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Truck Topics

Say goodbye to the joy of shifting

By By Scott Loftis
Posted May 10th 2012 10:42AM
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 won’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.

“We have 70-plus expediter trucks on order, and every one of those trucks has an Allison automatic transmission,” said John Lalonde of Fyda Freightliner in Columbus, Ohio. “Fifteen years ago, maybe an automatic transmission might have left you on the side of the road, but that’s not the case anymore. They’ve come a long way.”

Linda Caffee, a Missouri-based expediter who drives as part of a team with her husband, Bob, says she wouldn’t dream of trading the couple’s automated transmission for a manual version.

“When we bought our first truck, due to stress of driving in traffic, I wanted an automatic transmission,” said Caffee, who operates a 40-foot straight truck.

Caffee cited several advantages to operating an automatic or automated transmission.

“One of the great pluses is when you’re stuck in a traffic jam,” she said. “You don’t have to constantly hold the clutch in, so it’s not so hard on your left leg.”

Maybe the biggest beneficiaries of the trend toward automatic transmissions are new drivers.

“When it comes to a beginning driver, you don’t have to worry about shifting gears so you can pay more attention to actually driving the truck,” 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.

“What it really does is it takes the driver factor out of it,” he said. “The driver can watch the road and keep their mind on driving rather than worrying about keeping the truck in the right gear.”

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 transmission’s computer works in sync with the engine’s computer and shifts based on engine revolutions to maximize fuel economy.

Caffee’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 Eaton’s newer automated transmission, the Ultra Shift Plus, has addressed that issue.

According to Eaton, the Ultra Shift Plus also has a “Hill Aid Start” function that prevents rollbacks.

Lalonde said he occasionally will encounter a customer who is adamantly opposed to an automatic transmission.

“I think there’s a fear of the unknown with people who’ve never driven one.” Lalonde said. “ My first question is always: Have you ever driven one? And once they drive it, they don’t want to drive anything else.”

17 Comments

  • - March 9, 2012
    Linda-=|=-The nice thing about an automated transmission is that a new driver can worry about the truck and traffic and not worry about what gear they are in. This is also great when handling mountains going up or coming down. No more missed gears. There is also the option of moving the lever and manually shifting the transmission.

    Times are changing and I am amazed at how many people have never driven a manual transmission in a car. I imagine this will become more common in a truck.

    The new Eaton Ultra Shift Plus is comparable to the Volvo I-Shift which is very nice.
  • - June 10, 2012
    Paul-=|=-The article is absolutely correct in stating that a truck becomes more easy to drive when equipped with an automatic transmission. But as an owner/operator that wrenches on his own stuff, I don't want to have to buy $1500 worth of computer equipment to diagnois a problem on an automatic trans.
    But Linda is correct in saying that manuals are on their way out. I wanted a certain personal car with a manual trans and had to travel 3 states away to find one.
  • - June 10, 2012
    Paul-=|=-The article is absolutely correct in stating that a truck becomes more easy to drive when equipped with an automatic transmission. But as an owner/operator that wrenches on his own stuff, I don't want to have to buy $1500 worth of computer equipment to diagnois a problem on an automatic trans.
    But Linda is correct in saying that manuals are on their way out. I wanted a certain personal car with a manual trans and had to travel 3 states away to find one.
  • - November 11, 2012
    Tim Elder-=|=-I think the biggest hurdle the auto transmission has to overcome is drivers having to relearn how to drive with them. Sounds silly I know but I have heard complaints because some drivers are just used to "grabbing a gear and go" and dont like waiting for a computer to shift.. We had the same issues though when electronic engine management came along.. Nobody likes change..... That being said- I love them!!!
  • - November 11, 2012
    Tim Elder-=|=-I think the biggest hurdle the auto transmission has to overcome is drivers having to relearn how to drive with them. Sounds silly I know but I have heard complaints because some drivers are just used to "grabbing a gear and go" and dont like waiting for a computer to shift.. We had the same issues though when electronic engine management came along.. Nobody likes change..... That being said- I love them!!!
  • - November 11, 2012
    Tim-=|=-You make some really great observations. Driving an automated transmission sometimes required patience while the transmission looks for a gear. A great example is coming up on a red light that turns green, it takes a minute for the transmission to find a gear.

    I remember talking with veteran drivers about getting power steering and air conditioning. Power Steering was going to be the death of us all and now no one can imagine being without it.

    Change is rough but like you I like being able to concentrate on traffic and not finding another gear when looking for a customer on a small tight street.
  • - November 11, 2012
    Tim-=|=-You make some really great observations. Driving an automated transmission sometimes required patience while the transmission looks for a gear. A great example is coming up on a red light that turns green, it takes a minute for the transmission to find a gear.

    I remember talking with veteran drivers about getting power steering and air conditioning. Power Steering was going to be the death of us all and now no one can imagine being without it.

    Change is rough but like you I like being able to concentrate on traffic and not finding another gear when looking for a customer on a small tight street.
  • - February 3, 2014
    felipe murrieta-=|=-hello to everyone please help, iam looking for a truck driving job but have only 3mo. exp. w/us exp. and recent exp. w/a farmer in nd. and mn.5mo. boht auto transm. i couldn't finish training w/us. exp due to unsafe driving practice by the trainer! to make matters worst there's no trucking co w/auto transm. in my area so please help! thank very much and have terrific day..
  • - February 3, 2014
    felipe murrieta-=|=-hello to everyone please help, iam looking for a truck driving job but have only 3mo. exp. w/us exp. and recent exp. w/a farmer in nd. and mn.5mo. boht auto transm. i couldn't finish training w/us. exp due to unsafe driving practice by the trainer! to make matters worst there's no trucking co w/auto transm. in my area so please help! thank very much and have terrific day..
  • - April 18, 2015
    I currently drive a automatic frieghtliner 2015 cascadia. I hate it more everyday. It drops into e cruise or neutral when you lift off expecting a engine break. I drive the mountains of northern ans eastern pa philly nj ny dc md its awful i hate it so much. It does not manually shift down with out breaking. In automatic when the jake break does work it is either too strong or does nothing. If I ever meet the glass eyed computer geek who made this imma break his jaw.

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