“Look ma … no shifting needed!”

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The pool of new drivers simply doesn’t learn how to shift gears growing up anymore. It’s estimated that upwards of 50% to 60% of the new drivers coming into this industry today don’t know how to shift a manual transmission. Consequently, transmissions must be easier to use, more robust and provide better fuel economy.” –Darry Stuart, president, DWS Fleet Management Services

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A few weeks back, I found myself tooling around a short yet wicked little test track at Allison Transmission’s headquarters outside Indianapolis at the helm of a 2011 Peterbilt Model 384 pulling a 48-foot trailer, loaded out at 62,000 pounds.

[Click here to access a photo gallery of the ride and drive even Allison hosted to show off its new TC10 gearbox.]

I call it “wicked” because it’s a narrow track that contains all kinds of sharp hairpin turns – providing quite the maneuvering challenge (fortunately without the added hassle of four-wheelers zooming hither and thither).

I didn’t get much chance to put the tractor’s Paccar MX 455 hp engine though its paces, either, as all the curbs required me to keep under 45 mph most of the time.

So why does any of this matter to you? Well, this particular Model 384 came equipped with Allison’s new TC10 TS automatic transmission, allowing me to fully concentrate on keeping my big rig (for that afternoon, at least) on the blacktop.

[Below you can watch Mark Raines, Allison’s senior project engineer for the TC10, demonstrate its operating qualities while driving on “real” roads.]

In fact, despite the track’s many twists and turns, I managed to master its wily asphalt ways relatively quickly, simply because I didn’t have to worry about shifting gears. And let me tell you, I would’ve had to shift gears a LOT on that track; a task that’s not always enjoyed at the end of a long day, even by veteran truck drivers.

I also got behind the wheel of a 2011 Navistar ProStar daycab equipped with a TC10 transmission as well, again pulling a 48-foot trailer and loaded out to 62,000 pounds. Again, getting a feel for the dimensions of the vehicle in order to stay on the roadway took little time because I didn’t have to shift gears.

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The reason I think this “shift-free environment” in the Class 8 world is becoming more critical is pretty simple: the next generation of truck drivers will be a lot like me. That is to say, while they can operate a vehicle safely (and yes I believe I can do that!), their ability to smoothly operate a manual gearbox is nil.

Personally, I know it would take me more than a few weeks (if not months) of steady practice to get my manual shifting skills to where they need to be in order to maximize vehicle performance and fuel economy. And those weeks and/or months would cost a trucking company significant dollars over time in terms of training, fuel lost to inefficient shifting, plus all the wear-and-tear on the gear box resulting from my poor skills.

Now, over time, would that change? Certainly … but would a fleet be willing to put up with the costs of me getting up to speed, as it were? Don’t forget, too, that there’s a growing shortage of drivers out there, so once I improve my shifting skills, I may just jump shift and go to another carrier, leaving the one that spent all the time, money, and patience training me back at square one.

That’s one reason, at least, why many experts believe the extra price premium for fully-automatic and automated mechanical transmissions (AMTs) might be worth it.

“The pool of new drivers simply doesn’t learn how to shift gears growing up anymore,” Darry Stuart, president of DWS Fleet Management Services, told me recently. “It’s estimated that upwards of 50% to 60% of the new drivers coming into this industry today don’t know how to shift a manual transmission. Consequently, transmissions must be easier to use, more robust and provide better fuel economy.”

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In his opinion, that’s why the “driver skills” question now overshadows most everything in the Class 8 market—and he should know, as Stuart spent some 30 years of his four decade career in transportation managing fleets across the trucking spectrum, from linehaul to refuse.

[You can read more about this subject by clicking here.]

There are, of course, already a number of fully-automatic and automated mechanical transmissions [AMTs] already on the market designed to address this issue, with more on the way (the TC10 TS will hit the market next year).

These gearboxes allow for “shift free” truck driving environments, which should help fleets widen their driver recruiting net to fill empty seats.

While Stuart contends that neither fully-automatic nor AMT gearboxes offer fleets a “slam dunk” option – largely because they are far more expensive than the familiar, reliable and far cheaper 10- and 13-speed manuals that continue to dominate the on-highway world – their simplicity of operation for the next generation of drivers is what will give them a huge advantage.

[Caterpillar subscribed to the same thinking when it designed its new CT660 vocational truck, seen below; a truck that’s equipped with Cat’s CX31 automatic transmission.]

It’s just one of the many things fleets will need to consider as they forge future strategies to address the many challenges they’ll be facing down the road.

What's Trucks at Work?

Trucks at Work: Sean Kilcarr comments on trends affecting the many different strata of the trucking industry.

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