Driver shortages, lower fleet costs push a continued trend toward user-friendly automatic transmissions in work trucks.
The shift to automatic transmissions in vocational trucks continues to gain momentum with strong growth in automated mechanical transmissions (AMT) and telematics (remote communication of your vehicle’s performance).
“If you look at the Class 8 market in particular, we’ve seen about a three-fold increase in the percentage of AMT transmissions purchased over the last six years,” says Scott Davis, director of strategic partnerships and customer experience at Eaton. “Roughly half of the Class 8 trucks purchased today have an automated transmission in some fashion.”
For those not ready to make the switch from a manual to a fully automatic transmission, the AMT combines a traditional clutch-actuated manual gearbox with a computer-controlled shift actuator and clutch. The best shift patterns are selected electronically for optimal power or fuel efficiency. With computer-controlled shifting and clutch engagement, only two pedals are needed to operate the truck: brake and accelerator.
Driving demand for AMT and fully automatic transmissions is the pursuit of better fuel economy and lower fleet cost, as well as driver shortage, driver retention and the ability to recruit drivers into the industry with less experience. Another contributing factor is a decrease in cost between manual and AMT transmissions.
“Resale is a big factor in that equation,” Davis says. “The vocational customers are very sophisticated in their financial modeling and figuring out that total life cycle cost, from the initial acquisition to operational costs, repairs and resale. With new technology, whether it’s AMT or engines, resale has a big impact.”
Technology, specifically telematics and the connected vehicle, are the current hot topic, from engine controllers and transmission controllers, to body controllers and ADF controllers.
“You’re seeing trends with the subsystems working closer together to become more efficient,” Davis says. “That’s a big part of our Smart Advantage powertrain with Cummins — more integration on the control side to get a more fuel-efficient package.”
Smaller and lighter transmissions achieved through aluminum enclosures and optimization also contribute to better fuel efficiency as well as greater cargo capacity.
“If you look at one of our flagship products, our Smart Advantage powertrain, one of the purposeful things we did is weight reduction,” Davis says. “We looked at it not just as a transmission but as a total system. We were able to eliminate the cooler, the cooling lines and a large amount of oil in that system.”
The powertrain optimizes shifting based on grade, vehicle weight, engine torque and throttle position, making every driver as efficient as possible. Since its introduction in 2013, the powertrain has increased fuel economy by about 7 percent, according to Eaton’s website.
In addition to less weight, fewer components also mean there’s less chance for hose and fitting failure.
“If you look outside the vehicle, that’s where telematics comes in,” Davis says. “Fleet managers have greater insight into what’s happening in terms of usage, average speed, duty cycles, as well as indications of potential failures and how to service as a planned repair without extensive unplanned downtime. That’s where I think there’s a lot of interest from the end customer and more product offerings.”
One of the benefits of the emerging technology is the ability of truck owners and fleet managers to fix small problems before they become big problems.
“The last thing you want is a truck on the side of the road,” Davis says. “The other opportunity it presents is if you have better visibility into the usage of a product, you can extend maintenance intervals by actual usage rather than application.”
Emerging technology enables engines to communicate with transmissions, drivetrains and other components, as well as fleet managers.
Sophisticated electronics link communications, such as the SAE J1939 controller area network (CAN) that operates like an onboard intranet. Raw data is collected and broadcast through a cellular connection to a telematics provider, such as Omnitracs, PeopleNet or Geotab, and relayed to the fleet manager.
“I think the real key is going from raw data on the J1939 CAN link into something that is meaningful and actionable,” Davis says. “That’s where manufacturers like Eaton come into play — how do you avoid hundreds of text or email updates to a fleet manager as opposed to information the fleet manager can use and act on — adjusting maintenance cycles, feedback to drivers or if there is a truck-down situation.”
Technology has also impacted transmission maintenance, primarily extending service intervals for lubricants, and clutches that can go 50,000 miles between greasing.
“If you’re a fleet manager, the fewer times you have to grease the clutch the better,” Davis says. “A high percentage of the clutches we sell today are Solo self-adjust clutches. Historically, clutches have required adjustment at a certain interval. The self-adjust clutch helps reduce the amount of preventative maintenance required.”
So what’s the next big thing in truck transmissions?
Concepts already being studied are autonomous vehicle tuning and communication from one transmission to another in local area networks, enabling fleets to travel in tightly packed convoys.
“I think that’s the next frontier beyond telematics,” Davis says.