ECTs: A Solution for the Driver Shortage

Jan. 12, 2015

Automated manual transmissions lead to a 1-3% improvement in fuel economy, according to our recently released Confidence Report on electronically controlled transmissions, but maybe even more important is their ability to help solve the industry’s driver shortage.

Fuel economy is the first reason fleets consider moving from manual to electronically controlled transmissions, a term we use to encompass both automated manual transmissions and fully automatic ones.  Of course, the fuel reduction performance depends on the amount of shifting occurring in each fleet’s duty cycle and other things including the experience and training available to drivers.

After extensive interviews, we found that 2015 will likely be the year where the “new normal” for Class 8 tractors will be ones that have automated manual transmissions with some using automatic transmissions in the higher start and stop trucks.  Why?  It’s the ability to find and retain drivers.

Much discussion has been had in the industry on the lack of skilled, willing drivers to operate these big trucks.  The industry told us, through our interviews with all sizes of fleets, owner operators, truck and powertrain builders and others that these transmissions function well, are reliable and after time driving them, drivers very much appreciate their ease of operation.  Fleets also told us that while some seasoned drivers initially were hesitant to get behind the wheel of a truck spec’ed with an automated transmission “within about three days” they no longer want to drive trucks with manual transmissions.  Also, our study team found that fleets are using the fact that their trucks are equipped with electronically controlled transmissions as a recruiting tool to entice men and women who wouldn’t normally consider a career as a truck driver.

We also found that the use of automated transmissions lessens the variability in fuel economy between the best drivers and the worst drivers. And while the best drivers may in fact be able to get better fuel economy driving trucks with manual transmissions, ask yourself realistically how many of your drives are your “best drivers?”  Reducing the variable of drivers, also makes it easier to evaluate the many other technologies, such as aerodynamics, tires and other powertrain offerings.

In fairness we found some challenges when switching to automated manual transmissions including the higher initial price tag and some additional maintenance costs.

The Payback Calculator our team developed includes those challenges, but also allows fleets to factor in “soft cost” savings like reduced driver turnover and lower recruiting and training costs. We think the calculator gives fleets a realistic way to evaluate whether automated manual or automatic transmissions make economic sense for them.

Fleets we spoke to while working on the Confidence Report or when they attended one of our recent workshops indicated that all future trucks will be specified with automated transmissions. As one fleet manager told us, “It’s a no brainer.”  Take a look at our Findings and put your own numbers into the Payback Calculator.  Maybe these transmissions are a great solution for you!

About the Author

Michael Roeth | Executive Director

Michael Roeth has worked in the commercial vehicle industry for nearly 30 years, most recently as executive director of the North American Council for Freight Efficiency (NACFE). He serves on the second National Academy of Sciences Committee on Technologies and Approaches for Reducing the Fuel Consumption of Medium and Heavy-Duty Vehicles and has held various positions in engineering, quality, sales, and plant management with Navistar and Behr/Cummins.

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