cummins. It meets what they need to do, but purely that."

So there is no agenda that might one day see a Cummins X15 in a Mack on the Australian market?

Pausing for a moment, a somewhat hesitant Gary Bone answered, "The future is a really, really long time but on our immediate product future, I can’t comment." The door, it seems, is at least fractionally open.

A few years earlier, another door had been also left partially open.

Behind the Scenes

It was just a quick glimpse. Nothing more. Something as simple as a technician walking through a plain white door that was slow to close, staying open just long enough to notice a big lump of red hardware under a tilted hood.

There was nothing surprising or unusual about the red metalwork. This was, after all, the dyno room at Cummins headquarters in Melbourne. What did surprise, however, was the hood of the truck spotted in the room next door. Or more to the point, what was on the hood – the unmistakable profile of a Mack bulldog.

The Euro 6 version of Cummins X15 at the 2019 Brisbane Truck Show. The big attraction is that it meets Euro 6 without any EGR input.

So, what’s so special about a Mack in an engineering room at Cummins HQ? After all, Mack already uses the 8.9 litre Cummins ISL engine coupled to an Allison auto in the Metro-Liner model, the baby of the bulldog litter which continues to do especially well in the concrete agitator business. But the truck spotted at Cummins HQ definitely was not a Metro-Liner. It was, without doubt, the blunt beak of a Trident and equally, it took only a split second to recognise the familiar bulk of an X15 tucked between the rails.

So again, what’s the big deal about a Cummins and Eaton combination in a Trident? Plenty! For starters, VGA chiefs and their Mack apparatchiks have, over many years and many administrations, vowed and declared no need for anything other than their own Volvo Group hardware in the big end of the business. In Mack’s case, that means the exclusive use of the 13 litre MP8 or its big bore brother the 16 litre MP10, both coupled to the 12-speed automated shifter known in Mack parlance as mDrive.

Trident, however, was never designed to accommodate the hefty dimensions of the MP10, but more on that shortly. Keep in mind, too, that both Trident and its Super-Liner sibling are specific to the Australian and New Zealand markets, with no counterparts in the US.

Anyway, since spotting that Mack at Cummins HQ around two years ago, finding anyone to talk about the installation of a 15 litre Cummins engine under the snout of a Trident has been like pulling teeth with plastic pliers. Every time you thought you had a grip on the project, dismissive denial or corporate connivance from both camps would slip you straight back into the mushroom box, kept in the dark and fed on executive excrement until hopefully, you’d forget about it and find something more convenient to talk or write about.

Followmont Transport principal, Mark Tobin. No comment on the trial of a Trident with an X15 engine but from the outside looking in, potential benefits are significant

Yet every now and then, just when it seemed the exercise might have wilted under the weight of corporate obstinacy, there’d be a whisper or an idle comment (sometimes from the most obscure sources) to rekindle interest and intrigue. What’s more, and despite the total lack of official or even unofficial comment, it hasn’t taken a lot of deep thinking to realise there are some major motivations for the installation and real world trial of an X15 under the snout of a Trident.

From the outside looking in, there appear big benefits for both Cummins and Mack but there’s absolutely no doubt that Cummins is the driving force behind the exercise. Mack, on the surface at least, seems intent on keeping its distance and trying hard to show few signs of interest. It would, however, be extreme naivety to think that the bulldog brethren and their Volvo counterparts would not be at least interested observers.

Whatever, it’s a bold initiative by Cummins, with no guarantee of success given the corporate sensitivities at play. Still, the prospect of adding Volvo Group’s Mack brand to the customer base is a no-brainer, holding huge attraction for the specialist engine maker. Of course, it remains to be seen if the engineering of an X15 into the Trident frame ultimately justifies the investment of several hundred thousand dollars in what one Cummins insider flippantly describes as ‘a fishing trip’. But as Cummins has shown repeatedly in its modern history, technical prominence and marketing initiative are critical elements in winning new business and, indeed, staying in business.

