− by Mac Gordon
San Diego − An advanced automotive transmission is being developed by a Chinese-American firm, with the support of the government of Shanghai’s Yangpu District and the expertise of one of the U.S. auto industry’s influential figures, Dr. David E. Cole, son of a former General Motors president and engineering chief, Ed Cole.
The firm, Fallbrook Technologies, a California start-up, is headed by William Klehm as CEO and executive vice-president Rudy Schlais as R&D chief. Fallbrook is based in San Diego, California.
Fallbrook’s transmission is designed primarily for electric vehicles. Shanghai is Fallbrook’s China headquarters, inasmuch as it opened an electric-vehicle design museum in February and its government officials view it as the birthplace of electric vehicles, just as Detroit is the “Motor City” for Midwest and internal combustion gasoline vehicles.
Fallbrook’s newest transmission is of the continuously variable variety, according to Klehm, a former Ford executive. But whereas other so-called CV transmissions have gear and clutch systems in either automatic or manual transmissions, the Fallbrook technology uses a set of rotating spheres surrounding a central “hub” which shifts torque between two rings in transmitting power. The spheres are tilted to permit an infinite progression of speed ratios.
What makes the Fallbrook system desirable, especially for the Chinese, is that it lacks the high number of moving parts in traditional CV systems, says Cole, retired chief of the Ann Arbor, MI-based Center for Automotive Research.
Schlais, a retired GM manager, joined Fallbrook seven years ago, drawn by its powertrain research and close to GM’s partnership team at Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation. He had assisted GM in linking up with SAIC.
Declaring that the Chinese market exhibits a “need for electric vehicles more than anywhere else,” Klehm observes in a CBU/CAR interview that with the numbers of vehicles rising in China at double-digit and triple-digit levels, “the cities are choking with air pollution and are clamoring to be cleaned up. E-vehicles are to be a big factor in this mission.”
SAIC’s role indicates that GM could become among the first users of a Fallbrook drivetrain for electric vehicles, but U.S. automakers have been cautious in evaluating its potential, says Schlais.
“Forecasts are that up to eight million E-vehicles will be sold in China a year by 2020,” Cole says, “opening the market wide for the Fallbrook’s transmission.
“The Chinese already have set an example of investing in technology from the U.S., what with the sale of GM’s Nexteer steering-system business to China’s Pacific Century Motors . We see more deals like Fallbrook in coming years.”
Klehm and Schlais are reluctant to give out sales projections or range numbers for CV system-equipped vehicles, but it is negotiating with a Chinese supplier to build electric vehicle drivetrains. The Fallbrook system is simple to manufacture, says Schlais, and more adaptable for five-speed manual or automatic transmissions, he explains, making it a drawing card for powertrain suppliers.
“What’s really unusual about the Fallbrook transmission is that the range of an electric vehicle is as prolonged as that in comparable internal-combustion vehicles,” states Cole. “That’s truly phenomenal.”