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?