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August 12, 2016 4:00 PM, EDT
More Fleets Turn to EC Transmissions
The Majority Spec in New Trucks Also Gives Fleets Driver Recruiting Tool
Allison Transmission Inc.
This story appears in the Aug. 8 print edition of Equipment & Maintenance Update, a supplement to Transport Topics.

In less than five years, electronically controlled, or EC, transmissions have gone from a “maybe” option for a few fleets to the majority spec in new trucks.

More fleets, including some of the largest in Transport Topics’ Top 100 lists, are transitioning to these automated manual or torque converter automatics, otherwise known as full automatics. The reasons are varied, but they come down to economics and human resources: EC transmissions save fuel, are more reliable and have better residual value than in the past. And in today’s world where good drivers are hard to find and keep, these transmissions give fleets a critical recruiting and retention tool.

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“The use of the [automated manual transmission] opened up the recruiting process to drivers not comfortable with the manual transmission,” said Ron Hall, vice president of equipment and fuel for C.R. England Inc., based in Salt Lake City. In June, the fleet had converted about 70% of 3,000-plus sleeper units to AMTs and will have converted about 92% by the end of the year, Hall said.

AMTs also bring a safety factor to the equation because they offer fewer distractions and are less fatiguing for drivers, Hall said. “We feel the drivers are safer if they do not have to concentrate on shifting.”

C.R. England ranks No. 23 on Transport Topics’ Top 100 list of the largest U.S. and Canadian for-hire carriers.

As for fuel economy, the sleeper fleet has seen an improvement since adding the AMTs, along with other fuel-saving technologies. “Overall, we’ve seen 3% to 5% fuel economy improvement over manual transmission units,” Hall said.

U.S. Xpress Enterprises, in Chattanooga, Tennessee, also is all-in on EC transmissions. “We made the decision to go full bore on [automateds],” said Eric Fuller, president and chief operating officer. The company had tested several earlier generations of AMTs, but it wasn’t until the latest versions that it decided to jump in all the way. “We’re seeing better fuel economy with tractors, better reliability, less maintenance and fewer issues. They’re better all around,” Fuller said.

U.S. Xpress ranks 19 on the for-hire TT100.

In a December 2014 report on automated manual transmissions, the North American Council for Freight Efficiency — a consortium of fleets and suppliers that offers analysis of fuel-saving technologies — reported that adoption rates for automated manual transmissions among 19 large fleets had risen to 38% that year from 4% in 2005.

In February, executives with Eaton Corp. told financial analysts that the AMT share in the Class 8 North American market had more than doubled to 55% in 2015 from 25% in 2012. With order rates for EC transmissions well over 50% for some truck makers, their use has reached the tipping point industrywide.

Volvo’s I-Shift AMT is standard on all of its models and was spec’d in 83% of its Volvo-powered trucks in 2015, said Allison Athey, product marketing manager for transmissions at Volvo Trucks North America.

At Mack Trucks, a Volvo Group subsidiary, about 75% of Pinnacle models are equipped with the mDrive AMT, and about 20% of its branded vocational Granite models are equipped with the mDrive HD, said Scott Barraclough, Mack’s technology product manager.

Kelly Gedert, manager of powertrain and components marketing for Daimler Trucks North America, said that in 2012 the percentage of automated or automatic usage in the manufacturer’s over-the-road trucks was around 15%. “Fast forward to 2016, and that penetration has grown to well over 60% in that same category of vehicles,” she said.

DTNA offers its own Detroit D12 AMT as well as Eaton UltraShift Plus AMTs, along with Allison full automatics in its Freightliner Cascadia, with the D12 having the “highest penetration,” Gedert said.

The AMT take-rate for Kenworth’s T680 was 66% through the first half of this year compared with 9% for the truck maker’s over-the-road models of five years ago, said Kurt Swihart, marketing director for Kenworth Truck Co., a subsidiary of Paccar Inc.

Several hurdles still stand in the way of wider fleet adoption of EC transmissions, but they are fading in importance.

