Should we be more vocal about opportunities with AMTs?

by Derek Clouthier

Are automated transmissions the key to attracting a new crop of young truck drivers to replace outgoing baby-boomers, or is it a pathway to a less-skilled batch of motorists behind the wheel of hundreds of thousands of heavy-duty vehicles rolling down our highways?

Being very new to the trucking industry, I have to admit that I was ignorant when it came to automatic and automated transmissions, and believed they only existed in the everyday passenger vehicles most of us use on a regular basis to pick up the groceries and kids from school.

With concern over greenhouse gas emissions and fuel consumption continuing to grow, many fleets and environmentally-conscious drivers are looking for ways to improve fuel economy, and after years of sub-par performance when it came to automated transmissions, better technology has arrived.

I saw one of these automated transmissions first-hand when I met with Heiko Lichtenberger, the 2015 Truck West Owner/Operator of the Year, to get some photographs of him with his Volvo VN630, which runs on an automated transmission, which Lichtenberger said produced better fuel economy and a better driving experience.

A study done by Natural Resources Canada indicated that the trucking industry releases 19% of the total greenhouse gas emissions in Canada, and that fleets were taking action to reduce this footprint with better practises like improved vehicle specifications, advanced aerodynamics, on-board monitoring devices and driver incentives.

It has also been reported that more trucks being sold today are equipped with automatic or automated transmissions. But what about the old guard? What about the pride many drivers have for their ability to operate an 18-speed manual transmission?

Many believe that when a manual vehicle is driven properly, it can produce better fuel economy than an automatic.

But it’s not easy to drive an 18-speed manual semi-truck, and to be fair, from the opinion of someone who has not worked as a truck driver (but can drive a manual vehicle, just not one that has 18 speeds), the idea of doing so can be both exciting and intimidating. Which brings us to the question: Is the intimidation factor contributing to the current driver shortage, or is there a very different reason young people are not choosing to hit the big slab for a living?

Would it make a difference if the driver-training process was easier and less daunting, allowing newbies to simply hop into an automatic vehicle, press a button and go?

Or is this simpler approach a dangerous avenue to take, as it neglects the expertise necessary to ensure that those operating an 80,000-lb truck are not only good drivers, but incredible drivers…the best drivers on the road?

Being a driver is not something everyone would be or is good at, and that doesn’t just apply to truck drivers, but everyone on the road.

Some people are naturally talented behind the wheel, while others are natural disasters – we all know more than one person in each category.

There is certainly more to operating a truck than shifting gears; it takes a lot to move a vehicle of such size, carrying valuable cargo down the highway, through a city and backed into a bay.

And one thing is for certain: new drivers are needed, as there will always be product to move. So whether it be simplifying the process, or some other incentive to get the next generation of hands behind the wheel, something must be done to get more drivers out of the granny lane and hammer down on their careers…now is not the time to back’em up. 10-4?

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  • I have been in the trucking industry for over 30 years, as both O/O and a driver. I have operated most types of trailers across Canada and the lower 48. The first truck I owned had a 5 and 4 transmission ( it has two shifters one with 5 speeds one with 4 speeds) after those went to more conventional 13 and 18 speeds.
    2 years ago I purchased my 1st struck with an automated transmission, I have heard all the naysayers and quite frankly winers telling me how much I would be sorry about my decision. It was a financial choice as I had found 2 trucks that were identical except for that one was a 13 speed and the other a automated 13 speed, the automated truck was slightly cheaper so I purchased it. I am not sorry and my next truck will be automatic as I found it much better to drive and made life on the road a little easier. The automated transmission can be run manually so if one needs to hold a gear or gets bored one can shift it.
    A good driver WILL be able to drive as good with a manual or automated transmission but new drivers are rushed through minimal training and sent on down the road. These new drivers have a high stress level and many things to distract them so having a automated transmission may make things a little safer on the road for the rest of us. Having said that I do believe no driver should be allowed to pass thier truck driving licence without the ability to operate a manual transmission. Mandy times when broke down I was supplied a rental tractor to carry on while my truck was in the shop and I have yet to see a basic rental truck with an automated transmission.

  • I’ve never driven an automatic. Always had standards for the last 35 years. In my opinion, automatics have opened the door to anyone who can get in the seat….and it shows. All you need do is spend time on a controlled access highway or around a truckstop, especially the US chains. There is a whole crop of truck drivers that drive a big rig like most people today…especially women…drive their cars/SUVs… attention required…..because let’s face it, if the truck does it all for you, it’s very easy to get complacent and lose focus….and if you screw up, an automatic fixes it for you, so no problem, just let it. No worries about stalling out because you weren’t paying attention and should have shifted, or jammed on the brakes for some reason….the AMT fixes it, so no thought to getting going again….and it’s so easy to drive around parking lots, we can all go faster…and if you can’t back up just park wherever..the fuel island, the driveway, the curb…wherever. No consequences….and maybe THAT is part of the problem…..