Driven to the brink
Jeff Turner tests trucks in North America’s coldest, hottest, highest places

Special to Land Line

It’s February, and as Jeff Turner’s alarm goes off at 6 a.m., it’s pitch black outside. And cold – it’s minus 20 degrees. “Perfect,” Turner says to himself. “It’s going to be a great day.”

While other drivers might shudder from just the thought of the cold, it’s how this OOIDA member from Burlington, Wash., and his team of engineers from the Paccar Technical Center like it. The colder the better.

As manager of the Tech Center’s “embedded engineering team,” Turner leads teams into the toughest environments known to man. It’s all in an effort to create trucks to withstand nature’s wrath.

In the winter, Turner drives roads (and ice roads) near Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories, a four-day, 1,400-mile trip from his “office” at the Paccar Technical Center in Mount Vernon, Wash. At Yellowknife, temperatures can drop to as low as a frigid minus 40 degrees, and the average temperature in January is a balmy minus 20.

Oh, and in the summer, it’s like a furnace when he steps out of his rig in Death Valley where temperatures can exceed 120 degrees.

Then a few weeks later, he drives from the lowest point in the United States – Death Valley at 282 feet below sea level, to Colorado’s infamous Loveland Pass, the highest point in the United States where commercial vehicles can legally travel. Elevation? Nearly 12,000 feet.

Since its early design days several years ago, the Kenworth T680 has been involved in “remote” testing with Turner at the helm during much of it.

“The drive up to Yellowknife really represents what many truckers face during the winter,” says Turner. “The day begins with cold starts in the morning. Then there’s often snowstorms and ice buildup punctuated by occasional trips out of the rig to put on chains. When I’m driving the T680, I take mental notes on how the truck operates and then later, during my breaks, I write down my observations.”

Once in Yellowknife, the team will put on up to 200 miles a day in driving, but it’s the evening and morning that command the most attention. “When we shut down, other truckers look at us like we’re crazy,” says Turner. “Truckers up there never shut down their engines due to the extreme temperatures. But we’re testing cold starting and how systems function in bitter cold. We’ll let the truck ‘soak’ 12 hours, then do an unassisted cold start. We’ll have a battery blanket and use No.1 diesel, but that’s it – no fuel line or oil pan heaters. We’re checking how the Paccar MX-13 engine and supporting systems perform, and how coolant is circulating – which will also thaw out DEF.”

While much of the work is done in the comfort of the truck (yes, they check HVAC systems too), Turner and others still have to get out in the cold. “Bone-chilling,” Turner says. “Most of the time we’ll wear a face mask. If you don’t, the air will just burn your lungs.”

While fighting the cold drains their energy, the aurora borealis often renews it.

“It’s beautiful to see,” says Turner. “It’s one of the special treats we get while visiting one of the coldest spots on earth.”

More than 2,500 miles to the south, Death Valley is the yin to the Northwest Territories yang. Hot. So hot that tourists often fry eggs on the sidewalk just to see if it can be done. It can, but it’s discouraged. One segment in the Valley where Turner and his engineers like to run is from Stovepipe Wells to Towne Pass, which features 8 percent grades and an elevation gain of 4,950 feet.

“It’s a hard, aggressive climb to the top, with a lot of shifting, and strains on the cooling system, engine, transmission and components,” Turner says. “This makes nearby Baker Grade seem pedestrian. We’ll start out when temperatures are close to 120 degrees, and at the top – some

17 miles later – it drops to 90 degrees.”

After grinding through the heat, Turner turns his truck east and heads toward Colorado and Eisenhower Tunnel, and other routes nearby. They undergo high elevation testing starting at Silverthorne – elevation 9,000 feet. From there they ascend another 2,500 feet to the tunnel. They’ll also go over to Loveland Pass, where hazmat transporters must travel, since they can’t go through the Eisenhower Tunnel. Elevation is nearly 500 feet higher.

“We’re starving for oxygen at that elevation,” says Turner. “And it’s a great test for the Paccar MX-13 engine and turbo, and figuring out ways to maximize engine performance. When you have one-third less oxygen, it can decrease your horsepower. We’ll also test the components related to the engine and powertrain.”

The beauty of the Rockies is not lost on Turner. “It is something,” he says. “On our off-hours we’ll do some hiking to observation points. Climbing stairs there versus here is a challenge though. You get totally winded. Some of our guys have even had mild altitude sickness – headaches. From what the altitude and lack of air does to our bodies, we can certainly appreciate how that impacts the engine.”

Does Turner pine for a “regular” engineering desk job?

“Nah, I get to do the best of both worlds,” he says. “I’m half engineer and half trucker. I get to see some special places and help our company build trucks that can survive incredible challenges. It doesn’t get much better.” LL