Manual heavy truck transmissions, does the bell toll for thee?

Manual transmissions, does the bell toll for thee?

They’ve been a staple of trucks since the very first one was built, but for manual transmissions, the end may be nigh. Magnus Koeck, Volvo’s vice president of marketing and brand management, says he believes that five years from now, manual transmissions in trucks will have disappeared entirely.

One catalyst for this change, he explained, can be seen in the latest Volvo I-Shift transmission. For years, the one major aspect of manual transmissions that AMTs haven’t been able to match is the manual’s level of low-speed precision. But the crawler gears now available on Volvo’s latest AMTs correct this imbalance, according to Koeck.

The crawler option adds either one or two gears to the I-Shift, a low gear and an ultra-low gear, making it a 13- or 14-speed transmission. It enables controlled forward and reverse travel at extremely slow speeds, down to 0.6 MPH with a 3.58 rear axle ratio.

Volvo isn’t the only company offering a manual-style level of control in AMTs. Eaton’s latest transmissions feature low-speed options specifically designed to mimic the level of control found in manuals, which can be a bridge in the gap between manuals and AMTs.

Those features include “urge to move,” which allows the truck to automatically drive forward when the truck is in gear, but the driver’s foot is not on the gas or the brake, and “blended pedal,” which allows the driver to directly control clutch engagement during engine idling and drive at varying speeds.

Allison also offers similar features in its fully automatic transmissions; the 4700 RDS, for example, features the ability to creep slowly and perform other low-speed maneuvers. Similar crawler gears are available in Mack mDrive transmissions, as well as Detroit’s DT12 (on which it is referred to as “creep mode”).

For those in vocational or construction applications, this is a welcome development and may remove the last remaining reason to spec a manual transmission.

Above: The percentage of Volvo trucks spec'ed with the company's I-Shift automated manual transmission has quickly grown in the last few years.
Above: The percentage of Volvo trucks spec’ed with the company’s I-Shift automated manual transmission has quickly grown in the last few years.

Five years may seem a bit soon for an industry that, not too long ago, was thoroughly dominated by manual transmissions. In 1999, a JD Power study found that 90% of trucks were sold with manuals; today, Volvo is reporting that 88.8% of its trucks are spec’d with I-Shift AMTs.

“Now for the first time, our automated manual can do the job, and we can serve all the segments,” says Volvo’s Koeck. “So for our customer base, there’s really no need to have a manual transmission. With the crawler gears you get now, I don’t see why you would need a manual, and I truly believe that they will disappear within five years.”

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