In March, luxury maker Land Rover proudly told an audience at the Geneva auto show that it would soon bring to market the industry's first nine-speed transmission.
One month later, Ford Motor Co. and General Motors announced that they would jointly develop 10-speeds.
Can 12-speeds really be that far behind? And why not a 24-speed?
Makoto Yasuda chuckles at the notion.
"Will 12- or 14-speed transmissions be coming soon?" the vice president of Nissan Motor Co.'s global powertrain department asked rhetorically during a visit to the United States. "I don't think so.
"But if we had asked our grandfathers, how do you feel about six speeds? They would have said, 'Three speeds are fine. Six speeds will be too noisy.'"
But Grandpa would have missed that bet.
LMC Automotive now forecasts that nine- and 10-speed transmissions will drive more than 4 million of the new North American vehicles expected to be sold in 2018, up from just 80,000 forecast for 2013.
Promulgators of new transmission technologies say there is no specific reason the number of gears should not continue to escalate.
Automakers agree that more speeds are beneficial. After all, having an engine that shifts ever more precisely into the right gear for the right driving condition translates to greater riding comfort, better fuel economy and a quieter vehicle.
But the question is simply whether adding one or two gears is worth the investment in r&d and manufacturing.
And yet the race goes on.
Five years ago, Nissan's luxury Infiniti brand sought to enhance its image as a global technology purveyor by equipping all of its models with leading-edge seven-speeds. At that time, five- and six-speeds were all the rage, and seven looked like the outer limit.
Now, Yasuda notes, Nissan has launched a project with sometime-partner Daimler AG of Germany to develop transmissions for its Infiniti and rear-wheel-drive models. The partners are keeping the actual gear count under wraps. Eight? Nine? Ten? Eleven? Officials acknowledge it will be some configuration that surpasses their current level.
In May, Volkswagen AG said it, too, will launch a new generation of 10-speeds. The technology, which was developed in-house, will be used in large vehicles, including the Touareg SUV, and will feature a direct-shift gear box. That allows a driver to shift as though on a manual transmission, but electronically and without any interruption in torque power.
Why the gear inflation?
- Reason No. 1: As is always the case in the auto business, newer, bigger and better sells cars.
Product freshness is one reason Chrysler decided this year to invest $374 million in factories in Kokomo, Ind., to produce eight- and nine-speed transmissions.
One of the key vehicles for those higher-gear installations will be the Jeep Grand Cherokee. That nameplate illustrates how automakers have been under constant competitive pressure to up the ante in transmission sophistication.
The Grand Cherokee has been a power in the mid-sized SUV segment since the 1990s. Its big 5.9-liter V-8 sold just fine with a four-speed automatic until it upgraded to a five-speed a decade ago.
Jeep switched to an eight-speed for the 2014 Grand Cherokee. And in several weeks the 2014 Cherokee gets a nine-speed.
- Reason No. 2: Pressure for higher fuel economy is increasing.
More gears make powertrains more efficient. Different traffic speeds, changing terrain and harder acceleration or braking put different levels of strain on a gas engine, and each change in strain ideally should have its own gear. An engine that is turning at an rpm level that is wrong for the driving condition is wasting energy.
A 20-year-old four-speed automatic is getting the job perfectly right in only four circumstances. A 2013-era eight-speed is getting it right twice as often.
Transmission efficiency can deliver a 5 percent improvement in fuel economy, says Ford Motor Co. spokesman Mark Schirmer. He says fuel economy improvement is a main part of the partnership between GM and Ford: "Getting a 5 percent improvement from a transmission improvement is a significant target."
In some conditions, more sophisticated transmissions can result in even larger fuel savings. Switching from a six-speed to an eight-speed can result in a 10 percent gain in fuel economy.