With a formidable and loyal customer base, and a proven service and support network, Cummins certainly has plenty to offer. Yet arguably the most appealing factor of all right now is the X15’s enticing ability to meet the Euro 6 emissions standard without the need for exhaust gas recirculation (EGR).

Mack said the Super-Liner concept truck ‘… will provide the Australian longhaul market with a conventional prime mover that fits into the 34 pallet/26 metre B-double requirement.’ However, nothing has been heard of the project since the truck appeared at the 2019 Brisbane Truck Show

Technically and operationally, Cummins has a long list of credits. The only thing missing, it seems, is a new high profile partner to take the X15 and its kin to an even wider audience.

As things stand at the moment, almost all Cummins’s big bore eggs are in the Kenworth basket and potentially, an exciting new DAF development still some way down the track. That’s not a bad position to be in, of course, as Kenworth continues to doggedly maintain its heavy-duty prominence, but the relationship between the truck maker and its long-serving engine provider has almost certainly endured some sombre moments in recent years. Especially for Cummins.

Paccar’s determination, for instance, to expand the acceptance of its DAF-derived MX-13 engine in Kenworth’s new T410 model, and the subsequent refusal of Paccar Inc. to allow the optional offering of the intriguing and impressively lightweight Cummins X12 engine, equate to a somewhat restricted existence for Cummins.

Consequently, Cummins has good grounds to seek an expanded corporate clientele and for blatantly valid reasons, Mack’s Trident has been identified as the ideal platform to broaden the X15’s horizons. It may be a long shot but as the saying goes, ‘nothing ventured, nothing gained’.

There can be little argument, for example, that Trident in its current form lacks the brawn to be a potent player in the top weight, 34-pallet linehaul B-double business. That may appear a harsh assessment of the model’s abilities and specifically the merits of the MP8 engine, but the simple fact is that Trident’s 535hp power peak – admittedly, with more than 1900ft-lb of torque in support – is better suited to tipper and dog, single trailer and 19 metre B-double combinations than fast-paced linehaul B-double roles at gross weights of 60 tonnes and more.

Sure, 535hp will do the job but at 12.8 litres, even Mack insiders quietly agree that in heavy linehaul B-double roles, the engine is consistently working at high load factors and subsequently pays a price in lifespan and fuel consumption.

As Mack’s Gary Bone remarked when asked if Trident’s current powertrain allows the model to maximise its true potential: "I think Trident does an amazing job with what it was designed for (but) if you look at the individual packaging solution that we now need to try and meet, there will always be development going on."

That ‘packaging solution’ does not include shoe-horning the 16 litre MP10 into Trident. As much as VGA and Mack would love to wave a magic wand and make it happen, the MP10 just does not fit.

As for promoting the 16 litre Super-Liner for heavy B-double roles, a 3115mm bumper to back-of-cab (BBC) dimension is simply too long to fit the legislative length envelope for 34 pallets.

Then there is (or was) the ‘jolly green giant’ which appeared at last year’s Brisbane Truck Show. Said to be in ‘concept phase’ and sporting the muscle and finesse of the MP10 and mDrive powertrain, the locally developed and high standing Super-Liner prototype featured a shorter but undisclosed BBC accompanied by the assertion that it ‘… will provide the Australian longhaul market with a conventional prime mover that fits into the 34 pallet/26 metre B-double requirement’.

The Brisbane show was, however, the truck’s first and only appearance. The project appears to have been shelved and word has it that the show prototype has become nothing more than a museum piece.

So when it’s all boiled down, and unless Mack has something highly secretive up its sleeve, Cummins may well be the only option if the bulldog breed truly wants a bigger bite of the burgeoning B-double business.

It all depends on two critical factors: One, the results of the Followmont trial and two, the corporate will within VGA to allow it to happen.

Whatever the case, history proves that when it comes to truck development, nothing is out of the question. Ever!

