Up to Standards
- Subject: Trends in the manual-transmission repair industry
- Essential Reading: Rebuilder, Diagnostician, R & R
- Author: Mike Weinberg, Rockland Standard Gear, Contributing Editor
Looking at the current trends
2011 has been another tough year for our industry. Part of this is due to the economy, which has stumbled along mainly because of the conditions created by our government and its less-than-capable leaders.
All markets historically rise and fall on the basis of demand cycles. The government has interfered with natural cycles continuously and created the situation that we now face. President Clinton revived the Carter years’ “Community Investment Plan,” which was supposed to make home ownership easier for the average citizen. This created a housing boom and a vastly overpriced and overbuilt real-estate market coupled with a complete regulatory failure of the mortgage industry and created the mess we now have to deal with. How hard was it to figure out that if you gave mortgages to people who could not pay their current rent, they eventually would default on their obligations?
The Bush and Obama administrations did nothing to change this scenario and created a huge evaporation of citizen wealth. As this is being written, the ruling political class (our elected and appointed politicians) continues to drive off the cliff at high speed. Over-regulation by governments on all levels has increased the cost of doing business and made starting a new business very expensive.
For instance, the EPA is now considering carbon dioxide as a pollutant. This flies in the face of common sense and proven science. If we increased the level of CO2 in the atmosphere by 2% we could double farm crop yields. Back in the dinosaur days the CO2 levels were higher than the present level because of volcanic activity, and we had ferns that were 300 feet tall and animals whose size has never been equaled.
The global-warming scam perpetrated by Al (I invented the internet) Gore, who has profited by hundreds of millions of dollars, has cost our society dearly with no proven gains. Global warming and cooling has been a cyclical natural event for billions of years. The question is how much of this is due to man’s industrial output. The environmentalist movement seems bent on bringing us back to primitive civilization rather than working with real, proven science. I don’t have the answers except to say that “junk science” (fraudulent facts being quoted to match a preconceived outcome) will never replace common sense and non-political solutions within an affordable program.
I am now off my soap box and back to where we are and where we are going. I consider the manual-transmission market to include manual transmissions, transfer cases and differentials. Manual transmissions have been in a steady decline on production numbers for years. The driver-operated manual transmission at this point represents about 6% of the market in production volume and is mostly confined to sports or muscle cars. The manual-transmission volume in all vehicles on the road is about 12%. Why has this happened, and will it change? Some answers follow:
- The decline in driver skill level with the advent of the automatic transmission continues.
- The EPA does not like manual transmissions under driver control because they shift under closed throttle, and controlling emissions is more difficult than with automatics, which shift under open-throttle conditions.
- Drivers cannot use a stick-shifted transmission while holding a cell phone.
- The current youth market is more concerned with having electronic conveniences such as wireless connection, navigation and the ability to download music than they are with vehicle performance.
Sports cars such as Mustangs, Vipers, Corvettes, Mazda3, Mazda CX 5, Subaru, Austin Mini, Camaros, Challengers etc. will continue to see growth in manual gearboxes. Don’t take this as a negative, as rapidly changing technology will provide new markets for this segment of the industry.
The first area of continued growth is the transfer case, which is manufactured in 4WD and all-wheel-drive in growing numbers. Because they are used behind automatic transmissions, this market continues to grow rapidly. There is huge growth potential here, as almost every brand is marketing vehicles equipped with the ability to send power to all four wheels.
The second area of growth will come with increased use of transmissions using dual-clutch technology. These designs use a non-planetary transmission that is essentially a manual gearbox shifted by computer control, eliminating the clutch pedal. These units are growing by leaps and bounds because they can be operated in an “automatic” mode like the current planetary transmissions or shifted manually by the driver. There are many design pluses here as these units are lighter and more compact than current automatic transmissions, eliminate the weight and problems caused by the traditional torque converter, and make the ability to control emissions equal to that for vehicles with automatic transmissions.
A basic description of how the dual-clutch transmission works is two input shafts, one inside the other, with two clutches operating each shaft separately. In a six-speed configuration one input shaft operates 1st, 3rd and 5th, and the other operates 2nd, 4th and 6th forward speeds. A computer program releases and engages the correct clutch for the required gear, according to its programming, to make the shifts occur automatically or manually and monitors torque load, engine speed, wheel speed, road speed and other vehicle inputs normally left up to the driver.
These units shift seamlessly and well beyond the average driver’s skill to increase fuel economy and reduce emissions. This is a technology that we need to research and learn about as it finds its way into the new-model population.
There is a huge market for differential repair and modification. If you are not repairing or changing ratios on differentials, you are letting a profitable market slip away. Repairing a differential is one of the easiest and most-profitable repairs to be made on the vehicle, although too many shops turn this work away. It is one of the few areas that can increase fuel savings on older vehicles at a reasonable cost.
Another area that is growing rapidly is the “performance market” for manual gearboxes, transfer cases and differentials. As a typical transmission shop, your life is very similar to that of an undertaker. Someone has lost something they love and now they have to pay for it. You deal every day with unhappy people who get the bad news about the cost of the repair and inconvenience and react emotionally. Nobody is ever happy about having a transmission failure and overhaul.
On the other hand, there are huge numbers of people who wish to make their vehicle better than stock, adding engine-power improvements, performance transmissions, converters, exhaust, turbos, superchargers, tires and wheels, brake systems, suspension and so on. The difference between the performance customer and the repair customer is dramatic. One has to buy; the other WANTS to buy expensive product. No matter where the economy is, there always seems to be money available for the toys. Even in this economy we cannot build our race and performance units fast enough.
I just got back from the SEMA (Specialty Equipment Market Association) show in Las Vegas, and the show was booming. SEMA is the second-largest trade show in Vegas, and the organization says the market for specialty equipment is $200 billion plus a year. I was surprised, as we were slammed with buyers all four days. If you are overlooking this market you are throwing away customers who can’t wait to throw money at you, if your products deliver as promised.
New product is streaming into the new vehicles. Six-, seven- and eight-speed automatic transmissions are now showing up to increase fuel economy and improve driver satisfaction. CVT, dual-clutch and other manual technology is increasing rapidly, and therefore the need for qualified people to diagnose and repair them will keep increasing. The vehicle manufacturers’ dealer network has decreased by almost one third, and once the vehicle is out of warranty most owners elect to go outside the dealership for major repairs. These repairs will cost more, parts have proliferated greatly in both numbers and pricing, and there are few young people who wish to enter this field, which means that the existing shops should profit nicely from this expansion if they are prepared.
The start of embracing the new technology is through trade publications such as Transmission Digest, technical-service associations, subscribing to tech services such as Mitchell1 OnDemand, and the vehicle-manufacturer technical sites. One thing is for sure: Your learning curve will never cease, and your educational commitment will continue like never before. We are at a place that will test our business abilities greatly, and as the weak, unprepared shops fall by the wayside, there will be increased volume and profit for those who have made the investment in self-education to profit from new technology and have not shied away from taking on new challenges.
I wish you all a happy, healthy holiday season and prosperous new year.