An automatic choice?

Date: Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Historically the diet of luxury cars, automatic transmission could become the norm for CVs as new tech brings down both fuel consumption and price. Steve Banner reports on how Iveco views the change
T here is a small but growing number of major van fleets running 3.5-tonners that are switching to automated manual transmissions in a bid to cut fuel costs, with the supermarkets leading the move, according to Iveco’s UK product director, Martin Flach.
Tesco is taking some 800 two-pedal Dailys equipped with the AGile automated ’box this year for use on home-delivery work having put roughly the same number into service in 2010. Two other as-yet-unnamed supermarkets are deploying the same model on home-delivery runs too, says Flach, albeit in smaller numbers.
The six-speed AGile box can be used in either manual or automatic mode, with the latter eminently suitable for most types of work,  according to Iveco. It can cut average fleet fuel usage by 2-4%, Flach contends, because it makes even the most heavy-footed drivers more economical, and can extend clutch life because it makes it more difficult for drivers to abuse the transmission.
“We British are terrible when it comes to wearing out clutches,” he remarks.
Drivers who can avail themselves of an automated ’box emerge from the cab less tired at the end of a shift he says because they do not have to depress the clutch pedal constantly to change gear as they have to with a conventional manual box.
“The sort of driver who will get the best out of it isn’t the one who insists on using it manually because he thinks he knows better than the gearbox does,” he says. “It’s the one who puts it into drive and lets the gearbox do all the work.”
The gearbox brings the added benefit of safety, Flach believes. As they do not have to think about which gear they are in if they simply leave it in automatic mode, drivers can spend more time concentrating on what is going on around them. That means they are more likely to avoid hitting wayward cyclists or children who suddenly run out in front of them.


Better than full auto?

Automated boxes have advantages over full automatics too, argues Flach, who says they are lighter, cheaper and easier to maintain, can be switched to manual if needs be, and are more fuel-efficient. He cites the example of an operator of a fleet of 3.5-tonners who switched from full automatics to automated ’boxes and saw average mpg improve from the mid- to the high-20s. “It got better to the tune of 4-5mpg,” he says.
Component specialist ZF makes the AGile for Iveco and refers to it as the eTronic. Automated boxes now account for around 10-11% of the gearboxes the company supplies annually to light commercial manufacturers and the percentage is gradually rising.
Automated manual gearboxes have their drawbacks however. One of them is the smoothness of the change they offer, while another is the front-end cost. Offered as an option, they add several hundred pounds to the price of the van concerned, and cost-conscious buyers do not always want to pay the extra, despite the potential fuel savings.
Then there is the question of residual values. Flach reckons that a Daily with an AGile box should fetch about the same second-hand as a manual version of the same model, always assuming that there are no great differences in age, condition or mileage. However, the former will of course have cost more to purchase to begin with than the latter and many buyers of used vans may be cautious about acquiring a vehicle equipped with what they are likely to view as an oddball gearbox.
But if the van market heads in the same direction as the heavy truck market they may ultimately have no choice. In recent years automated transmissions have become standard on a growing number of trucks.
Such a change at the lighter end of the market is unlikely to occur overnight, though, reckons Bernd Stockmann, senior vice president, truck driveline technology, at ZF. “It’s a long way off, although we could perhaps see a move towards standardisation in the heavy van sector in maybe five to 10 years time,” he observes.
It will also require more manufacturers to make an automated box available. While Vauxhall and Renault are prime examples of companies that do on certain models, Ford ceased to offer one on the Transit some time ago, while Mercedes-Benz no longer offers one as an option on the Sprinter – evidence perhaps that such transmissions still have some way to go before they become widely accepted.


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