By Lindsay Chappell, Crain News Service
DETROIT (May 14, 2013) — In March, luxury maker Jaguar Land Rover Ltd. proudly told an audience at the Geneva auto show that it would soon bring to market the industry's first nine-speed transmission.
One month later, Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Co. announced that they would jointly develop 10-speeds.
Can 12-speeds really be that far behind? And why not a 24-speed?
Makoto Yasuda chuckles at the notion.
"Will 12- or 14-speed transmissions be coming soon?" the vice president of Nissan Motor Co.'s global powertrain department asked rhetorically during a visit to the U.S. "I don't think so.
"But if we had asked our grandfathers, 'How do you feel about six speeds?' They would have said, 'Three speeds are fine. Six speeds will be too noisy.'"
But Grandpa would have missed that bet.
LMC Automotive now forecasts that nine- and 10-speed transmissions will drive more than 4 million of the new North American vehicles expected to be sold in 2018, up from just 80,000 forecast for 2013.
Promulgators of new transmission technologies say there is no specific reason the number of gears should not continue to escalate.
Auto makers agree that more speeds are beneficial. After all, having an engine that shifts ever more precisely into the right gear for the right driving condition translates to greater riding comfort, better fuel economy and a quieter vehicle.
But the question is simply whether adding one or two gears is worth the investment in R&D and manufacturing.
And yet the race goes on.
Five years ago, Nissan's luxury Infiniti brand sought to enhance its image as a global technology purveyor by equipping all of its models with leading-edge seven-speeds. At that time, five- and six-speeds were all the rage, and seven looked like the outer limit.
Now, Mr. Yasuda notes, Nissan has launched a project with sometime-partner Daimler A.G. of Germany to develop transmissions for its Infiniti and rear-wheel-drive models. The partners are keeping the actual gear count under wraps. Eight? Nine? Ten? Eleven? Officials acknowledge it will be some configuration that surpasses their current level.
In May, Volkswagen A.G. said it, too, will launch a new generation of 10-speeds. The technology, which was developed in-house, will be used in large vehicles, including the Touareg SUV, and will feature a direct-shift gear box. That allows a driver to shift as though on a manual transmission, but electronically and without any interruption in torque power.
Why the gear inflation?
• Reason No. 1: As is always the case in the auto business, newer, bigger and better sells cars.
Product freshness is one reason Chrysler decided this year to invest $374 million in factories in Kokomo, Ind., to produce eight- and nine-speed transmissions.
One of the key vehicles for those higher-gear installations will be the Jeep Grand Cherokee. That nameplate illustrates how auto makers have been under constant competitive pressure to up the ante in transmission sophistication.
The Grand Cherokee has been a power in the mid-sized SUV segment since the 1990s. Its big 5.9-liter V-8 sold just fine with a four-speed automatic until it upgraded to a five-speed a decade ago.
Jeep switched to an eight-speed for the 2014 Grand Cherokee. And in several weeks the 2014 Cherokee gets a nine-speed.
• Reason No. 2: Pressure for higher fuel economy is increasing.
More gears make powertrains more efficient. Different traffic speeds, changing terrain and harder acceleration or braking put different levels of strain on a gas engine, and each change in strain ideally should have its own gear. An engine that is turning at an rpm level that is wrong for the driving condition is wasting energy.
A 20-year-old four-speed automatic is getting the job perfectly right in only four circumstances. A 2013-era eight-speed is getting it right twice as often.
Transmission efficiency can deliver a 5-percent improvement in fuel economy, according to Ford Motor Co. spokesman Mark Schirmer. He says fuel economy improvement is a main part of the partnership between GM and Ford: "Getting a 5 percent improvement from a transmission improvement is a significant target."
In some conditions, more sophisticated transmissions can result in even larger fuel savings. Switching from a six-speed to an eight-speed can result in a 10 percent gain in fuel economy.
'Dog clutch' design
Chrysler's nine-speed will use technology it is licensing from ZF Friedrichshafen A.G.
ZF has spurred auto makers around the world to higher gear counts for the past 20 years, including the introduction of the five-speed in 1991, the introduction of six-speeds on the BMW 7 series in 1999, and now the nine-speed later this year on the Range Rover Evoque from Land Rover.
The new nine-speed is ZF's strategic move to capitalize on the industry's march toward higher fuel economy targets, according to Michael Ebenhoch, director of front-wheel transmissions for the German producer.
The nine-speeds promise less internal friction and fewer moving parts. They also provide a wider range in gear ratios that allow a small-engine B-segment car to cruise at high speeds while still at relatively low rpms.
The trick is to fit more gears into a footprint that remained compact enough to fit into a small car's engine compartment. For Land Rover, that meant moving the Evoque from a six-speed to a nine-speed while increasing the component's length by only 6 mm.
The technology that made that possible is contained in a patent held since 2004 by Mr. Ebenhoch and two colleagues from his days working in ZF's advanced engineering department. The concept uses an old clutch design called "dog clutches" that has long been used in heavy-duty transmissions.
Dog clutches require fewer parts than the gear system of a traditional automatic transmission. Mr. Ebenhoch and his colleagues found a way to design dog clutches into a small passenger-car transmission design.
"I had this stupid idea that dog clutches would work," Ebenhoch recalls. "I never thought, when we filed the patent on it, that it was really going to happen someday."
This ZF Friedrichshafen factory in South Carolina opens this summer to build eight- and nine-speed transmissions.
The nine-speed represents an important play for ZF, which posted 2012 sales of $22.7 billion. Until now, ZF's business has been tilted heavily toward transmissions for large cars and trucks. Its eight-speed transmission plant in Saarbruecken, Germany, is running full tilt supplying models for BMW, Audi, Bentley, Chrysler Group, Jaguar and Land Rover.
But five years ago, just as the North American market was veering into economic trouble and rising gasoline prices, ZF resolved to enter the transmission market for smaller, front-wheel-drive vehicles. "East-west" is the common industry term for such layouts, in which a transmission is placed next to the engine between the front wheels. Rear-wheel vehicles have larger, heavier transmissions that are positioned longitudinally and are referred to as "north-south."
ZF is banking that it can become a major global player in the east-west segment. This summer it will open a factory in Gray Court, S.C., that will support its entry into east-west vehicle architecture.
The $430 million plant is the largest investment ZF has ever made outside Germany. Mr. Ebenhoch said the plant will represent the major part of ZF's North American business in the coming years.
The corporation shopped its technology around five years ago, vowing to go forward with the South Carolina project once it had three customers under contract. Those were Land Rover, Chrysler and a third customer that ZF has not yet identified.
For Land Rover, the new ZF high-gear component promises two benefits, said David Mitchell, the Evoque's chief program engineer. It makes the Evoque more fuel efficient by enabling it to run at high speeds on lower RPMs. And it also lets the car run at a lower first gear during off-road applications.
That is significant for Land Rover, a brand built to drive back-road country estates and jungle-clogged byways, Mr. Mitchell said.
"It gives us a lower gear for low-speed creep, for steep hills. It enhances our off-road credibility," he said.
Will still more gears be necessary in the future, going beyond the nine he is preparing to market this year?
"Having a six-speed was good enough a few years ago," he admitted. "But going forward, it needs to be more."
He added: "I suppose people will carry on trying to make 10, or 11 or 12. I can't see it growing much more than nine—except that somebody fancies being better than somebody else."
This report appeared on www.autonews.com, the Website of Automotive News, a sister publication of Tire Business.