The Dual Clutch Design That Didn’t Take Off

When they were first announced to come online with new car production, the dual clutch design was expected to be a big hit. There were a number of benefits, but the big two was a faster capability of changing between gears and far better fuel economy. The design was widely accepted as the next step in the evolution of the consumer car. Given the push by the federal government to improve fuel efficiency it was none too soon as well. Every carmaker has been working under an onus to make a car go farther on the same gallon of gas, and the dual clutch seemed to be the answer for the next few years at least.

The first player to really engage with the dual clutch did so early when Volkswagen started trying to incorporate the concept in their consumer cars. The first step out didn’t work well, however, being bogged with lots of car owner complaints and production quality problems. Ford and Honda then tried to take a shot at making the dual clutch work for them. Big plans from Ford had planned production pegged at 700,000 units annually.

The specific design involves two clutch assemblies, twins, working in tandem running two gearboxes. The actual speed used by the car switches back and forth, depending which gear is desired. So the first gearbox is first, third and fifth gear. The second gearbox handles the even numbered gears. While this approach seems more cumbersome, in practice it produces a far more efficient operation (when it works). Under extreme demands the system showed great promise in Ferrari and McLaren cars. So, the logic assumed, the design could be transferred for big benefits in commuter cars as well.

The next big move came from Chrysler in 2007. They sunk more than a half billion dollars into a new factory to product, interestingly, 700,000 transmission annually. Ford in 2008 put in just as much money in their own factory located in Mexico, and by 2010 it was producing dual clutch Ford cars. However, both companies ran into problems very quickly, and in 2008 Chrysler had to shut down its operation because it could not get a reliable supply system in place.

At the same time, the traditional clutch was not disappearing. Instead, auto designers were still looking for ways to make that model more efficient as well. As a result, it represented a viable competition for car makers and a safety net when initial problems with the dual clutch concept did not immediately work.

Again, in 2011, Ford tried to make the dual clutch work again in two of its economy car models. However, as soon as the assembly was engaged in production and released to sellers, the returns to the dealerships under warranties started rising again. A new pattern emerged; the dual clutch performed well at fast speeds and highway demand, but it started failing with significant locking problems at low gear speeds or stop and go. This was a key aspect missed in high performance cars predominantly used at high speeds only.

Fast forward to 2016 and the dual clutch is all but gone from major manufacturers’ attention. It was an interesting idea that many thoughts had come at the right moment, but in practice the design failed miserably. And the traditional clutch remains the standard still.

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