Is The Manual Transmission On Its Way Out?

Ask anyone who knows how to drive a manual transmission – on any type of vehicle – and they will tell you operating a manual is much more fun and engaging than operating an automatic transmission. It might be for this reason that old-school drivers feel more complete with a manual gearbox.

Even so, driving a heavy-duty commercial vehicle with an unsynchronized heavy-duty manual transmission is both an art and a science. Any technician will tell you that on a good day, an extremely experienced and highly skilled driver operating a manual transmission can match the best an automatic has to offer.

Yet, even though these venerable pieces of equipment live on, might time be starting to catch up with them? As computers continue to cannibalize a number of products, we might soon see the manual transmission go the way of the dinosaurs?

The Automated-Manual Transmission

The pressure to maximize fuel economy has driven rampant innovation in truck manufacturing. Fleets need to integrate new drivers into their operations as quickly and seamlessly as possible. In most cases it’s easier to find someone who can drive an automated manual than an unsynchronized manual transmission.

As a result, OEMs like Freightliner and Peterbilt are now spec’ing more than half of their vehicles with automated manual transmissions (AMT). In 2014 alone, AMT adoption jumped 17 percent in new truck and bus production.

There are advantages to using AMT where the driveline, engine and braking systems are concerned. As heavy-duty vehicle manufacturing moves towards semi-autonomous vehicles and connected fleets, the AMT will see even more adoption.

While the benefits of AMTs are obvious from a long term and technological viewpoint, there still may be a place for manual transmissions. Specialized applications will require the truck drivers of tomorrow to still be knowledgeable of both transmission types.

The Case for Manual Transmissions

Indeed, many driving schools still train their students on manuals because it helps to give them a feel of the vehicle. Considering students will be operating large, heavy-duty vehicles, knowing the mechanics and physics of up- and down-shifting is very important.

Considering a new truck driver could end up working for a fleet that operates vehicles with manual transmissions, knowing the skill could be crucial to getting a job. Being able to operate any truck on the road today is a necessary skill.

In some cases, whether or not a fleet chooses a particular school or course depends on whether or not the material teaches manual transmission operation. The fact is, newer drivers may not be as desirable if they can only demonstrate one skill set.

Also consider reliability. As the means for manufacturing these advanced pieces of equipment evolves, reliability increases with each new variant. OEMs are merely refining an already solid technology in the effort to decrease weight while increasing overall durability.

Some fleets also have specialized applications that require the use of manual control over shifting and clutch engagement. These operations will make sure manual transmissions are still coming off of the assembly lines for the foreseeable future.

There’s Room for Two

Although AMTs are on the rise, manuals still hold the lion’s share of transmissions in the NAFTA marketplace. Generally smaller fleets with longstanding experienced drivers use manual transmissions.

In fact, some manufacturers are still innovating on manual transmission designs. One Mack variety offers a wide overall ratio with extra low gears for slow speed, but at the same time has more gear steps to keep the engine working in the optimum range.

Manual transmissions are still seen as a simple, cost-effective option, which makes them attractive to a wide range of buyers. For now, they still beat their AMT brothers on price point.

So the next time you hear someone crowing about the imminent demise of the good old-fashioned manual transmission, remind them that the swan song has not yet been sung. The days of classic up- and down-shifting are here to stay.