If the drivetrain is the heart of a big rig, then the driver -- naturally -- is its soul.
This has been true since the earliest days of trucking: It took a special man -- or woman -- to master intensely stout engines and tricky manual gearboxes to guarantee the smooth, continuous power needed to keep a big truck rolling down the highway.
Over time, the ability to operate a heavy-duty gearbox took on almost mythic status -- and with good reason. The next time you're on YouTube, run a search for "Antique Truck Transmissions" and prepare to be amazed watching what drivers had to deal with in the not-too-distant past. Old-timers today still chuckle and swap stories about those gearboxes and watching this video of Kenworth W900L with a 3-stuck manual going down the road, it's easy to see why they took such great pride in those abilities.
To start with, not just anyone could do it. But even if you could train someone to master an old gearbox, could they do so while dealing with traffic, intersections and steep mountain grades?
The answer was usually "No."
Manual gearboxes got better, of course. And today’s versions are light years ahead of anything a trucker in the ‘60s or ‘70s could have dreamed of. But even today, manual gearboxes demand an extraordinary level of concentration and can be notoriously unforgiving if a shift is missed – particularly in mountainous terrain. Rookie drivers often struggle to master them: My first morning at CDL school, all I could see as we walked out onto the yard to begin our pretrip inspection was that 53-foot trailer looming back behind that battered old Freightliner Columbia. But after my first day driving, all I could think about was getting that Eaton manual transmission right. And I wasn’t alone: Typically, only learning to safely back a tractor-trailer trumps manual transmission as the biggest challenge for new drivers.
But time and technology change everything. And today, it appears that automated manual transmissions (AMTs) are poised to become the default power train choice for North American fleets in the very near future.
Just 10 years ago, the take rate for new AMTs was hovering around the 20 percent mark. But OEMs looking at almost reverse-image fixtures out of Europe knew they had a solid technology on their hands and were patient. But even many of the strongest AMT adherents have been amazed at the exponential leaps in AMT take rates over the past decade.
Today, AMT take rates are closing in on 80 percent and it seems that in the near future, manual gearboxes will be delegated to a specialty applications such as severe duty, heavy-haul and extreme terrain.
Well, those applications and a few old-school- and throw-back-drivers who still feel they're more in control of a truck with a manual gearbox at hand.
It's important to remember, however, that although trucking loses a little bit of its uniqueness and character as manual gearboxes step out of the spotlight, what it gains in terms of safety and efficiency is enormous. And that's without taking intangible benefits like reduced stress and fatigue into account.
And even the most grizzled old gear-jammers understand this: OEMs and fleets alike are rife with stories about long-time drivers who reluctantly agree to test out an AMT, and then refuse to give the truck back once they return home.
"New" doesn't always automatically mean "better." But when it comes to automated manual transmissions, it's hard to argue that the OEMs didn't knock the ball out the park on the very first pitch.