Transmissions in transition

Lucas Deal

April 25, 2013

It’s no secret truck drivers like shifting gears. There are songs about the enjoyment one can get from shifting gears on the open road.

But just because drivers like stepping on a clutch and operating a manual transmission doesn’t mean it’s the only way to drive.

In fact, over the last several years the heavy-duty market has seen a steady growth in the popularity and use of fully automatic and automated manual transmissions. Both systems work independently, up and downshifting on their own without the assistance of a driver or clutch pedal.

This frees a driver from the responsibility of constant shifting, allowing them to focus on other areas of driving.

Combine that with potential safety and fuel economy benefits and it’s no surprise that fleets are making a point to add these transmissions to their trucks.

That means you should be trying to sell them.

“I think people are slowly moving away from the clutch pedal as they see how well these new options work,” says Ed Saxman, product marketing manager at Volvo Trucks. In 2012, nearly 60 percent of Volvo-powered vehicles built featured an I-Shift, the company’s automated transmission.

The componentry in an automated manual transmission is not that different than a manual transmission, says Shane Groner, manager of development and product planning, North America at Eaton. It’s how the two systems operate where automated benefits are noticeable, he says.

Both manual and automated manual transmissions have similar gears and operate using a disconnect clutch, the latter transmission also is equipped with an electronic shift actuator and engine control unit (ECU), Groner says. These additional components monitor the transmission’s performance, sense when shifting is necessary and perform those shifts automatically without any driver input.

Jim Wanaselja, vice president of North American marketing, sales and service at Allison Transmission, says fully automatic transmissions operate by using a torque converter instead of a disconnect clutch. He says this allows the transmission to shift pausing for a clutch operation, delivering “uninterrupted, continuous power to the wheels during gear shifts.”

Both systems ensure a transmission is shifted at the exact correct moment, which helps extend the life of the transmission and improves the truck’s fuel economy.

That can be a big selling point for your sales staff.

“The number one thing now when you talk to fleets is fuel economy,” Groner says. “That’s the leading decision maker and number one cost to fleets by far.”

You should approach customers with long-standing allegiances to manual transmissions and let them know these other options exist in the marketplace.

Spec’ing automated manual and fully automatic transmissions are more expensive than manual transmissions – but those up-front costs can be recovered in fuel savings over time.

North American sales of automated manual and automatic transmissions are constantly on the rise, and Groner says customer, and driver, feedback is impressively positive.

Shifting may be fun, but it’s not a deal breaker. Even the most experienced drivers can enjoy the benefits of an automated or automatic transmission.

Groner recently installed an automated manual transmission in the truck of a veteran driver who was extremely resistant to losing his manual transmission. At first, he says the driver wanted no part of the new technology. Yet when he returned three months later and asked the driver if he wanted his old manual transmission returned, he was met with a resounding “No.”

“Dad wanted no part of that again,” he joked.

“I have a lot of respect for truck drivers. I know they really enjoy shifting gears, but that’s also a lot of work and it can get messy sometimes,” Saxman says. “I’ve heard numerous stories of drivers resisting automated transmissions because they don’t want to lose that part of driving.

“That’s why we encourage our customers to have their guys drive our transmissions. We want them to see how enjoyable they can be.”

Groner says Eaton also encourages dealers to have vehicles on hand with automated manual transmissions for drivers to test.

During those test drives you also should mention the safety benefits of the transmissions.

Because a driver no longer has to regularly operate the transmission, he has more time to focus on the road and cars around him.

“The ability for a driver to safely concentrate on the road, and to perform other functions that may be required of their position, is reduced when they must focus on shifting,” says Wanaselja.

Adds Saxman, “These transmissions limit the [potential] of what a driver can do wrong.”

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