Automated Manual Transmissions Grow in Popularity

by Deborah Lockridge

SAN DIEGO– Martin Daum, head of Daimler Trucks North America, is an energetic and enthusiastic fellow. So when he proclaimed less than two years ago, at the announcement of the new Detroit DT12 that he was “on a mission to convert the North American truck market to automated manual transmissions,” I have to admit as a skeptical journalist type, I chalked it up to a bit of “irrational exuberance,” as former Federal Reserve Board chairman Alan Greenspan once described the Internet stock craze of the mid-90s.

But it has become increasingly evident that AMTs are no dot-com bubble.

That was clear this week at the American Trucking Associations Management Conference and Exhibition in San Diego.

In December 2012, Daimler Trucks North America, with the help of President Obama, announced it would invest $120 million in facilities to build the new Detroit DT12 automated manual transmission in the United States.

“If we reach the volume of transmissions I see for the United States, we won’t be able to import them,” Daum said then. He compared the automated transmission market in North America to the classic chicken and egg dilemma, but said he was confident that making this investment in automated transmissions would help drive the market. “This takes a certain type of courage and confidence, but I think we know what we are doing, because we saw the fairly extraordinary results from the get-go when it comes to fuel efficiency.”

Initially the DT12 would be imported from Germany, but the Detroit plant was scheduled to be up and running by 2015 with an initial capacity of 30,000 transmissions a year. A modular system would allow the company to double that capacity relatively easily when warranted.

That expansion may come sooner than they thought. During a briefing with reporters this week during the ATA conference, company officials said the success of the transmission had exceeded even their own optimistic expectations.

Daimler projects sales for the Detroit transmissions next year of 25,000, but Daum told reporters, “I would say this is conservative — I would say 30,000” – which would be the full capacity of the plant.

“We invest in Detroit for 57,000 automated transmissions in 2017, and that may not be enough,” he added. “Who would ever have thought that would happen?”

Of course, there were AMTs for heavy-duty trucks on the market long before the introduction of the Detroit DT12, including ones from Eaton, Mack and Volvo. Volvo and Mack led the charge for vertically integrated powertrain that were optimized for fuel efficiency.

Yet it does appear that, with its dominant market share in heavy-duty trucks, DTNA’s push may be helping drive adoption of AMTs in trucking fleets, as well as additional product introductions and improvements from other companies.

For instance, also at ATA, Mack Trucks announced it is making its mDrive automated manual transmission standard equipment on its Pinnacle on-highway truck model. And recently, Con-way Truckload announced it’s buying 550 new trucks, most equipped with automated transmissions.

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