Say goodbye to the joy of shifting
Professional truck drivers deal with plenty of occupational stress, from delivery deadlines to fuel costs to watching out for dangers on the road.
Automatic and automated transmissions wonâ€™t eliminate all of those concerns, but they do give the driver one less thing to worry about.
Once scorned by truckers, automatic transmissions have steadily gained popularity as technology improved and more and more drivers learned about the advantages that can be gained by giving up manual shifting.
â€œWe have 70-plus expediter trucks on order, and every one of those trucks has an Allison automatic transmission,â€ said John Lalonde of Fyda Freightliner in Columbus, Ohio. â€œFifteen years ago, maybe an automatic transmission might have left you on the side of the road, but thatâ€™s not the case anymore. Theyâ€™ve come a long way.â€
Linda Caffee, a Missouri-based expediter who drives as part of a team with her husband, Bob, says she wouldnâ€™t dream of trading the coupleâ€™s automated transmission for a manual version.
â€œWhen we bought our first truck, due to stress of driving in traffic, I wanted an automatic transmission,â€ said Caffee, who operates a 40-foot straight truck.
Caffee cited several advantages to operating an automatic or automated transmission.
â€œOne of the great pluses is when youâ€™re stuck in a traffic jam,â€ she said. â€œYou donâ€™t have to constantly hold the clutch in, so itâ€™s not so hard on your left leg.â€
Maybe the biggest beneficiaries of the trend toward automatic transmissions are new drivers.
â€œWhen it comes to a beginning driver, you donâ€™t have to worry about shifting gears so you can pay more attention to actually driving the truck,â€ Caffee said.
Lalonde said the automatic transmissions are especially popular with husband-and-wife teams, where one driver might not be as experienced as the other.
â€œWhat it really does is it takes the driver factor out of it,â€ he said. â€œThe driver can watch the road and keep their mind on driving rather than worrying about keeping the truck in the right gear.â€
In an industry that it struggles to recruit and retain drivers, automatic transmissions also can be helpful in attracting prospects who otherwise might not feel comfortable behind the wheel of a truck.
Lalonde also says the automatic transmissions are more fuel-efficient, because the transmissionâ€™s computer works in sync with the engineâ€™s computer and shifts based on engine revolutions to maximize fuel economy.
Caffeeâ€™s truck currently uses an Eaton Ultra Shift automated transmission. Caffee described it as a 10-speed transmission that is controlled by a computer. There is no clutch, and no need to shift gears. The most notable exception between an automatic and an automated transmission, according to Caffee, is that an automated transmission will essentially shift itself into neutral if the vehicle comes to a stop, so that it will roll backward on an incline.
Caffee also pointed out that the automated transmission requires higher RPMs in reverse, meaning the driver has to back up at a higher speed than with a manual or fully automatic transmission. But she said Eatonâ€™s newer automated transmission, the Ultra Shift Plus, has addressed that issue.
According to Eaton, the Ultra Shift Plus also has a â€œHill Aid Startâ€ function that prevents rollbacks.
Lalonde said he occasionally will encounter a customer who is adamantly opposed to an automatic transmission.
â€œI think thereâ€™s a fear of the unknown with people whoâ€™ve never driven one.â€ Lalonde said. â€œ My first question is always: Have you ever driven one? And once they drive it, they donâ€™t want to drive anything else.â€