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Medium duty: Speedy shift to shiftless


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Fleet Owner / February 10, 2014

There’s a remarkably rapid shift away from spec’ing manual gearboxes under way in the medium-duty truck market. The reason is due to how the intersection of human and electronic logic can significantly cut costs for fleet owners.

To be sure, fewer and fewer Americans today ever learn to “drive stick.” The upshot is fleets that field medium-duty trucks fitted with automatic or automated manual transmissions (AMTs) are finding it far easier to recruit quality employees as drivers. It’s also less expensive to train these new hires when there’s no manual shifting involved.

What’s more, the latest generations of truck-specific automatic and automated transmissions boast sophisticated built-in electronics that boost a truck’s fuel economy and other performance factors that may shrink the initial purchase advantage of manual gearboxes.

Viewed from a marketing perspective, the big question is not how much more ground the manual transmission will lose to either ‘smart’ alternative. Rather, it’s how the slugfest for dominance in the medium-duty ring between Allison with its automatic transmissions and Eaton with its AMTs will play out.

Sandeep Kar, global director of Commercial Vehicle Research at research and consulting firm Frost & Sullivan, expects “further growth in both automatics and AMTs at the expense of manuals” over the next several years.

According to Kar, research indicates that, per 2010 new-truck orders, automatics were more popular in Class 6 trucks than AMTs with the reverse true for Class 7 vehicles. And in both GVW classes, each of those types of transmissions will gain several percentage points by 2017—further cutting into the market share held by manual gearboxes.

“The biggest thing driving the shift away from manuals is fuel economy,” he contends. “Non-manual units were once seen as less fuel-efficient, but over the past 10 years technology has changed that.

“The shortage of skilled drivers has also had an impact on the market,” he continues. “That includes widening the pool of applicants who are not familiar with manuals” as well as the recognition that “a manual’s impact on fuel economy is only as good as the driver using it.”

Kar also points out that the “price-premium gap” between the three transmission types has narrowed in recent years. That gives fleets impetus to look more closely at the lifecycle costs of switching to an AMT or automatic.

“Certainly, in such Class 6-7 applications as P&D and regional hauling with a high degree of city driving, not having to shift gears is a bigger draw for drivers,” he remarks. “And as truck OEMs bring to market more integrated power­trains, they will include AMTs in those packages.”

Clear shift

In 2013, about 85% of the OEM’s Class 6-7 vehicles were ordered with an automatic or automated transmission, advises Grant Hummel, medium-duty product manager for Freightliner Trucks. By comparison, he says that back in 2008, about 75% of these were ordered with those transmission choices.

“Freightliner sees a future trend towards automated/automatic gearboxes given that driving is not the primary responsibility of the average Class 6-7 vehicle driver—[their role is] to operate the piece of equipment on the back of the vehicle or to deliver whatever product they are hauling,” remarks Hummel. “Fleets are finding that it is much easier to recruit qualified employees through vehicles that are easy to drive. And vehicles equipped with automatic/automated transmissions require considerably less training than those having a manual gearbox.”

“About two-thirds of Kenworth’s medium-duty truck lineup is utilizing an automatic or automated transmission today,” states Doug Powell, medium-duty marketing manager. “The trend five years ago was similar to today, but it has grown about 10% [away from manuals] during that timeframe. About 10 years ago, the majority was clearly in manual transmissions. For 2014, I expect the trend to continue to grow a few percentage points [towards automatics and AMTs].”

“Approximately 75% of Peterbilt [medium-duty] vehicles were equipped with automatic or automated transmissions in 2013,” says Wesley Slavin, segment manager for medium-duty marketing.

“For Peterbilt, the market for automated and automatic transmissions has been relatively steady,” he continues. “They are a good fit for certain market segments and Peterbilt and its dealer network work with customers in those segments to educate them on the advantages.”

“Automatic transmissions remain, and are projected to continue to be, popular in the medium-duty market,” advises Elissa Maurer, Navistar’s manager of external communications. “This is related to the cost difference between transmission options and the ease of driver operation.”

However, Maurer points out that “while more than 75% of our medium-duty trucks in 2013 were spec’d with automatic transmissions, the trend will continue towards automated [manual] transmissions as price differentials drop.”

According to Allison Transmission, its North American market share for Class 6-7 trucks currently stands at 67%—with the other 33% attributed to a combination of AMTs and manuals.

It should be noted that Eaton Corp. considers market share information on its AMTs in Class 6-7 trucks as “confidential.”

Not surprisingly, OEMs of Class 6-7 trucks are, for lack of a better term, “transmission-neutral,” as they must enable their medium-duty customers to spec automatics or AMTs—not to mention manual boxes, too.

