Truck News


Auto transmissions: the industry’s next cure-all?

WINNIPEG, Man. – Learning to shift gears properly is one of the most demanding skills of driving a truck and requires considerable training and investment from employers – time and money carriers may just not have.

Never mind that drivers who are already trained and comfortable with shifting gears appear to be in short supply.

So is automated technology the answer?

Adoption of automated transmissions has started to gain momentum in Canada across various fleets, who are finding that they offer better driver comfort, especially in stop and go traffic situations. And driver comfort translates to less driver fatigue, and a more satisfied driver, or so the theory goes.

After a couple of years of testing the technology, Mill Creek Motor Freight in Ayr, Ont., opted for automated transmissions less than a year ago on its fleet of Volvos, despite some initial resistance from some of the senior drivers.

“Once they got into it, they came back saying that if they got into a traffic jam, they found themselves relaxed because they weren’t shifting all the time,” says director of maintenance Mike Palmer.

He adds that despite around a $5,000 upcharge per truck, the technology bodes well for the driver situation.

“We can see, in the future, if there’s driver shortages, if you can make it so there is a husband and wife team, it works well, and it’s an easier piece of equipment to drive,” says Palmer. “Our turnover rate right now is just about 25 per cent, which is unreal.”

Glen Morrison, a claims and compliance specialist with Prudhomme Trucks Ltd., in Regina, Sask., names driver retention right off the bat when asked what led his company to invest in automated transmissions.

“We felt that for the type of operations we run that it would take a fair amount of stress off the drivers in terms of operating the vehicle over long hours. When we were investing in new technology anyway it was not a reach to go that far,” says Morrison, who also handles driver training for Prudhomme. About 75 per cent of the fleet is automated, and this should increase to 100 per cent by September 2005, he says.

“We’re also using it for extended length turnpike doubles (running two 53′ trailers behind cab) between Winnipeg and Calgary, and it’s turned out better than expected. Certainly there has been the odd driver, maybe two out of our 130 that were not really fussy about the technology. So there is some leap of faith that has to be taken when you adopt this, like any new technology,” he says.

Morrison is confident that automated transmissions will address some driver shortage issues ahead.

“In this industry with hiring as tough as it is, there’s only so many good, experienced drivers out there. At some point you run out of that pool and you start pushing the envelope a bit, and whenever you do that the cost of hiring goes up, the cost of training, and orientation. Have I done an actual analysis of the cost of a transmission upcharge vs. the cost of a new hire? No. Do I know what the number is for a new hire with less than two years’ experience? Yes I do. Is the technology that expensive? No it’s not,” he says.

According to Itamar Levine, director of maintenance for Bison Transport, automated trannies have been their standard spec’ for the last 3.5 years, running in 100 per cent of the fleet.

“In essence it was about driver preference. When this type of component became available back about five years, we brought in a test fleet to get driver feedback. The overwhelming response was that they liked it.

“There are other assets but we certainly believe that safety has something to do with this too. The driver can keep both hands on the steering wheel rather than shifting gears. In emergency situations it’s definitely a plus,” he says.

“We’ve had drivers right throughout this whole program who had negative opinions about automated transmissions, who had driven a standard for so many years. In just about every one of these cases, though, that was before they drove it. Most came back after driving it and said, this is unbelievable in terms of the comfort aspect compared to having to shift,” says Levine.

Stop and go not quite enough

While the use of automated transmissions may help fleets in dire hiring straits get more drivers into the seat faster, it’s still advisable to get drivers trained, where and when possible, on the traditional manual trucks.

“You don’t want to sound derogatory. It is an easier truck to drive. But we don’t want novice drivers in our trucks,” says Levine.

Garth Pitzel, director of safety and driver development for Bison, says the company has not changed its driving experience criteria (two years’ experience minimum) after introducing automateds.

“But eventually it might be able to give us the opportunity to look at that. It certainly could help in widening the driver pool. There was a transition period where drivers were leery of the technology but now they love it,” he says.

“We’ve had only two drivers quit over not having a standard transmission, and this year we’ll try to get a better understanding of why a driver comes to Bison. But the (automated) equipment certainly helps attract drivers for us,” he says.

