In the modern world, there is no limit to the varieties of vehicles available in the market. From variations in engine types such as gas and electric to diverse drivetrains such as four-wheel or front-wheel drives, the options for automobiles are nearly endless, designed to fulfill ever-evolving consumer needs.
Despite the diversity in terms of features and technologies, however, there is one component that is a core component of all vehicles, the automotive transmission system.
Considered one of the most complex automotive components, the transmission, also known popularly as the gearbox, is a metal case that holds a series of gears. The automotive transmission is responsible for taking power from the engine and delivering it to the wheels in order to power the vehicles. It also ensures the right amount of power reaches the wheels so as to help them operate at the desired speeds. In an automotive transmission system, each gear operates within a set ratio in order to ensure the wheels and engines are not spinning at the same speed.
Automotive transmission: An overview
The modern automotive transmission market is categorized broadly into two types: manual and automatic. In manual transmissions, the driver is responsible for the shifting of gears, whereas automatic transmissions allow the car to execute this. The journey of gear manufacturing from the conventional manual transmission systems to the burgeoning automatic transmission technologies has been an eventful one, helped along by innovative and targeted efforts by a myriad of industry players over the years.
Cars in the early days, while mechanically simpler than their contemporary successors, were significantly complex for their time. Therefore, even in a time when cars were arguably at their simplest, vehicle transmissions were considered the most complicated vehicular component.
Early transmission technologies, first brought into existence by Louis-Rene Panhard and Emile Levassor in 1894, were all manual, varying in complexity depending on the number of gears to be handled. The original transmission by Levassor and Panhard involved the use of a chain drive and is still considered to be a basic starting point for modern manual transmission systems.
Manual transmission continued to dominate gear production trends throughout the late 1800s and the early 1900s. In 1937, however, General Motors revolutionized the automotive transmission industry by introducing the world’s first semi-automatic transmission system, dubbed the Automatic Safety Transmission. Shortly after in 1938, GM also introduced the first line of vehicles to feature automatic transmissions, known as the Oldsmobile Hydra-Matic drives.
These developments triggered a series of evolutions over the years, such as Chrysler’s introduction of a two-speed torque converter in the early 1950s, which contributed significantly to the burgeoning interest in automatic transmission systems that continues to surge even in the present.
Most vehicles in the modern era are now equipped with automatic transmission systems controlled electronically. Rapid technological advancements have paved the way for automation of torques, power transfer, and gears, among others. These advancements led to the emergence of novel transmission technologies such as CVT (continuously variable transmission), which delivers more power and fuel efficiency by leveraging a variable set of gears that allow the engine to run at its optimum RPM; dual-clutch transmission, which uses two separate clutch discs for odd- and even-numbered gears to facilitate easier gear shifting; and the semi-automatic transmission, which enables the driver to choose between maintaining full control over shifting and putting the transmission in a fully automatic mode.
The shift to electrification
The automotive industry is no stranger to evolution. This is evident from the string of emerging trends in the automotive industry over the years, the most prominent among them being the onset of the EV revolution.
Electric vehicles are set to disrupt automotive industry trends over the years ahead. For instance, in Europe, July 2020 emerged as a record-breaking month for electric vehicle registrations. According to JATO estimates, EV volumes in the month saw a year-on-year rise of nearly 131 percent, reaching 230,700 units.
This gradual transition to EVs has triggered rapid changes in the way the automotive industry and carmakers are approaching product manufacturing as well. Advancements in gear production techniques and innovations are among the major ways of helping automakers adapt to shifting trends in the market.
Suppliers and OEMs alike are having to change their processes and products in order to accommodate new automotive technologies. For instance, parts that played a key role in ICE production may no longer witness the same interest in an increasingly EV-based automotive landscape.
ICEs usually require more complex gear ratios, in order to keep an engine within a narrow range of speeds for optimum torque and power during acceleration. On the other hand, EV motors can maintain their efficiency across a broad range of speeds and can, therefore, run on single-speed transmissions. However, in order to address any potential range anxieties that may impede EV uptake, drivetrain suppliers and OEMs are working toward developing advanced multi-speed transmission systems designed for electric vehicles.
To illustrate, Canadian automotive supplier Inmotive introduced its patented two-speed transmission, dubbed Ingear, in September 2020. Invented specifically for the next-generation of EVs, the Ingear transmission is designed to be a simple and durable solution for a more efficient powertrain with an extended range at more economical costs.
The recent developments in automotive technologies have also led to intensifying efforts by key automotive transmission manufacturers to usher in new gear manufacturing technologies to cater to the evolving automotive performance needs. For instance, in 2019, Ricardo made an investment of nearly £1.5 million toward cutting-edge gear manufacturing machine tools to enhance and expand its capabilities and productivity. The adoption of tools such as the Klingelnberg spiral bevel grinder has enabled the company to ensure rapid delivery of market-ready components for its current sports car and motorsport transmission range, in turn positioning it at the forefront of digital manufacturing.