Buyer’s choice

Truck makers and their dealers can and do advise their customers on spec decisions based on individual vehicle applications and duty cycles. But in the medium-duty realm, they refrain from endorsing one transmission technology over another. That is unlikely to change—at least until one or more OEMs introduce proprietary powertrains for Class 6-7 trucks that include AMTs.

“We currently offer Eaton Fuller automated transmissions and Allison automatic transmissions,” says Peterbilt’s Slavin. “Additionally, we offer the Eaton Fuller Electric Hybrid

transmission, which is an automated unit, on select truck models. Automated and automatic transmissions can be spec’d in Peter­bilt’s Models 210, 220, 330, 337, 348 and 382.”

As Slavin sees it, “depending on application, automated and automatic transmissions offer a variety of benefits. P&D and other stop-and-go applications can enjoy significant advantages through lower service requirements, greater reliability, longer component life and improved fuel efficiency.

“There’s also the ease-of-operation factor to consider,” he continues. “That gives companies a much wider driver pool from which to recruit. Most operators are going to be familiar with the automotive feel of an automated or automatic transmission, so they can easily transition from their personal vehicle into the work truck.”

Slavin also advises that “since the acquisition cost [for either an AMT or automatic] can be higher vs. a manual transmission, we make sure customers know the lifetime return on investment [ROI] and how these types of transmissions can help them operationally.”

He says the OEM and its dealers accomplish that by “analyzing how automated and automatic transmissions may benefit the customer’s bottom line and operations.

“Customers can cut costs through fuel savings, improved driver recruitment and retention, and service and replacement of drivetrain components,” Slavin explains. “Additionally, because the transmissions are often easier to operate, drivers can enjoy greater productivity.”

Freightliner Trucks offers a full range of Allison automatic transmissions and Eaton UltraShift/UltraShift Plus transmissions for the M2 106 product, our predominant Class 6-7 vehicle,” says Freightliner’s Hummel.

“We have little to no application restrictions for these transmission offerings,” he continues. “Allison and Eaton are able to provide coverage for the vast majority of applications in the market today, through variations of these offerings.

Ease of use

Ultimately, medium-duty truck buyers need to buy the product that is best-suited for their application,” says Hummel. “While ease of driving and optimized shift schedules for fuel economy and performance are certainly strengths of automatic/automated transmissions, there will continue to be demand for manual transmissions in this market, just as there is in the Class 8 on-highway and vocational segments.”

“We offer automated and automatic transmissions in our entire medium-duty conventional lineup,” says Kenworth’s Powell. “We see every application utilizing these transmissions today.

“Units offered include Allison automatics and Eaton Fuller UltraShift [AMT] models as well as the Eaton Fuller automated hybrid unit,” he continues. “For the Kenworth K270 Class 6 and K370 Class 7 cabovers, we offer only Allison automatics.”

According to Powell, driver retention and ease of use are the key drivers for selecting automatic and automated units. “These transmissions drive more like a car and attention can be placed on driving, instead of shifting gears with a manual,” he remarks.

“A majority of medium-duty drivers are not typical truck drivers,” says Powell. “If the truck is easy to operate and does not require a CDL, then it will attract more potential drivers. These transmissions also provide a nice residual when the truck is sold. [it’s clear] the trend will continue to swing towards the automatic/automated gearboxes.”

International Trucks currently offers Eaton manual and AMT as well as Allison automatic transmission options for the medium-duty market,” says Navistar’s Maurer. She advises that DuraStar and WorkStar trucks can be spec’d with all three types of transmissions and that the TerraStar model comes with an Allison 1000 Series.

“Allison is exclusive on TerraStar and also dominates the utility and municipal markets in DuraStar and WorkStar vehicles,” Maurer notes.

As Maurer sees it, “manual transmissions are best suited for fleets with professional drivers as they offer more efficient power transfer. Manuals also offer better fuel economy, but that is dependent on the experience of the driver.”

She notes that Navistar finds automatics are more popular in lease/rental applications “where drivers tend to be inexperienced rental customers. Though automatics can be less fuel efficient, by eliminating driver errors, automatics can result in better fuel economy depending on the application.

“Automated transmissions,” Maurer contends, “provide the advantages of automatics and manuals—more efficient power transfer and automatic shifting of gears.

“The biggest features on [non-manual] transmissions are the electronic shift controls, which allow mounting flexibility and various power take-off options for the control and power of body-mounted equipment,” she notes.

“Customers looking to buy a new truck should consider the intended application and factor in driver experience and fuel economy to determine the best transmission option for them,” Maurer advises.

