Aftermarket Features & Interviews Other Truck

Switch to automatic: 7.5-tonne gearbox trends

30 July 2014 #Aftermarket #Features & Interviews #Other #Truck


Sitting at the not-so-glamorous end of the truck market, 7.5-tonners are the unsung heroes of road transport.

Long-haul trips from Falmouth to Fraserburgh – or Birmingham to Bologna – are exotic adventures their drivers can only dream about. Instead, they are more likely to be found plodding around an industrial estate or inching through gridlocked traffic in the middle of a city.

These lowly workhorses are changing, however, especially when it comes to the transmissions they are equipped with. These days, traditional five or six-speed manual boxes are being steadily eclipsed by automated manual transmissions that can be employed in either manual or auto mode. It is a move that make sounds sense, contends Isuzu Truck UK Marketing Director, Keith Child.

“Around 90% of the operators who buy our Urban and Forward 7.5-tonners opt for the standard Easyshift automated box, even though the optional manual transmission is around £1,000 cheaper,” he says. “There’s no need to worry about clutch wear and drivers don’t end up excessively fatigued because of constant gear changing in city traffic.

“Easyshift does all that for them,” Child continues. “All they need to worry about is steering and putting their foot on the accelerator or brake pedal. They don’t need to keep thinking about which gear they ought to be in. Instead, they can concentrate on the road ahead.”

“Go the automated route and you can get up to three times the clutch life,” thinks Les Bishop, Product Marketing Manager at MAN. It fits ZF’s six-speed automated AS Tronic lite boxes as standard to its 7.5-tonners under the Tipmatic banner; a manual-only box is on offer as an option.

Something that continues to surprise Bishop is the way in which automated boxes have been accepted in 44-tonners for some time, yet have faced so much resistance among 7.5-tonne operators. That is despite the fact that they are more beneficial on stop-start work than they are on long-haul motorway runs.

The higher price is clearly an issue for some, he believes. “The 7.5-tonne market is very cost-competitive,” he observes.

Some of those operators that keep opting for manual boxes say they do so because it is easier to equip them with a power take-off, says Child. “In reality though it’s just as simple to fit one to Easyshift,” he contends.

A good driver with a manual ‘box might just be able to better the fuel efficiency of an automated transmission.

“However, my Japanese colleagues are convinced that he or she would struggle,” Child observes. “Remember that our Easyshift box comes with a lock-up clutch that kicks in after 5mph to 6mph which means your economy does not suffer at low speeds.”

Bishop reckons that an automated transmission in a 7.5-tonner can offer a fuel saving of up to 3% over a manual ‘box but stresses that a lot depends on the driver. “What it should certainly do though is improve your average fuel economy across your 7.5-tonne fleet,” he says.

“There is a case for arguing that an automated box will make your least economic driver with a manual box more frugal,” says DAF Marketing Manager, Phil Moon.

Approximately one-third of the lightweight rigids DAF sells in the UK are fitted with AS Tronic automated boxes, with the majority of the remainder equipped with either five- or six-speed manuals. Around 2% are sold with fully-automatic boxes and they tend to be for niche applications; if a vehicle has to make frequent stops, for instance.

“Opt for a full automatic and it will cost you £5,200 more than an automated transmission and you will face a weight penalty of up to approximately 180kg,” says Moon. “On top of that you can only have it with the six-cylinder diesel we offer – you can have the six-cylinder at 7.5 tonnes although it is not an option we consciously promote – so you are, in fact, talking about your 7.5-tonner suffering a weight penalty totalling around 300kg.

“With an automated ‘box, the weight penalty is only 15kg to 20kg,” he continued.

Automatic ‘boxes fitted to trucks tend to be a lot thirstier than their automated counterparts. However, no automated ‘box is perfect and there can be times when the driver will need to over-ride it and flick the lever across to manual because there is a need to hold a gear.

As transmissions become increasingly intelligent this is becoming less and less necessary, Moon contends.

“In the past, drivers used to switch over to manual and drop down a couple of gears as they approached a roundabout,” he says. “These days the box often senses what is happening and makes the change anyway. With our transmission we have a stalk which can be used to prompt a gear change without the need to go completely manual.”

Iveco’s Eurocargo 7.5-tonner comes with the AS Tronic lite box as standard under the EuroTronic banner – if you want a manual instead then you are looking at a delete option – while the latest Mercedes-Benz Atego is offered with the PowerShift 3 automated transmission.

Using a somewhat different approach, sister marque Fuso’s Canter 7.5-tonner is being sold with the Duonic six-speed twin-clutch transmission, which can also be used in either manual or automated mode. One clutch controls first, third and fifth gears while the other controls second, fourth and sixth. When a gear change has to be made the next gear up or down is already automatically engaged, which makes for almost seamless cog-swapping; good news if you are carrying a fragile load.

Although registrations rose by almost 19% in 2013, to 7,660, according to figures compiled by the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, Britain’s 7.5-tonne market has witnessed an underlining decline – albeit an agonisingly slow one – over the past 15 years.

Today, 7.5-tonners account for around 15% of the 6.0-tonne-plus truck market as opposed to 30% a decade-and-a-half ago after Driving licence legislation changes were introduced on 1 January 1997. They mean that anyone who passed their car driving test after that date is not allowed to drive anything heavier than a 3.5-tonner unless they take a separate test. If you passed your car test prior to that date then you retain your entitlement to drive goods vehicles grossing at up to 7.5 tonnes. As a consequence the number of people with a grandfather rights entitlement to drive a 7.5 tonner is shrinking as the years pass.

In response, some operators may be moving up to 12 tonnes on the basis that if a driver needs to take a separate test then it’s as well ensure that they are qualified to drive something that will handle a bit more weight, although the trend is at present a modest one. Others may be drifting down to 3.5 tonners; and out of the tachograph/Drivers Hours/O licence/Driver’s Certificate of Professional Competence net.

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