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Playing dirty: AMTs and automatics make serious moves into vocational fleets

Well, if you're an Old School, Manual Gearbox kinda driver disgusted by the infusion of automatic and automated transmission into long-haul fleets, there's always vocational, right? Because everyone knows that automated manual, and fully-automatic transmissions will never be able to cut it in the rough-and-tumble world of mixers, dumps and other construction or vocational applications.

Well, not so fast. Charlie Cook, vocational product manager for Peterbilt, recently told me that more than 50 percent of the company's Class 8 trucks are rolling off the factory floor with AMTs. And while most of those vehicles wind up in long-haul applications, the number in vocational applications is growing at an impressive rate as well.

And that's a trend that is only going to continue.

One of the more remarkable stories behind the sweeping acceptance of AMTs in North America today has been the remarkably low number of design flaws they've exhibited. 

There are always going to be issues with new products and technology, of course. But widespread issues just haven't reared their ugly heads with AMTs.

A big part of that reason can be credited to the fact that several AMT designs – most notably Volvo's I-Shift – cut their teeth for years in Europe before being introduced in North America. And because the take rate for AMTs was much bigger, much faster than here, ensuring durability in vocational applications was a given.

A few years back, I was able to visit Sweden on a Volvo trip and see for myself how well the I-Shift performed in really tough, off road logging work in a brutal environment on the very edge of the Arctic Circle. The fleet and drivers both had absolute confidence in their AMTs. And the work they were doing was in extremely harsh conditions – and it was June! I’m not sure I’d like see how an I-Shift performs in Sweden in January or February in person – but I’m sure it would handle the cold much better than I would.

And if you visit Eaton's proving grounds just outside Marshall, Michigan, for some UltraShift Plus time, you can bet that an off-road course, and severe-service, steep-grade launches with GVWRs well over 80,000 pounds are going to be part of your day. This philosophy is reflected in the design of the company’s Procision AMT – which was expressly designed for vocational trucking applications.

The bottom line is that durability has never been an issue for AMTs in vocational work. In fact, when it comes to maintenance, fleets often come out ahead by spec'ing AMTs just on clutch life alone. Clutches take a brutal pounding in many vocational trucking jobs with drivers often "riding" them as they attempt to power out of a deep pothole or get heavily-loaded dump moving in loose ground conditions. AMTs generally do a much better job of engaging a clutch, or skip-shifting, in those conditions than humans do – which obviously leads to improved clutch life and reduced maintenance.

But not all vocational work is off-road. Refuse trucks, beverage trucks, street sweepers and a whole host of other vocational/municipal vehicles fall under this heading as well. And once again, AMTs offer fleets definite advantages in those roles.

While AMTs do deliver better fuel economy than manuals in most driving situations, including cities, one of their strongest selling points in urban and municipal applications is driver comfort and safety.

AMTs are simply easier to operate than manual gearboxes. And they're not a distraction, either. Drivers can keep both hands on the wheel and their attention on traffic and their surroundings. And this overall ease of use translates into more efficient vehicle use and driver productivity -- particularly when fleets are dealing with new drivers with limited experience driving either a truck or a manual transmission. And, as we all know, that is the case more often than not today.

And it’s important to note that all of these advantages hold true for full automatic transmissions, as well. All told, it’s a potent combination of real-world benefits that more and more fleet managers are finding difficult to resist.

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