Sometimes, it’s what you don’t notice that matters most – and that’s exactly what Ford Motor Co.’s engineers had in mind when they set out to develop the first mass-market 10-speed automatic transmission.
The new gearbox, making its debut in the 2017 Ford F-150 pickup truck, is the result of collaboration between two erstwhile competitors, Ford and General Motors Co.
Facing rapidly tightening fuel economy and emissions standards, the two decided to cooperate on the development of both a nine-speed automatic for use on front-drive vehicles, and the 10-speed going into rear- and all-wheel-drive models such as the Ford F-150 and Chevrolet Camaro ZL1.
Adding more gears to a transmission can increase fuel efficiency, but as other automakers have found out, the technology doesn’t always work as planned and sometimes hurts how their vehicles drive. Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, for example, has been hammered in quality and customer satisfaction surveys because its nine-speed automatic sometimes has trouble finding the right gear.
But a test drive in rural Michigan earlier this week demonstrated that’s not a problem with the 2017 Ford F-150. In fact, you’re likely to barely notice shifts at all. And that was one of the key goals, said Kevin Norris, manager of the 10-speed program for Ford.
“The focus was on always being in the right gear at the right time,” Norris said.
Not long ago, manufacturers were content with automatic gearboxes using four, five, and in a few cases, six gears. The technology simply wasn’t there to go beyond that, Norris said. But motivated by new federal fuel economy mandates, automotive engineers have come up with improvements in both hydraulic and electronic control systems to make the more complex transmissions possible.
The cost, however, isn’t cheap. GM and Ford decided to team up to share the expense. They used a similar strategy for the development of an earlier six-speed automatic. The fruits of the collaboration will eventually show up on a number of vehicles. While the two makers haven’t revealed all of their plans, the nine-speed will likely appear on future front-wheel-drive models such as the Ford Fusion and Chevrolet Malibu. They haven’t said what they have spent on the project.
GM has confirmed that its version of the 10-speed will debut on the limited-edition Chevy Camaro ZL1, while Ford is using it in several truck applications, starting with the F-150. It will be a standard feature on the 2017 Raptor and Limited models, paired with the second-generation version of Ford’s 3.5-liter EcoBoost V6. It will also be offered as an option on other 2017 F-150s, with a price of $2,595 or less, depending upon the model.
Such industry collaborations, once rare, are becoming increasingly common. Daimler AG and the Renault-Nissan Alliance are jointly developing engines and even some vehicle platforms. There are numerous partnerships focused on advanced battery and hydrogen powertrain development.
As is often the case, Ford and GM agreed to focus on the basic mechanical elements of the new transmission, then go off on their own. Open the 10-speed up and you might have a hard time telling the difference between the box going into a Camaro and an F-150. The big differentiators are found in the electronic controls, Norris said.
The new 10-speed uses more than 1 million lines of code, about twice as much as the older transmission it replaces. And Ford engineers openly boast about the performance of their gearbox compared with some of the other automatics that have come to market in recent years.
That became apparent during a series of tests at the Ford Proving Grounds, in Romeo, Mich., and later on a drive of the 2017 F-150 on public roads.
Even while pulling a 9,900-pound trailer up a 17-percent grade, the transmission operated almost transparently, readily welcoming the added power of the Gen-2 EcoBoost engine. For 2017, the update jumps from 425- to 470-pound-feet of torque and 365 to 375 horsepower.
Even under wide-open throttle, shifts are smooth to the point of transparency. And where some other new gearboxes get busy — and sometimes buzzy — trying to figure out the best gear, Ford’s 10-speed seemed to have an intuitive ability to anticipate where it should be, even if that meant dropping from 10th to fifth gear as we launched up a more aggressive, 29-percent grade.
On public roads, we found we needed to keep an eye on the electronic display to be sure when the transmission shifted.
The new transmission will go on sale this fall, according to Ford, which should mean sometime late this month. The carmaker expects to have final mileage numbers from the EPA immediately before then. Although company officials were tight-lipped, industry speculation suggests that on an apples-to-apples comparison, the new 10-speed would yield perhaps a 5-percent fuel efficiency gain, but additional improvements are promised from the second-generation EcoBoost engine.
The new gearbox is expected to then wind up on other Ford models, most certainly to include the upgraded F-Series heavy-duty models.