Auto Service World
Feature   January 1, 2014   by Steve Pawlett

Advanced Driveline Technology

What's Behind Double-digit Growth

The driveline business continues to expand and offer increasing sales opportunities for jobbers, while at the same time creating product mix and stocking challenges.
With the proliferation of more sophisticated transmissions and transaxles, and the rising popularity of all-wheel drive, four-wheel drive, and on-demand drive systems, there are simply more parts wearing out. While four-wheel-drive pickups have been around forever, the growing use of AWD systems and on-demand systems on SUVs and passenger cars offers a significant opportunity in increased parts sales in this category.
The industry has seen a significant technology shift in recent years towards electronic and mechatronic components, with a clearly defined move away from torque transfer to torque management, all in the name of better fuel economy and reduced emissions.
“There has been a huge increase in the use of electronics in all transmissions. The days of the older style modulator – that was connected to the manifold and allowed the transmission to shift when there was change in manifold pressure – are long gone,” explains Bob Roxburgh of King-O-Matic. “Now you see a multitude of sensors on any given vehicle – throttle position sensors (TPS), temperature sensors, RPM sensors, input and output sensors, etc. – to determine the optimum gear ratio, depending on the load, speed, and other key performance factors.”
Due to mounting regulatory pressures aimed at reducing CO2 emissions, OEMs and suppliers are investing in advanced technologies that reduce weight and boost efficiency. The extra weight of components such as a transfer case or extra differential or constant velocity joint result in increased fuel consumption. To overcome these weight and efficiency challenges, OEMs are increasingly incorporating more electronics and on-demand systems.
“This is a specialized world now, and we carry all the sensors and shift solenoids and pressure controls for all imports, which now account for about 15% of our business today. Two decades ago, electronics didn’t account for even 2% of our business. And we expect to see the use of electronics continue to grow,” says Roxburgh.
“With the growing number of performance vehicles on the road, rear-wheel drive has made a bit of a comeback. However, it’s no longer the traditional style of driveline from the ’70s. It’s more European in design, and being able to just change out a U-joint is no longer possible. When there is a failure, vehicle owners now must replace the entire drive shaft. Furthermore, drivelines are now designed to be much lighter and very precise, with a lot less mass to reduce weight and increase fuel efficiency.”
“During harvest season, we see a lot of the grain trucks that need to be kept on the road. For the most part we see mainly inter-axle driveline replacements between the differentials,” explains Kirk Allen of K & D Truck Parts in Regina, Saskatchewan. “They tend to twist off under heavy load. It’s the weakest link in the drive system, like fuseable link.”
Explains Bill Moffat of Pat’s Driveline, “We are seeing a migration away from standard transmissions to automatics in light-duty trucks, along with all the electronics that now go with that. This is resulting in options becoming more limited. Now when buying a work truck, you have to make sure that the truck you select is compatible to the job. For instance, if you buy an F550 Ford and you want to use it as a work truck, you may need a power takeoff application on it, so you have to make sure you specify that when you order your vehicle. There is a difference between a pleasure truck and a work truck, and jobbers need to be aware of these differences and the environment the vehicle is working in so you can be sure you are supplying the correct parts to the customer,” explains Moffat.
“We often get new vehicle owners coming in looking to add a power takeoff or put a picker deck on their vehicle,” he adds. “The power takeoff system hangs on the side of the existing transmission and is an electrical-hydraulic shift that uses the pressure of the transmission going to the solenoid to engage it. It’s like an automatic transmission in itself, with a clutch pack.
“There are so many new transmissions coming out on the heavy trucks today as the OEMs try to match a particular transmission to every type of application, so you really have to be on your game when it comes to selling replacement parts for each application.”
Alvin Chibi, district manager for NAPA Auto Parts in Edmonton (NAPA Auto Parts has eight parts stores in Edmonton), explains, “Definitely [here] in northern Alberta we are in a truck-oriented market, with probably 50% of vehicles on the road being trucks. With the oil fields, we definitely deal with late-model trucks out here. One of the challenges that we have is most of these trucks are typically a model year old and have 100,000 to 150,000 kilometres on them, so our challenge is keeping current with the new vehicle population.
“Just looking at what we classify as drive train sales we are very strong in this category, with double-digit increases on CV shafts. Looking at our Altrom products [Altrom is owned by Genuine Parts], which are mainly foreign nameplate, we see big increases as well. Bearing sales are also very strong for us. Whether it’s our first-line SKF brand, which is in our box, or whether it is our economy offering, both are seeing double-digit increases,” adds Chibi.
Chibi attributes the strong driveline sales growth to the burgeoning truck market. “A wheel bearing for a truck is a lot more than a wheel bearing for a Ford Fiesta, so that is a big factor in our sales.”
He continues, “All of NAPA’s purchasing is done essentially out of Montreal. We use our class system, our mix system, and work with the manufacturers and their recommendations on inventory, plus we monitor postal code vehicle registration sales as well as sales out of our stores to determine optimum stocking needs. We also have dedicated sales development specialists who keep our sales staff up to date on new parts trends.”
In the majority of late-model vehicles on the road today, the driveline is an integrated system that requires input from MAP sensors and a multitude of other functions in order to determine what gear to be in, when to upshift, when to downshift, and when to respond when there is a heavier load or demand for power. Where those functions used to be mechanical or purely hydraulic, they are now mostly electronically controlled, with a solenoid or a series of solenoids giving the signal to shift. When these drivelines fail it can translate into some pretty healthy sales numbers, given the number of components now involved in the system.
Roxburgh observes that another key issue is how much depends on the skill of the technician to properly diagnose the fault. Whether it is throttle position sensor (TPS), a shift solenoid, or a pressure control solenoid, it’s an integrated system that requires someone with a proper technical background and proper test equipment to determine the problem. “This is very much an issue these days as the newer vehicles come in for repairs. We have customers who are just parts replacers – who just keep throwing parts at the problem rather than use proper diagnostics. It’s necessary to have the proper equipment and training to properly diagnose these issues today.
“Jobbers have a lot of product knowledge, but because of the complexity of the market now, we still have to ask questions to narrow it down for them. The jobbers we deal with simply can’t be expected to have that level of knowledge, so we often provide them with questions to ask their customers,” adds Roxburgh.
As long as OEMs continue to strive for improvements in traction and fuel econo
my, you can rest assured that these vehicles will make their way into independent repair shops for driveline service on a regular basis. And it’s a good bet that many will be in sooner rather than later.

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