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[NEWS] Artic explorer: learning to drive a lorry

Artic explorer: learning to drive a lorry

99 truck driving

The UK is crying out for people to qualify as truck drivers, but what’s the reality of steering a 15m-long articulated wagon?

Ali Colquhoun looks nervous. The affable Scot’s normal day job is teaching HGV drivers and their transport managers to extract the best from heavily tech-laden machinery at Mercedes-Benz Trucks’ Customer Experience Centre near Barnsley. But today, he’s got me, and – all credit to him – I detect only the merest flinch when I admit that reversing a horse trailer into a paddock is the nearest I’ve come to driving an articulated vehicle.

But you can imagine that scenario being played out many times (at least, the government would hope so) over the coming months, as the barriers to obtaining an HGV 1 licence (code C+E), which allows you to drive a full-sized, 44-tonne articulated lorry, are relaxed. In short, before the end of this year, budding truckers will no longer have to first pass the HGV 2 (code C) test, which currently permits them to drive only a rigidbodied truck, since it will be merged with the HGV 1 test.

Unless you’ve been locked in a news-free bunker over the past few weeks, you’ll appreciate why. There’s a shortage of truckers and the race is now on to attract as many new drivers as possible into the profession to keep the wheels of industry turning because, put simply, pretty much everything we consume as a nation is at some point transported by these huge, multi-axled behemoths. Speeding up the process still further will be the relaxing of car and towing restrictions for those drivers who passed their test after 1997, freeing up vital training resource, which will be redeployed to increase the number of drivers being put through their truck tests.

This explains why I’m here today, looking at the bluff and towering cab of an 18-tonne Mercedes Actros rigid-bodied truck and wondering what I’ve let myself in for. The plan is for me to sample a small but important part of what a learner trucker would have to go through towards passing their HGV 1 test, and to see if I can avoid making a complete Horlicks of it. 

Ironically, the HGV 2-class vehicle we’re about to climb into will no longer be part of the process and that, says Colquhoun, is concerning, because the skills needed to drive it are different, and not necessarily less demanding. But first, a real-world demo. Colquhoun drives me on public roads around the test centre so I can get a feel for the tech in a moderntruck. And frankly, it makes most modern cars look primitive. Its 300-horsepower 7.7-litre inline six sits between driver and passenger, mainly beneath the floor.

Air pressure controls not only the brakes, as you’d expect, but also adjustment of the seats and steering column, so when you’re on the move, you gently bounce in frequency with the air-mounted cab. Mercedes now equips the Actros (a generic name covering all of its heavy on-road trucks from 18 to 44 tonnes) with MirrorCams, which replace the traditional door mirror with a high-mounted camera on either side of the cab, its information displayed through two tablet-style screens on the inside of the A-pillars.

Fuel consumption is reduced by 1.5-3%, thanks to improved aero, but a vastly better perspective for the driver than with a physical mirror (our demo truck has both for comparison) reduces blindspot terrors while also remaining dirt- and rain-free at all times. We’re hauling a measly five-tonne dummy weight today, but thanks to what Mercedes calls Predicted Powertrain Control, Colquhoun can preset various ‘rules’ in the truck’s systems, such as upper-speed tolerance, cornering momentum and even how soon the truck backs off power as it approaches a junction. I say ‘the truck’, because all of this is linked to highly sophisticated cruise control tech that uses a camera with a twomile range to see prevailing road topography and react accordingly, improving safety but also optimising economy, engine life and therefore up-time while it’s on a fleet.

I’m slightly worried to see Colquhoun taking his hands off the wheel – just by a few inches – as we slow towards a roundabout but, he tells me, the tech includes level-two autonomous driving capability, too. It’s no mere gimmick, either: the benefits are very real in terms of driving consistency, and therefore safety and running costs.

Now it’s my turn. Without a licence, I’m restricted to driving in the ominously named ‘Zone 13’ on Mercedes Trucks’ site. I stay in the 18-tonner to begin with, to get a feel for the largely generic controls. Press a button to start the engine, rotate the small switch at the end of a column stalk to ‘D’ (which disengages the air parking brake), touch the accelerator and you’re away. There are nine gears, all automatically selected (although you can override them through a second column shift), and each one engages after a short pause.

Steering feel through the large-ish wheel is surprisingly communicative, and not nearly as low geared as I’d expected and – get this – as you slow down, the engine’s revs automatically match the downshifts, just like in the best exotica. But this was a mere taster for the real deal, which now awaits me: the Actros 2545 articulated truck, complete with full-sized trailer. That means 15m of total length, 2.5m of width, and all powered by a 12.8-litre six delivering (gulp) 450 horsepower through its 12-speed transmission. It has the same basic controls as before, but when I turn, the sight of that mighty trailer snaking behind me is unnerving. I’ve driven all sorts of stuff over the past 40 years, but nothing prepares you for this.

With my spatial radar turned to 11, we proceed to an area coned out for the dreaded reverse manoeuvre. In future, responsibility for it and the pre-driving checks, which were previously part of the HGV 1 exam, will be carried out by your instructor, once again reducing test times, to get through more candidates in any given day. Anyway, it’s bloody fiendish, let me tell you now. The aim is to first reverse from one narrow lane to an adjacent one, each one marked out by cones. You have to do this without hitting a blocking cone, which forces you to perform this part of the manoeuvre in a defined distance, and then complete the task by backing into a cone-drawn ‘loading bay’, stopping within 75cm of its rear extremities.

Having towed before, I understand the principles of kinking the cab the opposite way to its trailer in order to ‘push’ it in the right direction, but the sheer length of the trailer, allied to the confined space in which the cab has to rotate, is a challenge, even with Colquhoun’s guidance. By fluke, I crack it first time, but I over-think it second time around, leaving my trailer across three imaginary lanes. If this had been a real exam, while I’d be permitted one corrective shunt forward, I’d have had only one attempt to get it right, so practice would definitely need to make perfect.

And to do this in the heat of a busy distribution centre? Truckers, I take my hat off to you.

Home is where the truck is

You can’t sugar-coat ‘tramping’, or when truckers are away for days on end, often sleeping in their cabs. But for the lucky few, there are top-spec trucks like the Mercedes-Benz Actros 2563LS. Set aside its mechanical outputs (616bhp and, I kid you not, 2212lb ft of torque) and it’s as close to home as a driver will get. Air-suspended leather seats, a luxury bed with pull-out fridge beneath and automatic climate control all make long days on the road more palatable. Add in USB-C ports, Bluetooth connectivity and inductive charging for your phone and kit levels are up to premium car standards. But they should be for its six-figure price…

Simon Hucknall

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