Changing tastes on shifting gears: Are manual transmissions a thing of the past?

Updated Sep 25, 2015

By Jack Roberts

Mastering an unsynchronized heavy-duty manual transmission is as much an art as a science. Old-school drivers say they simply don’t feel in complete control of a truck unless it has a manual gearbox.

Even the most ardent automated manual transmission experts admit that on a good day, a highly skilled driver with a manual transmission is equal to the best computer-controlled transmissions in the world in terms of shifting efficiency and fuel economy.

Yet, time appears to be catching up to the manual transmission. Spurred by the pressure to maximize fuel economy and safety and to integrate new drivers into fleet operations quickly and seamlessly, more carriers are spec’ing new truck purchases with automated-manual gearboxes.

OEMs, including Volvo and Freightliner, report steady and impressive take rates on AMTs – now routinely spec’d on more than half the new vehicles that roll off their factory floors.

From a high-level view, the industry trend toward AMTs seems irreversible. But reports of the manual transmission’s demise may be premature.

David Johnson, president and chief instructor at Theodore, Ala.-based Premier Driving Academy, still believes in training students on manuals because, in his opinion, it gives them a better overall feel for the vehicle. Also, he thinks it is vital for drivers to understand the mechanics and physics of up- and down-shifting.

Finally, as a point of pride, he wants to graduate fully trained drivers capable of operating any truck on the road today and – just as importantly from the students’ perspective – able to go after and get any driving job they want.

Still in the majority

“The use of automated manual transmissions is definitely increasing in market share as more companies focus on fuel efficiency, driver recruitment and driver retention,” says Ryan Trzybinski, product strategy manager, commercial powertrain, Eaton. “However, manuals still hold the majority share of transmissions in the NAFTA marketplace, especially in smaller fleets that have a number of quality experienced drivers or owner-operators. They do not need to go to AMTs. Eaton still sees the value of manuals because it provides fleets with a choice when they spec their trucks.”

Eaton also currently is seeing a good number of manuals in bigger fleets that run a combination of transmissions to accommodate a variety of drivers.

“While we see AMTs continuing to increase in share, we definitely think manuals are going to be around for quite some time,” Trzybinski says. “We have a new 10-speed manual, and we definitely see that as a viable option because the cost and simplicity of manual transmissions continues to make them very attractive to a lot of buyers. And the reliability of the constant mesh manual transmission is world-class.”

Stu Russoli, Mack highway and powertrain products marketing manager, says the company sees trends that point to AMTs becoming the dominant transmission in certain segments, but that doesn’t mean conventional manual transmissions will go away completely.

“We believe they will still play a role to support a base price point, and they will also find favor in vocational applications where the ability to have manual control over shifting and clutch engagement is desired,” Russoli says. “Design work on manual transmissions is being done, but I would say it is more of a refinement of a very solid technology to better improve such things as weight and overall durability. There are new materials and processes today that can make some significant improvements in performance and ease of use in the future.”

Jon Morrison, president of Wabco’s North American operations, says his company still sees a place for manual transmissions in the market.

“We don’t think the writing is on the wall for them,” Morrison says. “The adoption of AMT transmissions, however, has expanded to approximately 17 percent of new truck and bus production as of 2014.” Wabco estimates that market penetration of the industry’s AMT solutions will reach one-third of new truck and bus builds by 2019.

All about the driver

Morrison believes the advantages of AMTs for fuel savings and driver retention will continue to drive further market penetration over manual transmissions.

“We also see advantages when an AMT connects to the driveline, engine and braking systems,” he says. “As the increase in and adoption of automated vehicle controls utilizes the AMT to enhance the burgeoning use of autonomous control features on heavy trucks, that trend will continue.”

Also, the learning curve for manual gearboxes can be a daunting one for new drivers. Johnson says that using automated transmissions can be a make-or-break factor for some students who don’t test well.

In limited cases – about 1 in 5 students, he estimates – he’ll let a student who is trained and proficient on a manual but nervous to use one with an examiner sitting in the passenger seat take the commercial driver’s license driving exam with an automatic transmission.

Johnson mentioned a fleet he does business with that recently dropped two competitive driving schools from its “acceptable” list because those schools were sending Class E drivers to them – but the fleet didn’t run any automatics. That’s why he maintains a vested interest in emphasizing manual training at his school.

“Some of the larger fleets have really well-refined training programs that they do in-house,” Trzybinski says. “This is giving drivers the ability to operate both manual and automated transmissions. That, in turn, is making those same operators more attractive to potential employers.”

With AMT skills only, newer drivers may not be as marketable as far as going to a different fleet or switching to another application such as logging or heavy-haul where manuals are more prevalent, he says. “Knowing how to operate a manual transmission is a great skill for a driver to have if they want to make sure they are attractive to a broader market.”

What is the future of the manual transmission? Click here to read Part II?