Mack Says Buyers Taking mDrive Automated Trannies in Greater Numbers

By Tom Berg, Truck Editor | May 22, 2017
One of Superior Transportation’s Mack Pinnacle axle-forward tractors

The trend toward automated transmissions continues in all segments of trucking, including construction, Mack Trucks executives said this week at a press conference in Charlestown, S.C., and two fleet owners explained that ease of operation and improved fuel economy are among the reasons.

Photo: One of Superior Transportation’s Mack Pinnacle axle-forward tractors stands by to move a crate of machinery to an automotive plant in Kentucky from the Port of Charleston on South Carolina’s Atlantic coast. An mDrive automated transmission makes it easy to drive and slightly better on fuel than a manual gearbox, says Pat Barber, the fleet’s founder and president. And its MP8 diesel weighs less than larger engines, sometimes providing an advantage over competitors.

Penetration of the construction-truck market for Mack’s mDrive transmission has almost doubled this year, from 20 percent in 2016 to 37 percent so far this year, according to Jonathon Randall, director of sales. He attributed growth to expansion of mDrive offerings to include 13- and 14-speed versions of the HD (heavy duty) series, which provide greater startability in rough conditions than the standard 12-speed model.

Mack is No. 1 in construction and its Granite model is the best-selling Class 8 straight truck in the U.S., he said.

In Pinnacle highway models, mDrive penetration is as much as 87 percent and growing, said Roy Horton, director of product strategy. Most customers for those models take the 12-speed, though versions of those can be outfitted for construction-related duties and some buyers choose 13- or 14-speed mDrives. Those transmissions combine good startability, using 17.5- and 32-to-1 low-low gear ratios, with high-speed cruising ability.

“That’s like having two trucks in one,” Horton said.

Construction is a bright spot in an otherwise softening market for Class 8 trucks, said Dennis Slagle, Mack’s president and CEO. All builders have cut back on production following overproduction and a glut of inventory that began in 2015. That inventory has been pared down and production now is responding to demand.

Promises of heavy federal spending for infrastructure have not materialized as the White House and Congress have been distracted by turmoil over other issues. But under President Donald Trump, “there’s a tail wind there that wasn’t there before, and the split between political factions in Washington is less than under the previous administration," Slagle said.

Meanwhile, state legislatures have begun raising motor fuel taxes as they’ve concluded that funding help is not forthcoming from Congress.

South Carolina recently passed a 12-cent-a-gallon fuel tax increase that will be phased in over a period of years, said Patrick Barber, president and CEO of Superior Transportation and a Mack customer. Republican Governor Henry McMaster, who replaced Nikki Haley when she left to become ambassador to the United Nations, opposed any tax increase. But the legislature “handily” overrode his veto, Barber said.

Already, new road and other infrastructure works are being planned for the state, the trucking executive said. And that bodes well for his business, which includes hauling of oversize beams and other components for construction projects. His specialized trailers also tote machinery, power generation equipment and other massive, “out-of-gauge” loads, almost all of them running under special permits, as well as freight containers from and to the very busy Port of Charleston.

Barber has 40 truck-tractors, most of them Mack Pinnacles, and he has been spec’ing mDrive automated manual transmissions since they became available several years ago.

“Drivers hated the idea of automated transmissions when they first came out, but now you can’t get ‘em out of a truck with an mDrive,” Barber said. “We’re seeing lower costs with mDrive,” including slightly better fuel economy, from 5 miles per gallon to 5.2.

“That’s not much for freight haulers, but it’s huge for us. We’re not running at high speed on the highway,” he explained. "We’ve moving slow and heavy. Even when we’re running empty with an 11-axle rig, we weigh 90,000 pounds.”

Upstream of actual construction is timbering, and Tracy Gunter Jr., president of Tracy’s Logging, has stayed busy cutting and hauling trees out of South Carolina woods. He’s following a family tradition of his father, “a sawmill person,” and an older brother, a logger who hired Terry and expected him to work hard.

“We were raised up to work,” he declared, and he has done it, using specialized machinery and mostly Mack trucks. His chosen model now is the Granite, which is a good name for the vocational model “because it’s as hard as a rock.” They sport distinctive white-and-red color schemes and much chrome and bright-metal trim.

His trucks run over dirt roads bulldozed through the pine forests, and sometimes further into the woods. The fleet includes 19 company trucks and 17 leased from Shealy Truck Center in Columbia. The dealer’s support is “great,” he said, and includes sending tow trucks off road, delivering substitute trucks while picking up disabled vehicles for repairs.

His son, Tracy Gunter III, runs a wood chipping business, also with Macks but also military surplus 6x6 tractors that work in really rough terrain. They take heavily laden trailers closer to trails and roads where highway-capable tractors take the trailers and their products to market.

He obtains the mil-spec trucks from two specialty dealers who customize them to suit customers. Some of Tracy Gunter III’s vehicles have Mack diesels, older “mechanical” engines that are “really reliable.” Most have Allison automatics that help to smoothly propel the green- and camo-painted iron through the woods.

The Gunters’ modern Mack Granites have MP8 diesels that handily pull trailers loaded with 28 tons of timber over freshly graded roads without wincing. Features like their rugged fiberglass hoods that sit on isolators help keep the trucks reliable, Tracy III said.

Mack now offers only the 12.8-liter MP8 and 11.8-liter MP7 diesels because Volvo Group, Mack’s parent, pulled the low-volume 16.1-liter MP10 from North Amearica early this year. And executives decline to substitute the 14.9-liter Cummins X15 because they believe Mack’s “integrated powertrain” products are superior.

Besides, the 13-liter-class MP8 now has ratings that equal most of competitors’ 15-liter diesels, with up to 505 horsepower and 1,850 lb-ft. of torque. “That engine satisfies 85 percent of the applications out there,” said Randall, the sales head.