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Shifting away from manual transmissions


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Jack Roberts - Fleet Owner  /  May 13, 2016

A couple years ago, I found myself on a Meritor test track in Wales, U.K. evaluating new commercial vehicle safety systems.

Trips to Europe are always enlightening from a technology standpoint, since so many new safety and drivetrain systems originate there. But on this day, I was struck by something a bit more Old School: The manual gearboxes in a couple of the European cabovers we were driving that day. 

These were fully-synchronized transmissions, as smooth and easy to operate as shifting a Honda or a Toyota passenger car. The entire experience was actually a little bit surreal: driving a Class 8 tractor with a dinky little, dash-mounted shifter with absolutely no worries about engine RPMs or double-clutching.

Naturally, I starting asking around about these odd gearboxes and was surprised to discover that they're pretty common in Europe. They've also made massive inroads in China, which is basically building its trucking/logistics industry and network from scratch and has no preconceived notions as to how a truck drivetrain should be operated. 

A buddy who works at another European vehicle component supplier told me his company tried to bring synchronized gearboxes to the States a decade or so ago, only to have them flop in the marketplace. Why was that? I asked him. They were so much easier and safer to drive than unsynchronized transmissions. He just shrugged his shoulders. "They're not macho enough for American drivers, I guess," he replied.

If you're the type of Old School Gear Jammer who sneers at synchronized manual truck transmissions, you gaze in horror at modern Automated Manual Transmissions. Yet, here they are, gaining marketshare at a breath-taking rate and utterly transforming how trucks perform today.

But what about manual transmissions? Are they destined for the technological dust bin? Are we just a few years away from logging onto YouHologram (or however we'll be watching videos in the future) to chuckle at the memories as some guy demonstrates who to shift between low and high range on a 13-speed gearbox?

My thoughts are that AMTs are well on their way to becoming the dominate transmission in both medium- and heavy-duty trucking and will likely reach full-market penetration on new vehicles before this decade is out.

But that doesn't mean there won't be a place for manual gearboxes in trucking. But I suspect their roles will evolve toward more specialized niches such as severe-duty, extreme heavy-haul and off-road and severe-terrain conditions. And, of course, there are always going to be drivers -- young and old alike -- who prefer a manual gearbox for a variety of reasons. When asked, manual gearbox adherents usually tell me they simply feel more in control of a truck when they're shifting gears, as opposed to a computer doing it for them.

So there are always going to be drivers out there who prefer shifting the old--fashioned way. But my suspicion is that trucking as an industry has made a sea change: In the past, trucking focused on delivering the goods on time, no matter what. Trucks and powertrains were designed with that emphasis foremost in mind. Poor fuel economy was simply a means to an end.

Today, it is clear that the focus has shifted. Delivering goods is just as important as it's ever been. Perhaps even more important, if that's possible. But truck and powertrain design is rapidly shifting toward optimal fuel economy as its priority. It's not enough to get the good there on time, anymore. You've got to do it as fuel efficiently as possible, too.

Beginning next year, I think we'll see the first concrete evidence of a new philosophy in trucking: The first generation of truck models with fully integrated fuel economy designs. Every aspect of vehicle design will be engineered with fuel economy as a priority. Moreover, every aspect of vehicle design will be engineering to compliment every other aspect of the design. Simply put, the truck's overall shape and aerodynamic profile will be designed to complement and boost the performance of its drivetrain in every possible way, and vice-versa.

And I hate to be the one to tell you, but there's not going to be much room for manual transmissions in those highly integrated and sophisticated truck designs of the near future. 

 

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Eaton sells fully synchronized twin-countershaft heavy truck transmissions in the global market, but doesn't try to sell them in the US.

Synchronized trannies always had a shorter life, but the Europeans and South Americans were willing to tolerate that, while the US, Australian and Chinese markets preferred the longer life, greater simplicity and lower overall cost of non-synchronized units.

In both cases of course, the advancement of gear oils has extended the lives of both transmission types.

To each his own.

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I feel the automatic are by far a better choice, at least for me, it's easier on the motor, their faster on take off, less driver fatigue, I am not sure on longevity how they compare there, price makes a person think, to begin with first they are a little pricey, and of course you can stick any one in the truck, 

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I was looking at a row of army trucks at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds, from fairly old to pretty new ones, and I was surprised that every last one of them had an automatic transmission in it.

DSCN2566.JPG

Not every soldier is an experienced truck driver. Automatic transmissions shorten the learning curve for new operators. This is also why many civilian fleets are going with AMTs.

