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Freightliner employees go for drive

by: Photo By Holly M. Gill - Freightliner employees brought over the Sterling race truck the company uses for the Pike's Peak Hill Top Race in Colorado. Above, Director of Testing Terry Watkins, left, Project Engineer Mark Alvick, and Mayor Rick Allen, right, discuss the company's plans.


   Their presence in Madras is usually limited to a couple employees, but last Thursday, about a dozen people from Freightliner's main office in Portland converged on the company's test track at the Madras airport.
   "Once or twice a year, we get everybody out of the office," said Terry Watkins, director of component testing.
   The employees drove over in seven trucks, and met with five others with five more trucks, who were already at the airport.
   Al Pearson, director of vehicle testing, said that most of those who drove over were engineers. "In the test engineering department, we strongly encourage everyone to have a commercial driving license," he said, adding that all the men and women were licensed commercial drivers.
   "We were taking test drives -- driving test products," Pearson explained. Drivers tested trucks equipped with new engines, transmissions, and steering systems, some of which were developed in Madras.
   Freightliner has tested trucks on Madras airport property for the past three decades, according to Mayor Rick Allen. "We have a long history with them that started in the '70s," he said.
   The company has a shop and a test track on leased airport property, and hopes to lease another nine acres for an oval test track. "Currently, they lease the use of the track and the building. They would like to have a third lease to build the oval," said City Administrator Mike Morgan. Morgan and Allen met with the Freightliner group last week.
   They expect to have the new multi-year agreement in place soon, so Freightliner can begin paving the handling circle, which will have a diameter of about 700 feet, with a 50-foot driving surface.
   "We have the funding and budget for a handling circle," which will be built as soon as the lease is approved, Pearson pointed out.
   "Every year, we try to add capability to our testing," he continued. "We budget $40,000 to $50,000 annually for Madras improvements."
   The existing track features a durability course, which includes cobblestones, impact bumps, and a chuck hole. "About 12,000 miles of the accelerated durability course equals one million miles of real world highway," Pearson said. "Our design life for trucks is one million miles."
   The new oval track will be used to test handling on trucks, he said. Drivers will be able to circle the track in tractor-trailer rigs -- with "training wheels" on the trailer -- to figure out how to prevent rollovers.
   "We have systems on our trucks now that automatically take over and depower the engine and apply the brakes to reduce the chance of a rollover," said Pearson. "That system was developed here."
   The Roll Advisor and Control System, about which Pearson was speaking, is already available as an option on trucks, but testing continues locally on a prototype system, not yet in development.
   Although Freightliner does testing in Finland, Germany, and several locations in the United States, there are only three locations with actual facilities.
   Madras and South Bend, Ind., have the only two facilities that are used year-round, while Bemidji, Minn., has a facility that is used for three months of the year -- during cold weather.
   The local track is used to test fuel economy, durability, splash and spray, noise, and fuel tank crash-worthiness, brakes, and automatic transmissions.
   "All brake certification and anti-lock brake system development was done here," said Pearson.
   Freightliner, which was established as Freightways Manufacturing Company in 1940, is now a subsidiary of DaimlerChrysler -- the world's largest commercial vehicle manufacturer.
   Headquarters for Freightliner LLC is located in Portland, as well as one of four truck plants. Two plants are located in North Carolina, and another, in Santiago Tianguistenco, Mexico.
   The Freightliner Group employs more than 14,000 people in North America, and has six product brands: Freightliner Trucks, American LaFrance, Sterling Trucks, Thomas Built Buses, Western Star Trucks, and Unimog.
   "It's a huge company," said Allen, who is pleased with the relationship Madras has developed with the company over the years. "The potential, long term, could be exciting."
   In response to a question about future expansion on Madras airport property, Pearson commented, "We're always open to that."