Now that we’re becoming accustomed to automatic transmissions with six, seven, even eight speeds, further “growth” was bound to happen. As reported by Automotive News magazine late in September, the engineers are at it again.
General Motors is thought to be developing a nine-speed automatic transmission that may eventually be installed in the company’s full line of front-drive vehicles. Ford is said to be working on a ten-speed transmission for rear-drive pickup trucks, SUVs, and performance cars. In each case, the goal is increased fuel economy.
Transmission development has been a long, slow march. GM’s Hydra-Matic, which premiered on the 1940 Oldsmobile, had four forward speeds. After World War II, Buick’s new Dynaflow and Chevrolet’s initial Powerglide made do with one—plus a selectable Low range. Three-speed automatics emerged in the mid-1950s.
Not until the late 1990s did five-speed automatic transmissions begin to appear on high-end vehicles, followed several years later by the first six-speed units. Mercedes-Benz skipped the six-speed, moving directly from five to seven in 2004.
Around the time that six-speeds were beginning to emerge, an engineer for a European automaker predicted during an interview that six ratios would likely be the reasonable limit. Most observers would have agreed with him at the time, but engineers evidently couldn’t say “no” to more.
Though any increase in gas mileage is welcome, a lot of the development in the past few years amounts to tweaks rather than breakthroughs. Economists speak of the Law of Diminishing Returns, referring to the point where the amount of gain from a new development begins to diminish. A comparable effect might be taking place with auto engineering advancements that profess to boost fuel economy.
Despite great strides forward for some models, the fuel economy of a frightful number of cars and trucks still needs considerable help. Basically, there are only three ways to boost gas mileage appreciably:
1. Continue to make improvements in powertrains: engine and transmission. Better yet, start paying more attention to fuel-efficiency than performance. All too often, automaker representatives boast that the latest model accelerates more swiftly than its predecessor, while using less gasoline; or at least, not using more fuel than before. No one ever seems to suggest that concentrating more fully on mileage might yield even more impressive results.
2. Start taking alternative-fuel vehicles (hybrids, plug-in hybrids, electrics) truly seriously. Sure, there are plenty of hybrids on sale, and electrics are growing. Yet, the total number of such vehicles on the road, especially if you discount the popular Toyota Prius, amounts to little more than a trickle. Hybrids need a full-blown publicity campaign to clarify their benefits.
3. Discourage people from driving. In September 2012, the state of California announced that driverless cars—including the heavily publicized examples created by Google—would be acceptable on the state’s roads. Now, driverless cars might indeed be a boon to the blind and the disabled, but do the majority of drivers really crave them? Should they?
Why aren’t we putting far more energy and expense into making trains and buses more appealing than finding innovative ways to keep on driving? Taking another tack, why didn’t the U.S. government raise the gasoline tax appreciably several years back, when fuel prices were high and an additional 50 cents per gallon wouldn’t have seemed so shocking?
Are any of these methods likely to happen anytime soon, to an extent that would make a real difference? Not likely. As long as the car culture remains vibrant, with millions of people perceiving their automobiles as veritable toys rather than practical machines, we’re sure to remain mired at least partially in the past.