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EVs Unlikely to Corral Widening Transmission Technology Slate

There’s no better time to be in the gearbox business, transmission developers say.

With all the hype over electric vehicles, who could blame a transmissions engineer for being concerned about the future?

But industry insiders argue otherwise, saying there’s no better time to be in the gearbox business.

“Yeah, unfortunately for the transmission guys, the transmission will be significantly different, significantly simpler,” admits Jochem Wolschendorf, vice president and chief technology officer at engineering services specialist FEV Inc.

Pure EVs could rely on 1- or 2-speed gearboxes, or more likely do away with the transmission altogether.

But at the same time, Wolschendorf tells the CTI Transmission Symposium North America in Ann Arbor, MI, last week, the foreseeable future holds “tremendous opportunity” given the variety of gearboxes under development.

“There is more parallel development going on than ever before,” adds Craig Renneker, who oversees work on new transmissions at Ford Motor Co. “My advice is to keep an open mind, because it is not clear which (transmission) technology will dominate.”

Also bear in mind electrified vehicles remain in their infancy, notes Justin Ward, program manager-advanced powertrain at Toyota Motor Corp.

“We’re just past the blip stage,” he says.

President Obama wants 1 million pure EVs on U.S. roads by 2015, but that would account for just 1.3% of the vehicles sold in the next five model years, according to Ward’s data. Even more mainstream hybrid-electric vehicles account for less than 2% of all U.S. sales today.

“The growth of (EVs) will take time,” says Ernie DeVincent, vice president-North America engineering at Getrag Transmission Corp. “We’re quite comfortable with the medium-term future.”

Industry experts here see continued expansion in automatic transmission technology globally to where 8-speed units become the norm. Growth also continues in automated manual transmission applications, and further refinement of continuously variable transmissions lies ahead, they say.

But dual-clutch transmissions arguably show the most promise. They match up well with a global push to downsized engines and make the perfect partner for most hybrid systems, experts say.

Identified by the Chinese government as the favored transmission going forward and quite popular in Europe, DeVincent expects the U.S. will be home to the greatest penetration of DCTs within 20 years.

Unlike its peers, however, the DCT requires much work to properly integrate transmission and engine controls, DeVincent warns.

“If you don’t get that right, you will have trouble with idle and launch,” says DeVincent, who sees control systems integration becoming a key element of a transmission engineers’ skills.

Europeans have gravitated to the DCT with no hesitation, the experts note, but their transition was from manual transmissions. In the U.S., drivers have become accustomed to automatics, with torque converters providing a smooth launch.

As such, the potential herky-jerky performance of DCTs will scare off some auto makers, says William Kelley, vice president at dual-clutch expert BorgWarner Inc.

“The level of detail OEMs look for is surprising,” he says.

Ford launches one of the first DCTs in the U.S. with the Fiesta B-car, now arriving at dealers. The electrically operated 6-speed PowerShift DCT uses a dry clutch and mates to a 1.6L 4-cyl. engine. Early reviews of the combination have been uneven.

Renneker admits Ford may need an extra gear in the Fiesta DCT.

“But once we get past that first half-second, it is fantastic,” he says of the combination, which offers 30-40 mpg (7.8-5.9 L/100 km) city/highway.

“We’re watching it very carefully with the launch of the Fiesta,” Renneker adds. “In North America, customers are used to the feel of a torque convertor. It may take a bit of getting used to.”

Globally, it appears the traditional clutch-pedal manual transmission’s days may be numbered.

Phil Gott, director-automotive consulting for IHS Global Insight, tells the conference emerging markets with densely populated urban areas could spell its demise. In China, for example, he expects the self-shifting transmission soon in 50% of new vehicles sold.

“(For the) same reason it became popular in the U.S. – comfort in city driving and more female drivers who don’t want to shift,” he says.

Dave Roberts, senior consultant-automotive and transportation at Frost & Sullivan Ltd., agrees. He says growing wealth in emerging markets will accompany the move from rural to urban living.

“That shift is coming fairly rapidly and will be a major change for the future because it will involve different vehicle preferences,” he says. “Wealthier consumers want more affordable comfort and fuel efficiency.”

Roberts also expects the prices transmission suppliers charge OEMs to rise, as demand for comfort and fuel efficiency increases. By 2015, he expects suppliers will get up to $1,800 for a DCT, an estimated $1,600 for a CVT and up to $1,800 for a traditional stepped-gear automatic.

“By 2025-2030, the technology changes will be tremendous and affect the demand for transmissions,” Roberts says.

That’s good news to the ears of suppliers such as BorgWarner.

“We like that environment, because everyone has to buy different stuff,” Kelley says.

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