Editorial Comment: Automated transmissions – don’t knock’em until you’ve tried’em

by James Menzies

I admit, I’ve never owned a manual transmission car. I simply don’t have any desire to shift continuously while battling rush hour traffic in the GTA. It seems an unnecessary waste of energy to me.

I do know how to double-clutch and have driven an 18-speed through some pretty major hills and traffic jams on several occasions. But I admittedly found all the shifting, monitoring the tach, working the clutch and searching for gears to be draining and stressful. It takes about 75 lbs of pressure to depress the clutch and a typical driver does this over 500 times per day.

And for what? Automated transmissions have really come of age and their acceptance is more widespread than ever. There’s evidence to support this is a growing trend, at least among large fleets.

Schneider National has announced it’s likely going to equip its entire fleet of trucks with automated transmissions. Here in Canada, Bison Transport operates 850 automated mechanical transmissions (AMTs) and Robert Transport plans to entirely convert by 2008.

ArvinMeritor has announced it is abandoning the mechanical transmission market to focus on producing AMTs.

But still, most drivers I speak to say they have no interest in driving trucks equipped with automated transmissions. One driver recently told me he would never trust one – especially in the mountains.

“You’re supposed to go down the hill in the same gear you go up, I’m going to leave that to the transmission to figure out?” he asked, shaking his head.

What it boils down to is faith in technology. Most experienced drivers feel they can make better driving decisions than a collection of metal parts and computer chips. But the human body does have its limitations. One of the driving forces behind the more widespread use of AMTs is the safety benefits.

Schneider conducted a test where 120 new drivers were trained on automatics while 120 were trained on mechanical transmissions. At the same time, 80 experienced drivers were also trained on each type of transmission.

The new drivers using automated transmissions were involved in 27% fewer preventable accidents than their counterparts with 18-speeds. Even more surprising, experienced drivers using the AMTs were involved in 22% fewer accidents than those using mechanical transmissions. With stats like that, I think it’s time all drivers open their minds and take an unbiased look at automated transmissions. Many drivers who have converted say they feel less fatigued at the end of a driving shift. The other benefit is that equipping company trucks with AMTs allows fleets to recruit from a wider driver pool.

Women and young drivers will be more likely to pursue a trucking career if they don’t have to learn the daunting task of double-clutching their way through 18 gears. That’s not to say anyone who can steer should be put behind the wheel of a truck, but a driving career will become a more viable option to folks who aren’t too proud to let the truck take care of the grunt work for them.

– James Menzies can be reached by phone at (416) 510-6896 or by e-mail at jmenzies@trucknews.com.

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