It’s a topic that divides the industry- which is better, Automated Manual (AMT) or manual transmissions? More and more these days, manufacturers are leaning towards the AMT in terms of standard equipment, with the European manufacturers leading the charge. While some drivers will tell you that a manual transmission is the only way to go, the benefits of modern AMTs are hard to ignore. The fact that manufacturers are on the AMT band wagon is a sure sign that they see a future in it, but the question is why?
While it’s much simpler to operate from the driver’s seat, the AMT is a complicated piece of equipment. Actually, that’s not necessarily true – the transmission itself is basically a standard manual transmission, but the automated shifting part of the deal is a wonder of modern engineering. Having an engine ECU talk to the transmission ECU, and then making the two work together, is not a simple process.
Millions of dollars are spent on the development of software and programming to make sure the driveline selects the right gear, at the right time, every time. While there are a lot of very good drivers out there stirring through a manual gearbox, if anyone ever tells you they’ve never missed a gear on a Roadranger box they’re pulling your leg (unless of course they’ve never used one). The AMT takes the human error factor out of the equation, and this delivers many benefits in terms of efficiency and maintenance costs.
The development of the AMT has been a long process to get to the refined and smooth changing units we have today, and this is probably half the reason that many operators and drivers are reluctant to make the change. In the early days of AMTs the results varied greatly. While the European manufacturers developed their own units, designed to work with their own engines and software, manufacturers such as Eaton had a much harder time in developing an AMT. The fact that they had to develop a platform that would fit behind a variety of engines meant they struggled to produce a unit that was a perfect fit for any of them. That has since changed, and while the first generation Eaton Autoshift was far from perfect, the latest generation Ultrashift Plus will give any of the Euro AMTs a run for its money.
The benefits of an AMT go far beyond removing the need to change gears. While it’s much easier on a driver’s left arm, an AMT also allows a driver to be more relaxed, focus more on the environment around them and reduces driver fatigue. There is an old theory that having to change gears could be what keeps a driver awake, but it also contributes to the early onset of fatigue. The more time, energy and thought you put into making gear changes, the sooner you will become fatigued.
AMTs are also easier on the entire driveline. The whole process of changing gear is managed to the microsecond, from reducing the amount of fuel going into the engine, disengaging the clutch, changing gear, engaging the clutch to then re applying the power. The whole process takes less than three seconds, with the on-board computers making countless calculations to ensure the correct gear is selected, and maximum momentum maintained.
Having the components talking to each other also helps to keep them both working at their peak efficiency. An AMT is not simply plugged onto the back of the engine and left to do its thing- the combination is tuned to keep the engine operating within it safe limits. These limits might be very different to what a driver would work to with a manual transmission, at either end of the RPM gauge. Utilising the engines power and efficiency bands to suit the conditions brings benefits in fuel economy, reduces unnecessary stress on the engine and reduces the number of gear changes. Those shifts that are made are smoother, reducing shock through the driveline. All of this leads to less wear and tear on various components, including the clutch, differentials and tyres.
The benefits in terms of fuel economy, for a competent driver, can be up to 5% when compared to a manual transmission, with reduced driveline maintenance being an added bonus. The use of AMTs is also proven to reduce the efficiency gap between the best and worst drivers in a fleet, meaning a fleet operator could well shave more than 5% off the fuel bill across the fleet, with the less efficient drivers seeing a bigger improvement in fuel economy.
Australia seems quite slow to adopt the AMT, with many operators still preferring to specify manual transmissions, especially on the American style brands of truck. While it comes as no surprise to learn that AMTs are the industry standard in Europe, some will find it hard to believe that the same is true in America. The uptake on AMTs in America has increased dramatically over the last 4-5 years, especially among the big fleets, with over 75% of new highway trucks sold being specced with AMT transmissions.
The real beauty of an AMT is that when a situation arises where you want manual control, you can still have it. Even with the driver selecting the gears, the AMT provides a safeguard against missing a gear while still protecting the engine and transmission. If the gear you select is going to put the driveline under extreme pressure or over-rev the engine, the AMT won’t allow the shift to happen.
For those who have been put off by bad experiences with AMTs in the early days, it’s worth taking another look at AMTs, and doing the numbers. The old days of them neutralising halfway through a roundabout or using every gear to get up to speed are long gone.
I have spent many long days and nights with a Roadranger shift lever under my left hand, and still enjoy the satisfaction of being half decent at operating one. I have also spent a lot of time in trucks fitted with an AMT, and I know which one I’d rather have. At three o’clock in the morning when the caffeine isn’t working and you’re halfway up Wagga Hill, the AMT will win out every time. Even if you do want to make an early gear change, it’s much easier to press a button than to co-ordinate both feet and your left arm to make it all happen.
While there will always some jobs where a manual transmission is preferred, the vast majority of heavy duty roles in Australia would benefit from the use of AMTs. The new breed of AMTs offer the best of both worlds- automated shifting in the city traffic and manual functionality when you need it. They make life easier on everyone- the driver, the mechanic, and the person paying the fuel bill. It’s hard to ignore the fact that the European, American and Japanese markets (all of which have a direct effect on the models on offer here) have gone down the AMT path, and inevitable that it will happen here. The question isn’t whether AMTs are any good, but more whether your operating costs are more important than your ego?
Authored by Dave Whyte
Dave Whyte grew up around the transport industry, spending most of his school holidays in various trucks with his dad. He began professionally driving at the age of 19, starting in small rigid trucks in Melbourne. He worked his way up to driving B-double combinations on interstate duties, working as a company driver. In 2007, Dave won the Scania Young Australian Truck Driver competition, which led to him winning a new Scania prime mover.
This meant Dave was thrust into the role of being an owner-operator and had to quickly learn the business side of the industry. He sold his first truck in 2012 and within a month had bought a second which ran until late 2016. It was then that Dave decided to take a break and spend more time with his family.
Since 2010, Dave has also been working as a journalist for a number of transport industry publications, initially combining the role of a full time driver with that of a part time journalist. His insider knowledge of the transport industry, including experience in various types of trucks, trailers and freight, provides a different perspective to many other transport industry journalists. The hard learned lessons from running his own business also give him an insight to the dollars and cents side of transport.
While Dave now focuses on his role as a contributor to Trucksales.com.au, he also spends a bit of time on the road as a casual driver- a job he still loves to do. Dave sees this as important, as it keeps him up to date with what’s going on in the “real world” of transport and allows him to maintain his skills in various roles. Whether it’s carting cars or delivering dairy product in fridge vans, he enjoys spending time out on the road amongst the people of the transport industry. Dave is proud to be part of such a diverse and dynamic industry, and is passionate about the industry and its people.