Coming from the biggest truck brand in the country, by the sheer number of modern new haulers they have on the nation’s transport grid, Isuzu Philippines’ new truck school brings us the closest thing to third-party certifications for big-rig Category V drivers.

Before getting into the driver’s seat

Isuzu Philippines Corporation (IPC) had been doing on-site seminars for client companies, training fleet drivers in efficiently operating their trucks’ industrial-grade powertrains but only in the mode of typical after-sales services that are offered by other big brands as well.  But since last year, Isuzu had been organizing regularly scheduled classes at common facilities that are attended by drivers from numerous fleet customers.

The class we observed last November was held at the Honda Safety Driving Center (HSDC) in Paranaque City, and was on the handling of the advanced MJX16 16-speed gearbox offered as an option on Isuzu’s top-spec CYH solid-frame truck and as a standard feature on their EXZ top-end tractor rig.

Karate chop into fifth

On the advanced MJX16, the design of the gearshift permits intuitive access to those 16 speeds but it does take some clear explanation and solid practice to get drivers to the point that they don’t feel compelled to their eyes off the road and eyeball their stick work.  Think about it, even if those numerous speeds were implemented as eight notches on the stick-shift with two final ratios, a low and a high one, multiplying these into the required 16, it’d be a constantly daunting task to slot things into the intended gear. If it were left up to a simple crowding of gears onto two side-by-side H arrangements, any driver would balk at not looking down and somehow making sure he’s pulling the the stick down into 4th and not 6th, or even 8th gear.

The “Karate” sensei scans his students

Isuzu’s elegant solution (explained first in the classroom with nomenclature charts that really brought home how they intended to drill these details into the troops) is this firm détente between gears 1 to 4 and 5 to 7.  After launching the truck, up-shifts to fourth gear follow the typical pattern burned into every driver’s muscle memory—straight down into 2nd, up-right-up for 3rd, straight down again for 4th.

To cross over into the higher range, you then give the stick a firm shove to the right (the instructor they have over from Japan likes calling it a “Karate chop”). This puts the stick in high range mode, toggling that old natural H pattern into accessing gears 5 to 8. There’s no pull to look down at the stick since that shove/chop makes this H arrangement separate from that for gears 1 to 4. Down shifting from 5th to 4th speed, crossing back down from high to low range is just as intuitive—shove/chop the stick left to toggle her back into the lower range then slot the stick into the upper right channel.

Gentle rungs on the shift ladder

Actual gear-shifting is done electronically, by wire, despite the meaty feel of these shifts, and this is most apparent with how Low and High final ratios (those two settings that multiply the 8 speeds into 16) are toggled with a splitter switch down the front of the stick. You can leave the switch in either mode but toggling between the two in a detailed shift ladder (low to high 1st then low to high 2nd and so on) delivers the close ratios you’d need when easing a heavy load up to cruising speed.  You toggle that splitter with the stick in neutral before putting things back in gear.  A gentle climb through all available ratios from launch would go like this …

IPC president Hajime Koso assists in giving troubleshooting tips
  • 1st low: with the stick in neutral set the splitter to low, press down on the clutch pedal, slot the stick into 1st gear for roll out
  • 1st high: bring the stick back into neutral (press down on the clutch pedal, bring the stick into neutral, step off the clutch pedal), toggle the splitter into high, step back on the clutch, slot the stick back into 1st gear
  • 2nd low: bring the stick back into neutral, toggle the splitter into low, step back on the clutch, slot the stick down into 2nd gear
  • 2nd high: bring the stick back into neutral, toggle the splitter into high, step back on the clutch, sloth the stick back down into 2nd

… and so on, you get the picture.

The shift sequence traversing all available speeds does add some significant steps to the process but these describe sub-routines in the algorithm that can be quickly burned into new muscle memory.

When using those speeds to create drag for decelerating, Isuzu’s advanced powertrains also feature engine-induced braking in two stages. There’s the typical engine braking that goes on with the engine idled while being pushed against by the roadwheels through a lower gear, and there’s the additional drag that’s available with exhaust braking where un-combusted gases are funnelled down before exiting the cylinders and made to put more resistant pressure on the reciprocating pistons.  So, interspersed with those downshifts through all the speeds, through both high and low ratios of each gear, the driver has the option to tweak each stage’s braking potential.

Groundbreaking but also pragmatic

Having typically come up through the ranks from light and medium-duty trucks, it’s not surprising that most drivers use only a fraction of these new-fangled controls. They usually settle for a small sub-set of features, thereby handicapping themselves when trying to obey mandates, if any, to keep the engines turning in optimal RPM ranges while doing long and/or heavy hauling.   Isuzu’s truck school offers them a chance to break the mold and drive advanced equipment with new competencies.

IPC president Hajime Koso at truck school

IPC president Hajime Koso explained that their initiative is in direct response to the dramatic growth they’ve experienced since 2015. In that year, Koso’s move to invest in ready ex-stock inventories even of Isuzu’s big C and E series trucks resulted in triple digit growth that got the truck maker the top position in all segments for the first time, leading the industry with their mainstay light- and medium-duty haulers and now also with their heavy-duty solid-frame and tractor-head trucks.

Truck school convened again last December to finish out the year with six sessions and, this month, Isuzu will bring it along with a truck fest exhibit to Isabela in Northern Luzon.  This is in line with what Koso described as their strong push to bring their products and expertise out into the countryside, with IPC asking its dealers to help specify and organize similar activities for the Visayas and Mindanao regions as well.

This progression to common classes for their fleet customers, the first in the country, is as pragmatic as it is groundbreaking … it’s simply them doing their part to make sure their multitude of fleet customers, and many new clients, do get what they expected when they chose Isuzu.  And, with truck school and its certificate courses being the creation of the country’s biggest truck-maker, well, it’s easy to see how this harks back to when big brands like IBM and Boeing had themselves created instruction programs for their complex products, programs that were eventually mainstreamed into courses from independent, third-party institutions.  Would that these developments lead to similar evolutions.