The global transmissions market

All over Europe the traditional transmission industry is changing due to the increasing use of lightweight materials, the increase in the number of forward speeds, a reduction in the numbers of moving parts as well as greater electronic control. At the same time, new and interesting types of transmission are emerging; manual transmissions becoming automated (AMT), constantly variable transmissions (CVT) now able to handle much greater torques, infinitely variable transmissions (IVT) already on the scene in Japan, and novel designs for lower cost production in Asia.

Manual Transmission (MT)
The standard type of gearbox for cars in Europe, this is controlled by the driver through the gearlever and use of the clutch. The number of speeds has grown from four to five in past years, with certain sports cars using six speeds. Recently there has been a move to six speeds to improve fuel economy. Japanese makers use manual transmissions in light commercial vehicles (LCVs) and approximately half of their city ‘Kei-class’ cars also use manual transmissions.

Automatic Transmission (AT)
Almost standard fitment in the US, this self-shifting gearbox uses a torque converter to smooth the changes. It is slowly growing from three/four speeds to five speeds in the US-and from four/five to six speeds in Europe. Penetration of automatic transmissions in Europe has doubled in past years to approximately 15% of production. Penetration in the US is currently around 88%, whilst in Japan it has reached approximately 87%.

Manual Transmission with Automatic Clutch (MTAC)
This is a standard manual transmission that uses a clutch automation package-the driver selects and engages the gears but no longer has a clutch pedal. There has been sporadic interest in this system over the years-Saab heavily promoted its Sensonic package in the 900 and the concept was also used by Renault and Fiat (amongst others) in the 1990s. Most of those systems were later dropped. However, interest has been raised again now that the Mercedes A-Class, Toyota Yaris, Fiat Seicento and Toyota MR2 are using them.

Automated Manual Transmission (AMT)
Again, using a standard manual gearbox, this system has arisen as a further development of the MTAC, but this time not only the clutch, but also the gear selection and engagement is automated. It first came to market in the costly and complex BMW M3 model in 1996 and has since grown steadily in its range of applications-from city cars to supercars.

Constantly Variable Transmission (CVT)
This concept has been in production since the 1950s, starting out on small DAF vehicles. In those days it was based on a rubber belt running between two variable diameter pulleys and was noisy and slow. These days, although the concept has not changed much, the belt is steel and the CVT is in production in some of the most sophisticated cars on the market, such as the Audi A6.

Infinitely Variable Transmission (IVT, also known as a toroidal transmission)
Like the CVT, this transmission system has been in development for many years. It is based on a simple arrangement of input/output discs and variable angle rollers that run between them-without the need for the belt used in the CVT. The British company Torotrak developed and patented the system and continue to develop it for a number of car and gearbox makers around the world. A Japanese transmissions maker (JATCO) already has a form of IVT in series production for the domestic market. Production of the full Torotrak-style IVT will first be seen in a tractor, with the transmission produced by the Korean Lg Cable company. SUVs will follow.

Other transmission types
Antonov-an ingenious concept that was developed by Roumen Antonov of Poland in the 1980s. The system is a cost-effective solution for a four or six-speed small/medium car automatic gearbox and is under evaluation by a number of car and transmission companies. Its key benefits are that there is no interruption of drive during gearchanging and that it is compact and inexpensive to manufacture.

Next generation AMT
This could be the real challenger to conventional automatic transmissions but has only recently begun to be developed. It follows the automated manual concept but avoids the loss of torque during gearchanging. It will also be able to handle higher torques than most of the current AMTs in use today. Production is expected by 2004/2005.

The European market

For many years the European market has been used to only two types of transmission-the automatic or the manual. The automatic is essentially standard fitment in the US and Japan, whereas the European market has so far seen the automatic as an expensive cost option. Whether the car buyer realises it or not, many changes are presently happening to the automatic-to make cars both more driveable, economical and in some cases, more affordable. This is being driven by a number of issues:

  • The need to reduce road vehicle emissions (especially CO2)
  • The need to improve fuel economy in the face of increasing fuel prices

Government legislation is in force to ensure that both of the above are implemented by car and transmission makers alike. US, Europe and Japan all have their own strategies for reducing environmental impact by the car. Luckily, CO2 emissions and fuel economy are linked; an improvement in the fuel economy of a particular engine results automatically in an improvement in CO2 emissions (although other emissions may worsen).

The above two points are complemented by the following two supply and demand factors:

  • A requirement by drivers for increased automation, but at little or no extra cost, loss of driveability or worsening of fuel consumption.
  • 42volt electrical systems will have a significant effect on the range and capabilities of the new transmission systems.

The transmissions industry is split around the world by existing manufacturing capabilities-in the US and Japan the majority of vehicles use the traditional stepped automatic (AT) whilst in Europe the focus is on conventional manual transmissions (MT). Developing world countries still have very limited vehicle production facilities and as a result of this most locally-produced systems are manual transmissions. This polarisation is likely to have important implications for the way in which the industry develops over the next ten years.

In Europe, where manufacturing is largely based around manual transmission systems, the biggest developments are to come with automated manuals. This will happen initially in smaller cars but will move to luxury vehicles as development continues. CVT is appreciated in Europe by the developers but still faces a cost/packaging compromise that continues to rule it out in small cars. Automatic transmissions have a strong hold of the market in the higher vehicle segments.

The US and Japan

In the US and Japan we are likely to see new forms of automatic transmissions, based on CVT and IVT technologies. The American and Japanese markets have been used to the feel of a traditional stepped automatic transmission for more than a generation; this will mean that the new types of transmission will have to offer a similar feel to win market share and avoid the alienation of buyers.

Transmission systems suppliers will have the most significant effect on the changes that we will see; the car and transmissions makers themselves have only limited capacity to develop the new systems themselves. So now we have partnerships of developers, gearbox makers and component suppliers working together to come up with the best solution.

Such arrangements have resulted in many new concepts (mostly variations of AMT) to improve fuel and emissions performance whilst at the same time offering the most driveability and cost efficiency to the customer. Much development work still needs to be done, but the most promising systems are CVT, IVT and next generation AMT, all of which will be heavily dependent on the new electronics that we see emerging today.

For these reasons we can expect to see the traditional gearbox makers (both manual and automatic) moving to develop relationships with electronics companies and expanding their own range of products and expertise so that they can take advantage of the changes that are being forced to happen by government legislation and car owner/buyer requirements.

Much consolidation can be expected in the coming years, particularly in the formation of the afore-mentioned developer/supplier relationships and also in the acquisition and establishment of manufacturing facilities in the developing world. What is not in question is that the market for all forms of ‘automatic’ will continue to grow in Europe and the developing world. The US and Japan will keep their existing automatic penetration but the types of gearbox on offer will change.

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