Journalists tend to be a cynical lot. We don't take much at face value. So, the first time I heard the term "integrated drivetrain," 15 years ago, or so, I thought it was just pretty slick marketing designed to get fleets to spec proprietary OEM components throughout a new truck.
A lot has happened in the past 15 years. I'll spare you a full list, but two developments stand out: unprecedented government emissions and fuel economy regulations, and an exponential leap in computing power in ever-smaller control modules.
Engineers 15 years ago understand the potential of the drivetrains they were developing. And today, the trucking industry is starting to realize the benefits of those systems first hand.
And, with the publishing of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Phase 2 Greenhouse Gas rules a couple weeks ago, I think we've reached the point where we will integrated drivetrains become the standard spec throughout the North American industry. Moreover, I think this marks the beginning of a time when fleet managers and technicians alike will start to think of the drivetrain as a singular unit, as opposed to a singular system made up from different components often coming from different sources.
In the very early days of the automotive industry, it was very common to spec components from a variety of suppliers, even on the passenger car side of the business. It wasn't uncommon for buyers to order a new car consisting of simply a chassis and engine, then send the bare-bones vehicle away to be upfitted a whole host of different transmissions, lighting systems, and plush, specialized coach bodies.
There were a lot of reasons for this: For starters, vehicle manufacturers were just learning how to design and build automobiles – and often had just barely enough cash on hand to fund basic research and development while keeping the production lines moving.
It was also an age of accelerated innovation and invention – so smaller companies often came up with outstanding new technologies and products far superior to what the OEMs were offering. So it made a lot of sense to cobble vehicles together from different suppliers because the owner very often ended up with a far superior vehicle than they would have with a strictly stock car or truck.
Over time, the car manufacturers started making serious money and gradually brought much of those outsourced components in-house by either developing superior products – or just by purchasing suppliers outright. The reasoning was straight-forward: The OEMs developed a better vehicle, and charged more for it.
That never really happened in trucking. For one thing, most early truck builders never reached a point where they were financially stable enough to bring the development and production of those products in-house.
Another pertinent point was the simple fact that trucks weren't cars. Cars all pretty much do the same thing, which simplifies the design and manufacturing process considerably. Trucks do all sorts of things, which makes designing a singular model that works well for every buyer out there nearly impossible -- even today.
This reality, combined with the fact that truck buyers liked the ability to have a hand in spec'ing and configuring their new trucks, meant that many basic vehicle systems on trucks, including engines, transmissions and axles, were routinely outsourced until very recently.
Today, that's all changing. The time frame was far longer, but eventually trucking OEMs have followed the same path automotive manufacturers did: An industry that began with ma many competitors has eventually dwindled down to a dominant few as companies went bankrupt or were bought out.
Today, the tradition of outsourcing truck components is still alive, and, indeed, has proven to be a lifesaver for some OEMs struggling to meet ever-tougher emissions standards or compete with bigger rivals that can leverage global engineering resources to boost vehicle performance and/or fuel economy.
Greenhouse Gas Phase 2 adds a new wrinkle, however. Because it seems likely that integrated drivetrains, run by high-speed on-board computers running insanely sophisticated algorithms controlling every aspect of vehicle operation will be vital to meet the regulations when they become law a decade from now.
Non-OEM suppliers Cummins and Eaton saw the writing on the wall a few years back and have competed successfully in the integrated world with their jointly-developed SmartAdvantage drivetrain. Meanwhile, the recent Volkswagen acquisition of Navistar stock points toward a budding technology partnership that could yield a proprietary, integrated drivetrain in its own right in a few years' time.
Nothing is carved in stone at this point, and healthy, competitive technology races are bound to deliver some interesting, and innovative powertrain solutions in the coming years. But increasingly, I think, fully-integrated drivetrains designed the ground up as singularly-functioning units will take center stage as the next generation of heavy trucks come to life.