Antonov has gone commercial.
The Warwick, U.K.-based transmission developer, founded around the unique concept of a mechanically actuated automatic, has shifted gears and now is building a business centered on more conventional products.
And like most suppliers these days, it is venturing into the world of electrification.
Founder Rouman Antonov no longer is with the company, and his Automatic Drive transmission has been closeted away, unlikely ever to see real-world application. In its place is the TX-6, a fairly standard, low-cost 6-speed automatic Antonov will build in China with a local partner.
More innovative is the developer’s 3-speed gearbox for electric vehicles, born out of an experimental program in the U.K. and now seen as the other half of the company’s 2-pronged effort to evolve from researcher into full-fledged Tier 1 supplier.
Antonov’s transition began about four years ago, when it became clear the moment had passed for the Automatic Drive gearbox, which uses naturally occurring rotational forces, rather than electronics and hydraulics, to shift gears.
Although there had been a few bites from auto makers, including nibbles fromand Adam Opel in 2002, Rouman Antonov was better at tweaking his concept than commercializing it. By the time the technology was perfected, the market had moved on.
Auto makers began “looking for transmissions with more gears, looking for…refinement, and that was not what the Antonov transmission was touted as,” Antonov Automotive Technologies Managing Director Simon Roberts says in an interview. “It was touted as a cheap, cheerful 4-speed transmission for lower-cost vehicles. And that’s not what the market was about (any more).
“That’s when Rouman Antonov started to take a step back. Up until that point, (Antonov) had been almost entirely a research and development company.”
Now current CEO Jos E. Haag has the firm’s focus turned 180 degrees.
The company that once said it had no interest in making transmissions, only licensing its technology, is launching a manufacturing joint venture in China with local builder Chongqing Landai Industry Co. And the transmission headed for production is pretty standard fare, not the breakthrough concept that had so enthralled inventor Rouman Antonov.
The Antonov TX-6 is a fully electronically controlled, hydraulically actuated 6-speed transmission for transverse applications, suitable with 1.5L-2.0L engines ranging from 111 to 155 lb.-ft. (150-210 Nm) of torque.
Unlike most other automatics, the TX-6 lacks a torque converter, replaced with a wet, multi-plate clutch similar to those found in dual-clutch transmissions.
Removing the torque converter has shortened the transmission’s overall length, improving packaging and, potentially, efficiency, Roberts says.
Production at the new 17.2 million-sq.-ft. (1.6 million sq.-m) plant could start up in mid-2012 on an initial low-volume line with capacity for about 50,000 units. The 50/50 JV is dubbed Chongqing EFA Transmission and will begin tooling the plant within the next five months. A second line with capacity for 200,000 units annually will follow.
“Some of the customer programs will feed into Q3 next year (and) others will be Q1 2013,” Roberts tells Ward’s. “Through the first 12 months, we could ramp up to a capacity of 50,000, and at the end of the first 10 to 12 months, we’ll be in position to ramp up higher volumes.”
Plans call for spin-offs of lower- and possibly higher-torque versions of the TX-6, and the low-volume production line will be maintained as a way to wind down old products and launch new ones as they come along.
“The strategy is to get to the market as quickly as we can with the product we have now, but then develop, very quickly, variants of that,” Roberts says.
The initial customer is China’s Lifan Industry Group, which has agreed to buy at least 20,000 TX-6 transmissions for its light vehicles in 2012. Lifan already is a key Landai customer, purchasing about 50,000-60,000 manual transmissions annually.
But the JV also is talking with “four or five” other potential customers in China, Roberts adds.
“Very quickly, we will be launching into production-application programs with three or four Chinese OEMs,” in addition to Lifan, he says. “In six months’ time, we would like to be in a strong position to conduct commercial negotiations to get them to actually commit to buying.”
Local content is expected to be in the 75%-80% range at startup, with Landai supplying casings, shafts and gears for the TX-6 from surrounding facilities. EFA, itself, only will assemble the gearboxes and handle marketing and distribution.
Because of its local production, Antonov’s automatic will cost less than many of the existing 6-speeds imported into China from Japan, Roberts says, making it ideal for indigenous auto makers that must price their vehicles below those from the multinational JV brands to be competitive.
“We’ll be selling in the E900-E1,000 ($1,292-$1,435) mark, while a lot of the imported transmissions with the duties that come with them are in the E1,100-E1,250 ($1,579-$1,794) range,” he says.
Meanwhile, Antonov’s groundbreaking 3-speed EV gearbox, called the HET (high-efficiency transmission), could be in production vehicles even sooner than the TX-6, Roberts says.
The HET springs from a program to develop a 2-speed unit for an experimental extended-range electric Jaguar built by U.K. researcher MIRA as part of a 2009 government-funded program.
Most EVs use a single-speed, direct-drive motor, and the 2-speed was considered a necessary upgrade to meet levels of refinement required by luxury vehicles. But while having two speeds was better, it still left too big an operating gap between first gear, used for launch, and second gear, employed for cruising speeds.
“It’s like changing from first to third in a manual car, but then try to do that at 8,000-9,000 rpm,” Roberts says. “It’s really difficult to manage.”
The resulting, more-refined 3-speed HET is similar to a DCT, but negative perceptions about the launch quality with those gearboxes has led the company to adopt the term “powershifting transmission.”
“For all intents and purposes, it is a 3-speed, parallel-shaft, dual-clutch transmission,” Roberts says. “But we use our clutches only to shift gears, because we use the electric motor to launch the vehicle.”
The transmission incorporates two pumps instead of one. A small mechanical pump is employed for lubrication and cooling, and an electric pump works to change the gears. That improves efficiency because each is better matched to its job, and refinement is enhanced because the transmission can be shifted while stationary.
“We can actually pull up at the (traffic) light in third, so there’s no downshift,” he says. “Then, as the vehicle is stationary, we can change gears. So the driver will have a very refined shift and smooth drive.”
Roberts sees initial applications in the commercial-vehicle and bus sector, where he says most of the early action in electrification is taking place. Antonov currently has a government-funded project under way with Smith Electric Vehicles Europe in the U.K. to test the gearbox in that company’s electric E-Van and is in talks with an unidentified Canadian manufacturer about application in a municipal bus.
The transmission would cost vehicle makers about E3,500 ($5,024) in volumes of 3,000-7,000 units annually, the Antonov executive says. But the premium is more than offset by cost gains from downsizing the electric motor, power electronics system and battery pack.
Overall, the HET would run 5% less than a conventional EV powertrain, weigh 20% less and improve efficiency 15%-18% in the European driving cycle, Roberts says.
Antonov is a “significant way” down the development path with the 3-speed, he adds, and should be in position to put the transmission into road-ready EVs in the “next 12 to 18 months.”
Roberts predicts EVs will move to more sophisticated transmissions, even beyond 3-speed units, and says the HET is designed to add gears as needed.
“We’ve designed our parallel-shaft transmission so it is very easy to just tack fourth, fifth and sixth onto the end,” he says. “So that’s the plan.”