There's little to no argument within the trucking industry that quality drivers are becoming a scarce resource very quickly. Indeed, Noel Perry, a senior consultant with research firm FTR Associates and principal of consulting firm Transport Fundamentals, believes that even moderate freight growth combined with the 25 to 35% reduction in trucking capacity that occurred during the recession will create a driver shortage. Add in tighter regulatory requirements such as the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration's Compliance, Safety, Accountability program implemented this year, and that shortage of drivers could reach 150,000 annually over the next few years.
“To actually seat 150,000 drivers, you need to start by processing 1 million applications to get 175,000 to 185,000 qualified people into driver training programs — and you lose some of them along the way,” he explains. “We believe all of that translates into a shortage of about 400,000 drivers altogether.”
Yet there's another critical piece to this problem that could exacerbate the shortage even further: Much of the “new blood” being recruited into the cabs of big rigs do not know how to navigate a manual transmission. That's why the “driver skills” question now overshadows almost everything else in the Class 8 market, says Darry Stuart, president of DWS Fleet Management Services, who has 40 years of experience in transportation, including 30 managing a variety of fleets across the trucking spectrum.
LACK OF EXPERIENCE
“The pool of new drivers simply doesn't learn how to shift gears growing up anymore,” he explains. “It's estimated that upwards of 50 to 60% of the 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.”
There are already a number of fully automatic and automated mechanical transmissions (AMTs) on the market designed to address this issue, with more on the way. These gearboxes allow for “shift-free” truck driving, which helps fleets widen their driver recruiting net to fill empty truck seats.
Stuart contends that neither of the transmission options offers fleets a “slam dunk,” largely because they are far more expensive than the familiar — and reliable — 10- and 13-spd. manuals that continue to dominate the on-highway world.
However, the higher sticker price for AMTs and automatic transmissions, coupled with more costly maintenance and downtime considerations, can oftentimes make a wash of their touted advantages such as fuel savings. But Stuart believes their simple use will be a huge advantage for the next generation of drivers.
AT WHAT PRICE?
“That lack of shifting ability is a big challenge facing this industry now and in the future, and that has to be weighed against the [AMT and automatic] price premium and maintenance costs,” he says.
And that singular fact is one reason Allison Transmission, for example, intends to bring a fully automatic gearbox for Class 8 tractors to market by the fourth quarter of 2012.
James Wanaselja, Allison's vice president-North American marketing and services, stresses that the TC10 TS transmission is designed to help fleets do more work and do it more efficiently with increased fuel savings, lower maintenance costs, and increased ease of operation for drivers. (The “TC” stands for the “twin countershaft” design of the gearbox as well as for the “torque converter” integrated into the unit, and the “TS” identifies it as the “tractor series” transmission.)
“While we're targeting all Class 8 tractor applications with the TC10, it fits the best with the most ‘shifting intensive’ duty cycles, such as urban pickup and delivery, LTL, and regional operations,” explains Todd Dygert, Allison's product specialist for the TC10. He points out that keeping a truck engine within its “sweet spot” longer, usually between 1,000 and 1,400 rpm, can translate into fuel-efficiency improvements of 3 to 5%.
Some OEMs report that many fleets are jumping on the AMT/automatic bandwagon now. According to Ron Huibers, senior vice president-sales and marketing for Volvo Trucks North America (VTNA), nearly 40% of all Class 8s ordered this year by its U.S. fleet customers are being spec'd with the Volvo I-Shift AMT: a 12-spd., single countershaft transmission built up with a splitter, a main section with three forward gears and one reverse gear, and a range gear that doesn't require a clutch pedal.
The reason behind that upward swing in AMT selection is simple, explains Ed Saxman, VTNA drivetrain product manager: getting drivers to operate the vehicle in the correct, fuel-sipping way every day, regardless of their experience level.
“One key advantage of the I-Shift is that it makes even drivers with limited experience shift as expertly as the best drivers, for improved fuel economy and less stress on the driveline and tires,” Saxman says.
That reason alone has fueled a steady shift among truckers over the last several years to automated and now even fully automatic transmissions for their heavy trucks, says Shane Groner, product planning manager for the NAFTA region at Eaton Corp. Manuals still maintain market supremacy with an iron fist, however, their grip is slowly loosening.
A GROWING REVOLUTION
Groner says that while sales of AMTs, which are essentially electronically controlled manual transmissions, and automatic transmissions, which utilize a torque converter, won't overtake those of their manual brethren within the next five years, they'll definitely rise to dominate the market within the next 10 to 15 years.
Right now, he explains that it's the cost premium holding many companies back from making the shift to AMTs and fully automatic units, noting that an AMT can cost about $2,000 more than a comparable manual 10-spd. transmission.
Yet many are also beginning to realize that AMTs — and their fully automatic brethren as well — can save big bucks over their operating life in a variety of ways, offsetting that extra upfront cost.
“The big value driver is fuel economy,” Eaton's Groner explains. “For example, the software controlling our UltraShift Plus AMT makes every shift just like ones made by the very best drivers in a given fleet. This means that every truck, not just the ones driven by the most skilled drivers, now has the opportunity to maximize fuel economy.”