While Prodrive is best known for its motorsport achievements, about half the company’s turnover comes from engineering activity in the mainstream automotive sector. In this interview, Matthew Beecham talked with Simon Leleu, Prodrive team leader for transmission and driveline systems, about trends in the take-up of AMTs, CVTs and DCTs.

just-auto: Do you think that transmissions have more potential these days to help reduce fuel consumption and at a lower cost than, say, engine-internal measures?

Simon Leleu: Significant steps in engine-out emissions can be achieved with major engine changes, particularly downsizing, but these are very expensive to bring to market. The design and validation also means a long lead-time. In contrast, adding an AMT capability to an existing manual transmission can be fast and cost-effective and, by optimising the gear shift points, can bring substantial real-world reductions in emissions and fuel consumption. Linking this to affordable, incremental changes in engine design will bring further reductions. Integrated control strategies, a key strength for Prodrive, is fundamental to realising these benefits.

Although DCTs have increased in popularity, they are still more expensive than torque converter transmissions (depending, of course, on the segment you are looking at). Or is all that price relationship changing?

DCTs are coming down in price, especially with the introduction of dry twin-plate designs. They are less complex than a torque converter automatic with planetary gears and there will be further price reductions once they are produced in high volume, for instance when some of the new Chinese manufacturing plants come on stream. For a new entrant into the automatic transmission market with no legacy investment in planetary automatics, it is an attractive step.

How do you see the global transmission market evolving in terms of manual, automatics, etc?  And what do you see happening in those emerging markets such as China and India?

It’s important to see each market in the context of the existing manufacturing facilities and consumer tastes. Automatics have an established presence in North America, manuals in Europe. But in emerging markets, there is less inertia. China has embraced DCTs as the preferred future technology by introducing tax breaks for the manufacturers developing them. Their perceived prestige and smoothness is also attractive to Chinese vehicle buyers.

In India, AMTs are very well suited to local requirements and Prodrive is helping vehicle manufacturers in every category to implement this technology. For developing markets, an AMT provides much better fuel economy – important where fuel is substantially more expensive relative to incomes. In commercial vehicles in particular, it helps drivers concentrate on the safety of their often overloaded vehicles and it is a low-cost step for an established manufacturer of manual transmissions.

In terms of the future of manual gearboxes, some people expect manual transmissions to remain attractive in cost-sensitive markets while automated transmissions will gradually gain market share.  Other people anticipate a gradually decreasing market for manual transmissions as drivers like the comfort and convenience while engineers like the ability to control the shift points in order to meet emissions and CO2 requirements.  What do you anticipate will happen to the manual transmission market?

The market share for manual transmissions will probably shrink steadily until only the cheapest entry-level cars and a few specialist sports cars employ them. The global trend for more people to live in ‘mega-cities’ makes the convenience of some type of automatic very appealing for many drivers and an AMT with optimised shift points will always return better fuel efficiency than a poorly driven manual, making them attractive in developing markets.

Given the global economic climate, need to control emissions, demand from BRIC countries and increasing oil price, it suggests that no one transmission technology will be the winner.  Would you agree?

A decade from now, there may not be a single clear winner but that does not mean there will be no losers. Conventional manuals will almost certainly lose market share to AMTs and DCTs, which will also win market share from torque converter automatics.

An expanded interview with Prodrive is available on just-auto’s clutches and advanced transmissions technologies real-time intelligence services:

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