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Shifting Trends

To develop a successful truck innovation, three essential ingredients are required. First, there must be viable need for the change proposed. Second, the product must integrate fully with all other ma...

To develop a successful truck innovation, three essential ingredients are required. First, there must be viable need for the change proposed. Second, the product must integrate fully with all other matching or related components from other manufacturers. Third, the training must be in place so that sales staff and repair shops are familiar with the product before it becomes widely available. Anything short of these goals is asking the customer to be a test-bed for a product – often an unreasonable demand, especially when profits are measured in a percentage of a cent per mile.

The technology behind automatic and automated transmissions finally appears poised to hit that sweet spot where all three ingredients are present.

There are several elements going on that have shifted the interest and buying trend toward both automatics and automated transmissions, notes Bill Batten, Product Planning Manager, Roadranger Marketing.

Both the automatic transmissions and automated mechanical transmissions differ from their predecessors in a number of significant ways.

First on the market was the automatic transmission, in which electronic controls make the shifts hydraulically. There is no clutch, and engine torque is not interrupted during the shift. Allison, which literally invented the automatic transmission category for this market, continues to dominate with an 80% market share of all medium- and heavy-duty commercial fully automatic transmissions produced, according to the company.

The automatic transmission, most notably those made by Allison, have found their home in applications where the service is severe and the operators are truck drivers only to the extent they happen to drive a truck. Their main job is usually a fast-paced but tough vocational occupation such as refuse hauling or local ready mix operations and the truck only a tool to accomplish that goal.

Automatic transmissions can be a practical choice for high-clutch-wear applications, such as food delivery and refuse operations, where there is consistent starting and stopping.

For operators in these vocations, a long ride is about two blocks and no great savings are expected in the fuel department. However, the higher initial cost of an automatic is offset by the bulletproof performance that can be achieved with semi-skilled operators. Even for skilled operators, the ability to concentrate less on driving and more on the job at hand, is worth considering.

“The driver skill level in medium-duty applications is not what it is in heavy-duty applications,” Batten says. Automated transmissions can be a “real benefit” for fleets by offering a vehicle that is easier for a driver to learn to operate and that is less susceptible to the wear and tear caused by inexperienced drivers.

“From the heavy-duty mixer standpoint, it is a different story,” Batten noted. “These operators have the skill, but a lot else on their minds. Anything we can give them to make driving easier makes them more productive. It also helps protect the driveline against damage.”

While the automatic transmission offered a number of cost-saving benefits to these vocational markets, for long-haul, over-the-road applications the automatic was simply too expensive to be any threat to the traditional units available. Then came the so-called electronic engines of the early 1990s that, with the exception of the Detroit 60, used patchwork systems to get all the components of the engine to sing out of the same songbook for the first time.

The goal was to make up for serious deficiencies in driving styles that were costly in terms of fuel consumption, especially as horsepower went up while torque point went down. The Eaton Super-10 transmission was a big hit because it could handle the new higher torques and used them effectively to the point where once the driver was in high gear, the only shifting required was flipping the switch to change from 9th to 10th or vice versa. An improved version made even this switch flipping unnecessary.

Next came the semi-automated heavy truck transmission, which required a clutch only to stop and start. The electronic control module performed all the other shifts.

ArvinMeritor’s joint venture with ZF of Germany produced the FreedomLine transmission, which came on the market at the end of 1999 as the first fully automated mechanical unit available for heavy trucks. The clutch pedal has totally disappeared, but drivers can still choose between fully automatic operation and driver-controlled shift points, allowing them to select their preferred mode of operation. In the fully automatic setting, the electronically controlled shifter can actually sense loads and skip shifts, thus increasing fuel economy; in fact saving up to 4% in actual comparison tests with earlier era semi-automated transmissions.

Elimination of the clutch pedal makes learning and operating a heavy truck easier than competitive three-pedal automated systems. This feature also increases driver safety by freeing the driver from shifting distractions. Twin countershaft with full helical gearing sets an industry standard for reduced noise. The FreedomLine transmission’s aluminum transmission case also reduces weight and noise.

Training costs are reduced by eliminating the time it takes to train novice drivers to properly shift a manual transmission, one of the most challenging aspects of learning how to drive a heavy truck.

Further, driver fatigue is significantly reduced for long haul drivers, particularly those in heavy metropolitan traffic situations that can cause severe discomfort on the left leg in stop-and-go traffic. Less fatigue means more awareness of the rest of the job they have to do. That directly translates into safety-related improvements, and more contentment with the job overall means higher driver retention figures.

Finally, the automated transmission weighs less, which reduces overall weight, drives easier and is less expensive to operate.

Eaton Fuller also offers an automated transmission that offers similar benefits to the bottom line and safety. Eaton Fuller has been working on versions of the semi-automated transmission for more than 20 years and scored a remarkable success in the mid-1990s with the introduction of the AutoShift, which was a semi-automated unit based on the famous Roadranger unit and did not require any clutching except for starts and stops and soon was offering gear selections up to 18 speeds. Today, there are more than 40,000 AutoShift transmissions operating in the world’s fleets, and they have logged more than 10 billion miles.

Engine electronics had progressed to a point where the transmission and engine could operate as an integrated unit via the datalink in many applications, including fully manual transmissions such as the Super 10-Top 2 mentioned earlier. However, these great innovations were just stepping stones to the all-new, fully automated “2-pedal” heavy-duty UltraShift transmission units now available.

The UltraShift’s 2-pedal design, meaning only two pedals on the floor of the truck instead of three, is offered in four torque capacities ranging from 1,050 lb.-ft. to 1,650 lb.-ft., but currently in only a 10-speed configuration. The UltraShift will join the Eaton Fuller family and be available for wide distribution in a little over a year.

As with the ArvinMeritor automated transmissions, the driver can select fully automatic mode or manual intervention with the UltraShift as required, but with either choice the added hidden value to the owner is minimum impact on other driveline components.

Decreased fuel consumption is a benefit not always fully realized by fleets, said Batten.

“In the vocations we are targeting, an automated transmission can raise a fleet’s fuel economy level up to that of the best driver in their fleet,” he explained. “That’s something I think some fleets miss. They will give the new transmission to their best driver, and then they tell us they don’t see any improvement.”

Instead, Batten said, fleets need to put their worst drivers with an automated transmission to fully obtain the fue
l-saving benefits of the automated mechanicals.

The spacing of the introduction of these new units works to the advantage of today’s truck owner. For ArvinMeritor, the consumer will learn how to most effectively use this unit and where this application fits into their fleet program. Eaton Fuller’s subsequent introduction just confirms the future demand for the product at least in some applications, and gives the truck owners some time to plan for the eventual introduction of these units into their fleets.

That will require training for both users and mechanics, new demands on the parts and warranty departments and a new vision by everyone who is a part of the transportation team. Fleets now have the opportunity to plan ahead and be able to select the right product for their operations, if in fact it is the right choice for their operation, before demand outstrips supply when the market returns as anticipated in mid to late 2004.

Yet the emerging trends continue. The semi-automated transmission, such a popular introduction to the market not so long ago, is all but obsolete now, pointed out Batten.

The next trend will see the automated transmission begin to appear in the vocational market.

“Automatics pretty much dominate the vocational industries,” Batten said. “We’ll be able to offer in the near future automated transmissions for these industries.”

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