Pepsi Bottling Group, operating one of the largest multi-drop delivery fleets in North America, has said fully-automatic (torque converter based) or automated mechanical transmissions (AMTs) will be specified for all its future vehicle purchases. The group operates 2,000 heavy-duty trucks, putting it among the five largest private carriers in the US and Canada. Around 75% of them are in local service.
Shelby Green, director of PBG fleet operations, told Transport Topics magazine that automatics make for a “friendlier environment” for drivers. At the same time, he said, they have lowered maintenance costs and extended component life-cycles, balancing out the initial on-cost.
The Pepsi experience highlights the seemingly inexorable trend to automatics and AMTs on trucks in North America. A recent report from J D Power indicated that, since 1999, orders for class 8 trucks with traditional manual transmissions have dropped from 90 to only 76%. Many observers, amongst both manufacturers and truck operators, have commented that, although auto transmissions can add between US$4,000 and US$8,000 to the price of a class 8 truck chassis, it is an ever-more widely-specified option, even in the present recession.
since 1999, orders for class 8 trucks with traditional manual transmissions have dropped from 90 to only 76%
Kyle Treadway, a Kenworth-franchised multi-outlet US dealer group, says it has sold twice the number of trucks with auto gearboxes in the past year compared with the previous twelve months, even though total sales of new vehicles were sharply down. Meanwhile, Landon Sproull, chief engineer at Kenworth’s sister company Peterbilt, says the percentage of autos sold has doubled since 2006. He points out that they “are spreading to a wider customer base”.
Virtually all the fully automatic heavy-truck transmissions are coming from Allison Transmission. They tend to be specified for distribution operations using class 8 straight (ie rigid) trucks, where congested urban traffic and frequent stop-starts call for smooth shifting and where comparatively low annual mileages make the fuel cost issue less critical than on long-distance haulage work.
Allison’s electric hybrid developments have, over the last few years, boosted its sales to urban operators, bringing a new dimension to the automatic market and helping to counter the challenge from AMTs based largely on the grounds of superior fuel efficiency. But the hybrid option comes at a price, which an AMT is likely to undercut.
Virtually all the fully automatic heavy-truck transmissions are coming from Allison Transmission.
Transmission trends in North America provide an interesting contrast to those in Europe, where torque converter automatics – again supplied mainly by Allison - have remained much more of a niche market. Even today their high on-cost is seen as justifiable mainly in the municipal sector, where the total cost of a vehicle is already high because of its special-purpose bodywork, typically handling waste collection, with a longer than average service life, over which the on-cost can be amortised.
European truck manufacturers, in striving to ease the driver’s lot, were therefore quicker than their North American counterparts to develop and then productionise the less-costly AMT option. During AMTs’ early days, from the mid-1990s through to say 2005, they were offered only on the heaviest trucks, mainly articulated tractors grossing 30 tonnes or more. This was somewhat ironic because most heavy trucks, typically articulated or drawbar combinations, are engaged on long-haul working on motorways and autobahns, where gearshifting is relatively infrequent. Under those circumstances the physical effort and dexterity involved in manual shifting is much less of a burden than it is for the driver of a lighter truck or van making multiple deliveries in an urban situation.
Realising the unit-cost advantages of increased production volumes, truck manufacturers in Europe endeavoured to hold down the cost premium of autos.
Realising the unit-cost advantages of increased production volumes, truck manufacturers in Europe endeavoured to hold down the cost premium of autos. To that end Mercedes-Benz even made its first (in-house produced) semi-automatic gearbox standard equipment, the company effectively subsidising the on-cost in order to remain price competitive with rivals still wedded to manual transmissions.
In North America, where all heavy-duty transmissions are outsourced - except by Volvo - that kind of incentivised discount is financially more difficult to implement than by a vertically-integrated truck manufacturer. That is perhaps why automatics and AMTs are only now starting to take off.
In any case, there remain significant dissenters amongst US trucking companies. Norman Mitchell, vice-president of Cowan Systems Inc, a major public carrier, while admitting the operational attractions of auto boxes, has said the considerable on-cost means that “when it comes to the bottom line, they’re a luxury”, especially with other cost increases looming, most notably those relating to compliance with EPA 2010 emission requirements. Mitchell could well be speaking for a sizeable silent majority.
The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Automotive World Ltd.