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I personally think the big reason we're seeing more and more autos in trucks because there is a bigger demand for drivers and it's easier to find an inexperienced driver to throw behind the wheel so they can try and drive a truck like their Camry. I've drove one auto shift (start and stop with clutch) and absolutely hated it. They figure our company runs off pavement 40%_50% of the time and many of those "roads" are no more than a two track across the prairie which turns to nasty gumbo when it's wet. With the auto we had if you started to spin out it would automatically derate you until it got into second gear and if you were still spinning it would derate you nearly to a stop. That doesn't work well when we need to spin,grab and claw our way out of muddy, snowy messes. I didn't like descending hills because it would upshift  on you, using the auto in manual sucked in my opinion because you still weren't in full control of the truck because it would only let you shift when the computer told you so. I'd rather be on the road with drivers who have actually spent some time learning with other drivers how to drive a truck. How it handles differently than a car, shows them the tricks of the trade. Not some fly by night trucker who decides trucking is their last chance ditch effort at a career. I know there are some great applications for autos around town and in vocational trucks but my opinion of them is not very high. 

Edited by HeavyGunner
Damn autocorrect

The problems we face today exist because the people who work for a living are outnumbered by the people who vote for a living.

The government can only "give" someone what they first take from another.

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I was driving a 16 speed full syncro boxes in a Volvo F88 in the mid 70's... slick as can be, even had air assist to the hydraulic slave in some applications.... I came over to N. America and had to remember how I used to drive the 1930's AEC's and Leyland crash boxes all over again.... crunch crunch slam bang..!!! :-)

I figured it was a big step backwards.... now all I drive are Allison and ZF auto boxes in Transits... no third pedal, just a bootrest..!!!

each to their own favourite...

BC Mack

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Synchro's wear out, and with dick heads behind the wheel they wear out sooner rather than later. 

There aren't many standards set to become a truck driver. So I look at driving a non synchro box as an aptitude test so to speak. 

But can understand others peoples opinion on it being easier. I guess person preference is a personal thing...

 

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On 5/15/2016 at 7:09 AM, HeavyGunner said:

I personally think the big reason we're seeing more and more autos in trucks because there is a bigger demand for drivers and it's easier to find an inexperienced driver to throw behind the wheel so they can try and drive a truck like their Camry. I've drove one auto shift (start and stop with clutch) and absolutely hated it. They figure our company runs off pavement 40%_50% of the time and many of those "roads" are no more than a two track across the prairie which turns to nasty gumbo when it's wet. With the auto we had if you started to spin out it would automatically derate you until it got into second gear and if you were still spinning it would derate you nearly to a stop. That doesn't work well when we need to spin,grab and claw our way out of muddy, snowy messes. I didn't like descending hills because it would upshift  on you, using the auto in manual sucked in my opinion because you still weren't in full control of the truck because it would only let you shift when the computer told you so. I'd rather be on the road with drivers who have actually spent some time learning with other drivers how to drive a truck. How it handles differently than a car, shows them the tricks of the trade. Not some fly by night trucker who decides trucking is their last chance ditch effort at a career. I know there are some great applications for autos around town and in vocational trucks but my opinion of them is not very high. 

You're 200 percent right in saying "the big reason we're seeing more and more autos in trucks because there is a bigger demand for drivers and it's easier to find an inexperienced driver to throw behind the wheel so they can try and drive a truck like their Camry".

But you can't compare Eaton's first generation AMT, the 3-pedal Autoshift, to what's being sold today........it was introduced way back in 1999. Though let me say, the Autoshift after all these years still has a strong following in Oz and South Africa (it's always interesting how markets vary),

When you speak of off road, the Autoshift wasn't designed for that. However, today's AMTs are. In Eaton's case, they have a purpose-designed UltraShift Plus vocational range.

http://www.roadranger.com/rr/ProductsServices/ProductsbyCategory/Transmissions/UltraShiftPLUS/Vocational/index.htm

For years now, Scania's superb AMT has had a "rock free" mode which allows the driver to free the truck when it becomes stuck by rocking it back and forth with the accelerator (Volvo and others then copied us.......we always say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery).

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HeavyGunner,  I agree with you 100%!  I'm stuck driving a Volvo with an "I Shift" and l hate it. l'm no longer a truck driver, just a steering wheel holder now.

I feel privileged to have an I-shift. Makes a long day in NYC not so physically stressful. Also allows you to focus on other aspects of driving. Lots of features on the I-shift like manual control and kickass engine braking if you read the manual and learn how to use it. My company has about 40 of them, and maybe 10 drivers actually know how to utilize the full potential. Clutch and driveline failure near zero as well.

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17 hours ago, Underdog said:

 Lots of features on the I-shift like manual control and kickass engine braking if you read the manual and learn how to use it. 

Most unfortunately get new technology and because they don't understand  and learn how to use it condemn it. Think back how people reacted in the automotive world to Radial Tires, Fuel Injection, Electronic Ignition and Alternators to name a few.  

"OPERTUNITY IS MISSED BY MOST PEOPLE BECAUSE IT IS DRESSED IN OVERALLS AND LOOKS LIKE WORK"  Thomas Edison

 “Life’s journey is not to arrive at the grave safely, in a well preserved body, but rather to skid in sideways, totally worn out, shouting ‘Holy shit, what a ride!’

P.T.CHESHIRE

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