Transmission Trends

How transmission technology has changed the work practices of the fleet technician

What are the most significant technology trends facing trucking fleets today? More importantly, which technology trends will have the greatest impact on the work of fleet technicians in the coming years? In a time when fleet maintenance managers are forced to focus more and more on squeezing costs and extending the lives of their trucks, it may seem incongruous to discuss the value of high-level technology, but if that technology can contribute to more efficient performance, both on the road and in the maintenance shop, how can it be ignored?

In a column last year in Fleet Maintenance, Mary-Beth Kellenberger, a consultant with market research firm Frost & Sullivan, stated that automated and automatic transmissions were among the top ten technologies that would be challenging fleet technicians ("Embracing Change," May, 2008).

In her column, Kellenberger said that "Each new vehicle technology requires new equipment, diagnostics and information access... and the costs associated with operating repair facilities continue to rise..."

With that in mind, we went to Penske Truck Leasing, a fleet that has a vast amount of experience with automated and automatic transmissions, to see how this technology has affected its overall maintenance operations. Mike Hasinec, Vice President of Maintenance for Penske Truck Leasing, had a lot to say on the topic:

Fleet Maintenance: When and why was the decision made to spec' automatic and/or autoshift transmissions in your trucks?

Mike Hasinec: You have to remember our business model: we have a fleet of trucks that we use in the rental fleet, as well as our full service leasing/contract maintenance business. With that said, when Uncle Sam came out with the CDL regulation in the early 1990s, saying anything under 26,000 GVW doesn't need to have a CDL drivers' license, anything over does, that's really when you started to see this move from manual to automated or automatic transmissions in those vehicles with that GVW of less than 26,000 lbs.

When that regulation came out, the class of driver--from a training standpoint for that non-CDL operation--kind of pushed the manuals to the automated, because obviously driver training time is reduced. You don't necessarily have that professional driver in there so obviously you reduce maintenance costs from an abuse point-of-view. That's when it really started to take off, especially in the straight trucks.

Now tractors are another story. In tractors you started to see this move over the last five or six years. There it was because of the driver shortage. With automatic and automated transmissions in a Class-8 vehicle, your training time is greatly reduced, as is driver fatigue. The pool of drivers you have to select from is increased, because you don't necessarily need someone with 20 years' driving experience, or someone who has a lot of experience using a manual transmission.

So for us, customer demand was the biggest factor.

FM: Was a needs analysis done? What were some of the biggest factors influencing the choice for new transmission technology?

MH: Especially in the rental product line, a lot of that was driven by customer demand. In other words, if we had a fleet of 10,000 medium-duty trucks, and let's say that 30 percent of that population was at one time automatics, you would see those having a higher rate of rental. The others probably got used less often. So, obviously, to increase utilization, we decided to start moving it towards 100 percent for that particular class of vehicle in the rental fleet, and for the most part we have done so. Just about every vehicle we have in our rental fleet under that GVW is automatic or automated.

An automatic transmission is just like what's in your car today. It is totally hydraulic and it has a fluid-driven torque converter. With an automated transmission, they took your standard manual transmission, they've literally taken the gearshift lever off of the transmission, they changed the clutch and they added an ECM that does all the shifting for the driver, based on inputs from the engine. The driver's only input is his foot on the accelerator pedal; the electronics does all the shifting, and the ECM on the transmission works in conjunction with the engine based on RPMs, load, etc. There is a difference from a maintenance perspective.

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