Morrison, meanwhile, says he is somewhat concerned about the prospect of putting drivers on the road without their having an appreciation for truck technology, from the engine to the rear wheels to the trailer. He notes that there will still be applications for standards other than strictly highway, and some, especially really steep mountain grades, where the old technology will remain the norm.

“In terms of training, what (the manual transmissions) teach new drivers is how a powertrain works. I don’t think in the trucking industry go and stop is quite enough. I think you should be able to shift a truck, because not every driving position is going to avail itself of the new technology,” he says.

Pros and Cons

There’s only a year and a half, and between 300,000 and 400, 000 km on the first automated unit in his fleet, but Morrison expects longer clutch life with automated transmissions.

“It appears to me that it won’t engage if it can’t engage and that you cannot slip that clutch as a driver override. I would suspect it’s going to be significantly longer lived than traditional technology,” he says.

As a con, however, Morrison says he also expects earlier brake repairs.

“That will again depend on where the unit is operating – i.e. in urban centres where it can’t use its engine brake, and relies more on the spring brake application, this will change somewhat from a highway application depending on the engine it has and how strong the engine brake is. But I would expect in the long run we’re going to have slightly higher brake costs,” he says.

At loading docks, adds Morrison, the new transmissions do take a little getting used to especially in icy situations.

“We have to adopt some techniques to keep them moving or to get them pulled away from or backed into docks especially on inclines on ice, those kinds of things, because you don’t have access to the clutch pedal so you can limit torque to the rear wheels and on low traction situations limit the amount of spinning. But this one either knows that it wants to be engaged or disengaged. So it engages with full engine torque and disengages if you step on the brake at all. So if it starts to spin it knows to disengage right away instead of creeping to a dock. We’ve had to learn that,” he says.

In terms of extending clutch life, on the current technology in use by Bison, it’s too early to tell, says Levine.

“We have not done any clutches – it’s only been in the trucks a couple of years. On standard trucks we wouldn’t do the clutch until year four/five,” he says.

And as you move into more componentry you can expect more complications, says Levine.

“We do see some issues associated with this type of progressive technology, but the assets offset the problems. It’s not trouble-free nor bullet-proof,” he says.

Fuel economy

The fuel consumption issue of automated tr
ansmissions is the most contentiously debated. While a fleet’s best drivers can perform wonders on mpg, computerized automated transmissions aren’t subject to driver fatigue. They also take away the issue of having to determine, in cases where mpg is low for a particular truck, was it the engine or non-fuel-efficient driving techniques?

With heavy runs, varied routes, and a mix of city and highway traffic, getting a handle on fuel economy can be difficult for many fleets.

“We have about 15 months on the new technology and what we’ve seen is we’ve got back any loss we would have had in fuel consumption with the 2003 engines,” says Glen Morrison.

“I can’t tell you that I saved a half a cent a mile on accidents to offset an upcharge in transmission. I can tell you that overall we also see an impact on fuel economy as a fleet average. We know that from the big picture perspective there’s been a positive impact. (But) your best driver can probably get you as good or better,” says Levine.

Kirk Fulton, president of Tri-Cal, in Calgary, says his fleet is about 20 per cent automated and he’s had the technology in place some 13 months. “Over the next four years we’ll have nothing but,” he says, noting he expects to see a payback over a four-year period.

“They say you can gain up to 1/2 mile a gallon – for us it hasn’t cost fuel,” he says.

But for Paul Ripley, manager of SunDog Travel, Ltd. in High River, Alta, “fuel mileage hasn’t improved, in fact it’s drifted a little lower. I think there’s a set point in the transmission that makes them shift up and down and rev higher. There has to be drag with the transmission too,” says Ripley, who says he has also experienced driveline problems in one truck with the automateds.

He has been running automated transmissions in his fleet for three years, and 60 per cent of his fleet is now automated.

But he says the benefits so far outweigh the drawbacks.

“We have been able to go to a less experienced driver. If we could get all the drivers to learn how to use them we’d like to go 100 per cent. There’s no comparison,” he says.

Automation comes in many ways. Fully automatic transmissions have torque converters to mimic car shifts.

Some models allow truck drivers to shift without double-clutching, with electronics that rev and slow engine speeds, while others have joystick-like controls that allow drivers to let the truck take care of all shifts, or make shifting decisions on their own.

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