Automated transmissions won’t solve industry problems

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Dear Editor:

Your most recent editorial in the January issue highlights a problem more serious than the inability or unwillingness of new hires to master a manual transmission. It points to an overall lessening of standards when it comes to filling the many seats that are becoming vacant as the changing demographic coincides with the rising demand for road-based transportation services.

To call shifting gears “…an unnecessary waste of energy…” suggests that the reward for becoming proficient at this skill set is somehow not worth the effort, or has no real-world benefits.

A friend of mine who hauls fuel B-trains (eight axles at 63,500kg GVW) throughout the British Columbia Lower Mainland recounted his company’s experience with automatic/automated transmissions in that environment: it was a disaster.

The transmission was making inappropriate decisions about when to shift, either up or down, in situations where a driver would have read the immediate terrain and made different choices – they eventually had to move these tractors over to 5-axle service and bring back 18-speed manuals for the B-trains.

It would be easy to be content that automatics might be fine in 5- or 6-axle service but this belies the inevitability of ever-larger and heavier trucks becoming part of the North American landscape.

I believe that the standard 18-wheeler will always have a place in the North American trucking industry but this configuration’s overall usefulness will decrease in the future because of its payload limitations.

The trucking industry can’t find drivers now so they will (in my opinion) be forced to mandate the use of larger trucks to satisfy the accelerating consumer demand as a result of the increasing overall population.

This means that the use of doubles and triples will eventually become standard in applications where they are not currently being used.

Longer and heavier trucks will require heavier specification transmissions which will require increased skills in manual shifting – automatics just won’t be able to handle the task. And while it’s true that clutch activation pressures are high and baulky manual transmissions can sometimes ‘bind up’ if the driver is rushed or on uneven terrain, it seems to me that engineers would better serve the driver’s needs by modifying clutch design and overall transmission user-friendliness to increase smoothness while leaving the shifting decisions to the drivers.

Further, one freight company’s tests with automatics and drivers with varying skill levels are not sufficient to conclude that automated transmissions are the answer to their accident rate problems. They have conveniently ignored the increasing congestion on North American roads and the (arguably) deteriorating standards of proficiency and responsibility among private motorists, both significant factors in increasing commercial driver ‘fatigue’ which won’t be improved by having an automated transmission.

The last thing that the trucking industry needs is technology which makes it easier for drivers to become even more isolated from the consequences of their driving decisions. (In fact, as radical as this may sound, I believe that automatic transmissions in private automobiles should be banned precisely because of their ability to do their job so well that the driver is lulled into a further torpor which is likely one of the leading causes of collisions involving driver error – make the task too easy and the natural response is to switch off active controls even more…not a desirable result.)

Finally, please don’t jump on this bandwagon of ‘widening the driver pool’ by thinking that automated transmissions or other so-called ‘labour saving devices’ will solve the problem facing the North American transport industry. The demand for transport service is going up as a result of increased population.

This demand should be accompanied by a rise in price-for-service. Convincing carriers and their customers to increase the take-home pay of truck drivers will result in many sober-minded individuals considering trucking as a career.

Mike Smith,

Kamloops, BC

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