From days of yesterday to today, large commercial semi-trucks have been operated through the use of a manual transmission. The large shifters were simply part of the trucking landscape, and being a professional trucker meant you needed to know how to drive one… until now.
Welcome to the brave new world of automated manual transmissions (AMT). Today, fleets are seeing so much success with AMT setups that it’s likely we are closing in on the day that manual transmissions are in the minority.
There are a good number of reasons why going AMT is the way to go. Not only can you rely on the promise of easy operation and greater efficiency, but thinking about shifting all day can be mentally exhausting. Being able to cut that step out frees up both mental and physical time for the truck driver.
For this reason, a growing number of fleets are making the move to automated and automatic transmission systems for heavy trucks and tractors. It’s a similar transition to the one made by medium-duty truck operators many, many years ago. Consider that just ten years ago self-shifters were only installed in around 10 percent of all Class 8 rigs, and you can see where all the growth has come from. Today that number has grown exponentially.
Let’s take a look at some specific AMT examples and give a closer examination to how this technology works, and why we may see it take over the semi-truck spec’ing world.
Mack’s mDrive system has been around for at least six years. As pioneers in the space, Mack reports up to 70 percent penetration for their mDrive system in OEM orders. Recently unveiled iterations of this popular AMT setup include 13- and 14-speed versions of their mDrive HD system. They also sport two extra ratios, providing for better startability.
Assisting in creating a high level of efficiency is a full integration of engine information into data monitors. From speed to weight and torque demand, the system is designed to get the best performance and engine efficiency no matter what the situation is, and all without any input required from the operator.
Mack adapted the mDrive system from its sister company, Volvo, where the option comes standard on two of their Class 8 models. According to the company, today 8 out of 10 Volvo trucks purchased in North America are equipped with their version of an AMT – also called the I-Shift system.
At Allison, sales of automatic variants for the on-highway market segment make up over half of all sales. Although the company doesn’t break down sales by application, they’ve pretty much dominated the market for heavy trash-collection and construction trucks.
Recently, the company has put a laser-like focus on fuel economy by using what they refer to as Fuel Sense refinements. Some of these include changing into neutral at stops and ensuring optimal shifting under all conditions. The system is able to observe certain operational patterns gleaned from driver operation.
Like other large players in the market, Allison has dedicated more resources to growing this segment. Still, that doesn’t mean manual transmissions are going anywhere anytime soon.
The Manual Isn’t Dead
Although we mentioned one day seeing a time when manuals were in the minority, that day certainly is not today. The current average for automated penetration sits around 33 percent, leaving a full two-thirds solidly in the manual category.
The majority of on-highway tractor sales continue to trend in the direction of AMT variants. One of the major factors in choosing manual lies in the cost. AMT options generally come with a bit of a higher price tag than their manual counterparts.
In 2015, purchasers of Kenworth Class 8 trucks choose manual transmissions at a rate of 59 percent. Automated came in at 34 percent. Still, times are changing. At Western Star, up to 70 percent of vocational trucks are now sold with an automatic variant. Will we see an ultimate demise of the manual transmission, or will it just be a slow phase-out over time? Only time will tell.