Allison Transmission and Eaton, of course, have their own thoughts to offer on which transmission option a fleet moving away from manuals should select—automatic or AMT.

According to Lou Gilbert, Allison’s director of North America marketing, when selecting a medium-duty transmission, “consideration should always be given to overall lifecycle value.

That’s made up of driver-skill requirements, training and retention; transmission durability; maintenance costs and uptime; fuel economy; vehicle productivity, and resale value.”

He adds that the “medium-duty market acceptance of the Allison products enforce the proven value delivered through each of these variables.”

Allison’s Gilbert notes that the market is moving away from manuals within Class 4-5 and Class 6-7 especially for lease/rental, P&D, school bus and various service and landscaping applications.

“Because very few automobile models are being offered with a manual transmission, many of the newer [truck] drivers are younger and do not possess manual-shifting skills,” remarks Bill Gross, Eaton’s emerging products sales manager. “This is especially so in the Class 6 market, where a driver may not be required to hold a CDL.

“Because the commercial-vehicle industry in the U.S. continues to struggle to find drivers with the requisite skills to effectively drive a manual,” he continues, “Eaton believes automated manual transmissions have grown in popularity.”

Duty cycles

Gross points out Eaton’s approach is “to find ways to develop solutions for our customers to allow them to manage power more effectively, including automated manual transmissions.”

According to Gilbert, the “Allison 1000 and 2000 Series product families are the primary models in the Class 4-5 and Class 6-7 space. The Allison 3000 Series also applies to some Class 7 vehicles.

“Fully automatic transmissions are the primary architecture in these truck classes due to reliability, durability and driver ease,” he contends. “Additionally, the 1000, 2000 and 3000 Series deliver the fuel efficiency and shift quality these medium-duty customers demand.”

Gilbert describes the common key features of Allisons as “full-power shifts which improve drivability and fuel usage, a torque converter that provides improved driver satisfaction, improved launch capability and overall smooth vehicle operation, and outstanding software and calibration features that target improved fuel economy. These features are designed to target specific operational characteristics—duty cycles—of medium-duty truck applications.”

He says these duty cycles are characterized by “the components of acceleration, deceleration, cruise and stop. Duty cycles vary by how much time is spent in each of these components.

Class 4-5 and Class 6-7 duty cycles spend the majority of their time accelerating and decelerating due to the stop-and-go requirements and city operation and Allison designs features into its transmissions that target each duty cycle component to improve fuel use.”

Medium-duty spec’ing trends “include equipping trucks with fully automatic transmissions to retain, recruit and satisfy drivers, especially as the availability of qualified manual-transmission drivers continues to decline,” says Allison’s Gilbert.

What’s more, he contends that “the automated manual transmission’s ‘power interrupts’ and inconsistent drivability are not appealing to this market. The attributes of the Allison transmission provide the most value to the medium-duty market.

“Reducing engine horsepower and torque is also an expected trend,” he continues, “as fleets continue to look for ways to cost-reduce their vehicles and maintain productivity. Allison’s full-power shifts and torque converter will always provide superior acceleration compared to any other transmission architecture.”

Gilbert adds that “when a fleet manager chooses to purchase an engine with a little lower horsepower/torque rating, the Allison transmission is the obvious choice to ensure vehicle productivity.”

“For the Class 6-7 commercial vehicle market, we developed a model called the Eaton Fuller UltraShift HV Series,” advises Eaton’s Gross. “The HV has been available since 2006 and is a five- or six-speed transmission with the sixth speed being overdrive rated up to 660 lbs.-ft. torque.

“The HV is approved for various vocations in this market space and is sold today through Daimler Truck North America, Kenworth, Navistar and Peterbilt dealerships,” he continues. “It has standard PTO openings as well as optional ‘park pawl’ models.”

Service points

According to Gross, the HV Series advantages include being “an automated [manual] transmission that performs its work in ‘automatic fashion’ and that has shown fuel improvement over torque-converted [automatic] transmissions at various fleets.

“In addition,” he continues, “the HV has no lube filters, so there are no lube filters to change, and its factory-fill Roadranger lube has a 500,000-mi. change interval, making it virtually ‘lubed for life.’”

Gross says the transmission also comes standard with PTO openings. “That means a dealer stock order can be ordered in confidence for added sales flexibility without knowing who may purchase the truck. This PTO standard feature is also important for the ‘second’ owner, who may want a PTO depending on its use.”

He also points out that the HV Series “can be serviced by any local dealership, which can provide quicker uptime for the customer, and the transmissions are backed by our Roadranger support—the most trusted name in commercial vehicles. We believe our leadership, our products’ added value and our service support sets us apart in the marketplace today.”

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