The cost of AMTs, for example, run anywhere from $3,000 to $5,000 more than a manual. The torque automatics will cost more. Nevertheless, getting a return on investment has become easier. NACFE noted that fleets should expect to see an average 1% to 3% improvement in fuel economy when using AMTs, and potentially higher gains from full automatics in certain high-shifting duty cycles.

Technology is overtaking the ability of even the best drivers to get the most efficient use out of the truck, said Mike Roeth, executive director of NACFE. “In three to five years, having a dumb transmission that is not electronically controlled will become more of a liability with the truck as the industry goes to smarter engines, downspeeding axles and the like.”

This past spring, Volvo introduced the I-See option for the I-Shift AMT. When using cruise control, I-See will record the topography of a route the first time it is driven. “The next time the truck travels the route, I-See recognizes the hills and directs the I-Shift to shift in an optimized manner, taking advantage of the truck’s momentum to provide improved fuel efficiency,” Athey said.

While safety technologies such as stability control and accident mitigation don’t require an EC transmission to work, they seem to go hand-in-hand. DTNA’s Gedert said the majority of vehicles spec’d with a safety system were the DT12 AMTs.

Meanwhile, the effects EC transmissions can have on drivers and driver retention could be significant, Roeth said. He cited an anecdote from two private fleets that said the transmissions enable drivers to work past their 60s and some into their 70s. “[The fleets] considered this a great benefit for the stability of the workforce,” he said. In addition, EC transmissions might encourage divers who were on leave to come back quicker than they might if the trucks have manual transmissions.

Fleets also should see less variation in fuel economy from driver to driver with an EC transmission. An AMT helps beginning and less experienced drivers deliver the same fuel economy as experienced drivers, said Alex Stucky, Eaton Fuller’s global product strategy manager for transmissions.

Eaton’s latest AMT, the 10-speed UltraShift Advantage, is available with the Cummins ISX15 engine in Navistar’s International, as well as in Paccar’s Kenworth and Peterbilt trucks.

Improved fuel economy is good, but what tipped the scales in the favor of EC transmissions were better residual values, fleet managers said.

“Where we used to get hit was on trade-ins,” said U.S. Xpress’ Fuller. “We’re not seeing that anymore. Prices on the used market are about the same as for manuals. It’s just not the stigma that used to be in the old times.”

The residual percentage on our AMTs is now the same as the residual percentage on manuals, said C.R. England’s Hall.

The Advantage series was developed to reduce weight and lower maintenance costs, said Stucky. It was used first in the linehaul sector, and Eaton is offering a model for regional haul and vocational operations in lieu of the Eaton FR manual. Features include gear logic and low-speed maneuverability, important for the vocational space, Stucky noted. “There is a lot more interest in an automated [in the vocation sector] than what we’ve previously seen,” he said.

Allison Transmission Inc., still the only company to offer torque converter full automatics available for highway use in the United States, is the go-to transmission for straight trucks and buses. According to the company’s 2015 annual report, Allison’s automatics claim 77% of Classes 6-7 and 61% of Class 8 straight trucks, respectively, as well as 98% of the school bus market.

The company’s role in the Class 8 tractor market has been a distant third behind manuals and AMTs, but the company hopes to change that with the TC10, a 10-speed full automatic designed for fleets that combine highway mileage with stop-and-start deliveries in metropolitan areas.

The transmission “maximizes powertrain efficiency while achieving and maintaining highway cruise speeds to save … time and money,” said Lou Gilbert, Allison’s director of North America marketing and global brand development.

The company claims the transmission will average 5% better fuel economy than current manual or AMT-equipped tractors, thanks in part to the automatic’s ability to avoid the falloff in power during shifts, Gilbert said. “The TC10 provides full-power shifts with no interruption in engine power,” he said.

As of early July, International was the only OEM offering the TC10, available in the ProStar model. Paccar announced in April that it was engineering the TC10 for the Kenworth T680 and T880 and Peterbilt 657 and 579 models, with both Paccar and Cummins engines.