Time Travel

"The farther backward you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see."

So said Sir Winston Churchill and with that in mind: There was a time, maybe three years before the arrival of the 21st century and long before Mack had a Swedish master, that the company then known as Volvo Trucks Australia (VTA) had an absolute need for a relatively big bore engine other than its own. Specifically, a Cummins engine.

To cut a long story short, early generations of Volvo’s 16 litre engine had failed dismally, in this country and everywhere else. So, with Sweden’s decision to cut its losses and drop the engine altogether, Volvo’s Australian offshoot suddenly found itself with nothing in the big bore cupboard and therefore, nothing to seriously contest the heavier ends of the Australian market, not least roadtrains and the snowballing B-double business.

Wilson! Mark Tobin’s pet bulldog, a light-hearted but perhaps logical mascot for the Cummins-powered Mack project

It wasn’t long before Volvo’s market share started to suffer and the immediate future had more gloom than glitter.

Even so, holding fast to Volvo’s stringent corporate policy to only use its own hardware, and despite the obvious need and complaints of customers and dealers alike, successive managing directors at Volvo Trucks Australia refused point-blank to entertain the idea of a Cummins engine in the flagship FH model. It was a strange mindset for several reasons, not least because an entirely new Volvo 16 litre engine was nowhere on the radar. In fact, as senior Volvo insiders asserted at the time, the business case for the development of a big bore engine beyond modest markets such as Australia and New Zealand was negligible at best.

Then came a change of leadership in Australia with the appointment of a Swede named Claes Svedberg. Feisty, astute, fiercely competitive, and typically arriving with his own agenda, Svedberg listened intently to dealers and customers, ultimately giving the go-ahead around 1997 for the installation of the then new Cummins 15 litre Signature series. Thus, the FH560 model was born.

Like so many others though, Volvo was disappointed by the mechanical maladies that assailed the highly advanced, twin overhead cam Signature. In short, it was not a good experience and by 2003 the local relationship between the Swedish truck brand and the American engine giant was petering out.

Still, the Cummins project had at least kept Volvo active in the big end of the business while in Sweden, engineers were secretly working on an entirely new 16 litre platform which would evolve to play a major part in Volvo’s Australian future and indeed, success.

What’s more, Australia and its Kiwi counterparts are among the main reasons for the 16 litre engine’s continued existence in the road transport realm. Overseas, however, it’s a different story where the Volvo powerhouse has substantially less influence and runs a distant second to its 13 litre sibling in numbers, both present and prospective.

It’s no secret, for instance, that the engine known in Volvo and Mack vocabulary as the D16 and MP10 respectively, is no longer offered in North America while in Europe, sales are reported to be modest at best, particularly in countries outside Scandinavia.

The Brisbane to Far North Queensland route has been selected for Followmont Transport’s Cummins-powered Mack Trident secret squirrel trial.

However, in the 16 litre’s absence, Cummins now delivers upwards of 5000 15 litre ISX engines annually to Volvo in the US. Moreover, in both Mack and Volvo installations, the Volvo I-shift and Mack mDrive automated transmissions are programmed to operate in complete harmony with the performance characteristics of the Cummins engine.

Yet despite its deletion from North America and limited prospects in Europe, there is nothing to suggest that Volvo will dispense with the modern 16 litre. Nothing at all! It is a mature product with a well-earned reputation for durability and respectable efficiency in heavy-duty workloads, not least in our part of the world.

Still, it’s difficult to ignore the endlessly creeping and breathtakingly high costs of continual development, particularly on the emissions front, for an engine of limited global sales volumes.

And let’s face it, while our part of the world is said to be a critically important component in Volvo’s global machine, our numbers are undeniably slim on the world stage.

Maybe, and it’s a massive ‘maybe’, the 15 litre Cummins option has broader prospects than first meets the eye.

Time will tell but in the corporate world where viability is measured in constant and minute detail, nothing is ever out of the question. Ever!

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