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How Transmissions Are Becoming More Advanced

In many cases, trucking companies operating medium-duty commercial motor vehicles are focused on low cost and reliability over fuel economy. After all, these aren’t the long-haul operators guzzling through fuel to get goods from one part of the country to another. These operators might have more to gain from short-term considerations.

There has been a big shift in the commercial automotive sector since regulatory changes mandated them. One example is the GHG Phase 2 rules, which are precipitating a major change in transmission architecture. Sophisticated transmission units are now the norm and trucking companies are scrambling to make fuel savings a priority.

Gone are the days when old-timers had to learn how to operate a manual transmission on a commercial motor vehicle. Automatics and semi-automatics now lead the way. While truck driers in Europe may be more accustomed to manual transmissions, the skill is in short supply back Stateside. OEMs are even in on the secret.

As one example, just have a look through the vehicle spec sheets for lower weight class vehicles on OEM websites, from GMC to Isuzu, and you will find transmission options described as being a six-speed automatic. For the vast majority of trucking companies investing in medium duty, this is just fine. Rarely does procurement even think about a transmission.

Who Buys Them?

In the end, what truck drivers are looking for is a reliable vehicle that operates like a truck but drives like a car. When it comes down to it, buyers look for value attributes and the latest technology combined when making a buying decision. Does a truck get good fuel economy? Great? But might it be a dealbreaker in making a purchase? Probably not.

Who is the customer buying medium duty trucks? Consider operators like landscapers, courier services, or building contractors. These workers may haul large amounts of packages or require an array of tools at their immediate disposal. Medium duty trucks provide this capability.

On the flipside, you have leasing and rental fleets who purchase tens of thousands of vehicles per year. While these purchasers may not have fuel economy at the top of their mind, they know their customers do. Obviously, the lease-rental company doesn’t care much about fuel from their perspective because they aren’t paying for it! They are concerned about lifecycle costs.

They want vehicles that are not only reliable but have good fuel economy and low lifecycle costs. This makes a happy company and a happy customer. But it also creates an interesting paradigm when procurement managers are deciding what trucks to buy. How does one thread the needle between value attributes, lifecycle, and fuel economy?

Commercial fleets are also big buyers of these types of vehicles, especially if they are not in the long-haul sector. The problem is that transmission specs have become ever-more complicated. This adds some headache to the fleet technicians in the shop but is better for the fleet’s bottom line in the long-term.

New Transmission Examples

Transmission OEM Allison was one of the first top hop on the fuel efficiency bandwagon when they released their FuelSense fuel-efficiency package way back in 2014. The system automatically adapts shift schedules and torque for maximum fuel efficiency. It does active, real-time calculations based on load, grade, and duty cycle to determine the best gearing ratios.

Then, in 2017, Allison upgraded the system, calling it FuelSense 2.0. The company claims that the new version delivers up to 6% more fuel efficiency savings over the original software. As computing power has grown and evolved, so has the capabilities now built into commercial motor vehicles. The vehicles themselves can now regulate their own fuel efficiency numbers.

Truck ORM Fuso has also been working with double-clutch transmission varieties. In 2010, they came out with the Fuso Duonic, which was – at the time – dubbed the world’s first dual-clutch transmission for CMVs. While it is technically an automated manual transmission (AMT), it still delivers an impressive fuel efficiency boost over traditional models.

Eaton is another transmission OEM who has been making big changes to transmission architecture in the name of greater fuel efficiency. The fact is, as technologies mature, OEMs are discovering more ways to balance reliability, life cycle and fuel efficiency without making sacrifices.

Heavy-Duty Transmissions Evolve

When we talk about the heavy-duty sector, transmissions have made even greater strides. They are now both the heart and the brain of a big rig’s drive train. Now, engines often take their throttling cues from the transmission, rather than the other way around. And with down speeding becoming ever more common, the transmission now regulates that as well.

Transmissions now must work with other safety systems, such as adaptive cruise control, predictive cruise control, and other collision mitigation systems. While you don’t see a lot of this yet in the medium duty sector, it has been creeping into Class 6 and 7 vehicles. And as GHG Phase 2 fuel efficiency regulations continue to rise through the next decade, these changes will accelerate.

The specific GHG rules that apply to medium duty vehicles and heavy-duty pickups and vans call for specific reductions in CO2 emissions and fuel consumption of 16% beyond Phase 1. The end date for this transition is 2027. One fully phased-in, the Phase 2 standards for medium duty vocational vehicles from Class 4 through Class 6 call for reductions in CO2 emissions and fuel consumption of up to 24% relative to Phase 1.

Consider how large those numbers are. In less than 10 years, OEMs will need to make huge changes to how vehicles and their underlying components are constructed to meet these new requirements. And unless aerodynamics changes dramatically in the next half-decade, a lot of this will need to come from under the hood.

Certainly, on-highway sector truck drivers will benefit from advances in aerodynamics. And in the medium duty and vocational areas, companies will try to make their trucks as light as possible, use low-rolling-resistance tires, and other technologies to increase fuel efficiency. Improvements in engine and powertrain efficiency will also lead the way, a lot of which will come from the evolution of the transmission.

Other Advances on the Horizon

Transmission OEM ZF is also ready to hit the scene with some new technologies. Their new Powerline 8 is an eight-speed torque-converter automatic. While it is likely not to arrive until 2021, ZF has been very open that the reason they are pursuing these technologies is that so their clients can meet the new stringent GHG rules when the time comes.

The transmission will do it by offering an integrated stop/start assist feature. This feature will shut off and start the engine when the vehicle is idle at traffic lights. It will also offer skip-shifting and a coasting feature where it will enter a neutral setting when the vehicle is on a slight downgrade. Even more, the transmission will be able to sense the conditions it needs to shift operation. ZF says that trucking companies should see an additional 10% fuel efficiency improvement when compared with traditional six-speed transmissions of today.

Other advances include a transmission that has shift schedules suited to the mixed duty cycles for fleets that work in urban environments but also haul regional. Being able to change between shift schedules allows the transmission to select the schedule best suited for better fuel economy.

Some transmission OEMs are already beginning to look at nine-speed transmissions. With GHG standards getting stricter as the years go by, OEMs need to find innovative ways to ensure their clients meet the new regulatory requirements without going broke in the meantime. A lot of this innovation will come in the transmission and other powertrain components.

The fact is this, whether you are a landscaping company or a courier, you have a job to get done and you may need a medium duty truck to do it. While the transmission may not be a huge factor when you spec your purchases, at the end of the day, everything counts when it comes to better fuel efficiency and a healthier bottom line.

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