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Road Test: Eaton’s UltraShift Plus Transmission

MARSHALL, Mich. - Eaton's recent introduction of the UltraShift Plus, an improved automated transmission "family," is the latest corporate attempt to pry North American truckers' clenched fists from t...




MARSHALL, Mich. –Eaton’s recent introduction of the UltraShift Plus, an improved automated transmission “family,” is the latest corporate attempt to pry North American truckers’ clenched fists from their beloved manual shift sticks. These new products, awash with convenience and safety features, might just do the trick.

Heavy-duty automated transmissions have been around a while. Eaton has been building them for some 25 years. The company’s previous generations, however, had their limitations and peculiarities. They were primarily intended for the linehaul crowd, and they relied on a centrifugal clutch for launching and shifting. Unfortunately, that technology didn’t always provide the sophisticated executions users wanted.

The release of the UltraShift Plus changes the game entirely. First, it comes in six versions, covering 98.37% of all trucking applications known to man. There is the LAS for linehaul, the VCS for vocational construction, the VXP for severe heavy-duty, the MHP for … well, you get the idea. The Plus line also features a new electronically activated two-plate ceramic clutch that’s operated through the transmission’s own control module.

This pair of gadgets works in tandem -using info provided by the engine ECM -to deliver silky smooth launches and precise, rapid shifts. Thanks to the assistance from a newly relocated inertia brake -or “I Brake,” to use an Eatonism – gear changes are accomplished in roughly half a second.

As if that weren’t enough, the Plus trannies also apparently know the appropriate gear for launching -their thoughtful selections based on vehicle weight, grade and available power -when to skip-shift, when to activate an engine brake, when to “creep” and, just as importantly, when to completely ignore the driver.

“If you try to make one of these do something it’s not supposed to do, it will just beep at you,” said Samir Mazahem, Eaton’s heavy-duty transmission division chief engineer.

Mazahem was one of six test-truck chaperones accompanying media folks during an outdoor, hands-on product introduction at Eaton’s spacious, scenic and comprehensive proving grounds near Marshall, Mich., in early September. He was in charge of a Pete Model 379, powered by a Cummins ISX (rated at 600 hp) and grossing roughly 160,000 lbs. I joined him for the paved-hill portion of the company’s nearly day-long demonstration. This roughly two-mile route included two stiff grades: one 8%, the other 15%.

Releasing the parking brake and moving the’driver interface’ to D, I noticed that the transmission picked third as our launch gear. I thought the choice was a bit tall, but Mazahem said we could have overridden the system and used an even higher gear.

“It would probably handle fourth here because we’re on level ground,” he said. “Fifth would have been too much, and the transmission would tell you that. It won’t allow you choose an improper gear. It knows its capabilities.”

We rolled forward smoothly with no driveline shudder nor faint whiff of cooking clutch. Mazahem said Eaton engineers spent a lot of time mapping the torque transfer on each clutch plate in a multitude of scenarios, and they programmed that information into the transmission’s software. This code, along with other mechanical advances, allow clutch plates to open and close independently of each other, offering flawless launches in any imaginable condition.

Heading toward the hill, I mashed hard on the accelerator, and the transmission responded accordingly, shifting from third to fourth to sixth to eighth to tenth to twelfth to fourteenth. We were soon halfway up the short 8% grade, and the engine speed began sagging. The tranny dropped one gear at 1,300 rpm; then it went through a quick series of two-gear downshifts as our momentum slowed, and the need for torque greatly increased.

I was impressed with the system’s performance. It not only knew when to shift, but also how many gears to take each time to keep the engine within its power band. Mazahem credits the box’s “skill” to the newly added inclinometer, a device that measures road grade, and good software programming.

“When writing the code, we always determine when to downshift based on a projected point where the engine can recover an adequate amount of torque to continue pulling the weight forward,” he said. “We know where the engine rpm will be in every gear based on road speed. The goal is to choose a ratio that provides the best power.”

Of course, it also helps to make these decisions in nanoseconds and execute them in half-seconds, regardless of the seat cover in a passing car, the interesting chatter on a CB or what just fell out of a shelf in the bunk.

I brought the truck to a stop just past the summit so Mazahem could demonstrate the transmission’s downhill abilities. He said I should shift to third gear in the manual mode, release the brakes and keep my foot off the accelerator and brake pedal. I did as instructed, and we began rolling forward. The engine retarder, which was set to medium power, immediately activated and curbed the truck’s speed somewhere around 10 mph -not bad, considering that we were descending a 15% slope carrying 160,000 lbs. Mazahem reached over and switched the retarder to low. Our velocity gradually increased. When the engine reached about 2,100 rpm, the transmission flipped into automatic mode and started upshifting -first in single steps, then two and three at a time -to protect the engine from over-revving.

The final display of technical wizardry in Mazahem’s Pete occurred on our way back up the hill’s steep side. He’d told me to back off the throttle about halfway up the ascent. The tranny had already downshifted from 14 to 13 in an effort to keep us moving. When I took my foot off the accelerator, though, our speed sunk fast, and the little UltraShift Plus gnomes under the floorboards went straight to eighth then, after a lazy second or so, to first. At that point we were pretty much just idling up the remaining few yards to the top. I’d challenge any seasoned gear-jammer to match that maneuver without coming to a complete stop.

Following my heavy-haul trip, I spent some time on the facility’s hilly, winding off-road course, first with a Cummins-powered cement mixer then a pair of Cat-powered dump trucks: all Kenworth T800 models. Their transmissions shared many of the same characteristics I’d experienced in the Pete, but they were fine-tuned for vocational needs. Eaton officials say that any of the Plus models can be easily customized for buyers’ unique needs. This is done through the Service Ranger software package, which is currently available only to dealers and the company’s largest customers. Wider distribution might be possible in the future, said Michael Holahan, Eaton’s program manager for the UltraShift Plus.

“The challenge is making sure people would know how to correctly use it.”

My last romp of the day was on the facility’s oval road course, driving a Kenworth W900, Cummins powered and grossing 129,000 lbs. I was accompanied by Rose Gould, an Eaton test pilot.

Rounding the track’s final turn we were cruising at roughly 55 mph, and she suggested I shift the transmission to the low mode -as in first gear -to check out its ability to slow our speed.

I was reluctant, imagining the awful grinding sound that might ensue, but I followed her recommendation anyway. Instantly, the engine brake came on at full power. As soon as a downshift was possible, the transmission grabbed a gear, and it continued grabbing gears until we were down to 15 mph, at which point I switched the box back to automatic and began accelerating. Gould said the technique is a good -and safe -way to achieve maximum slowing power without touching the foundation brakes.

Eaton executives said the UltraShift Plus was in development for nearly seven years -a long time, to be sure -and extensively field-tested during the last two.

The company has clearly done its homework to ensure the product delivers on its prom
ise. Still, the question arises: “Can we beat the very best drivers in North America?” Michael Holahan rhetorically asked during the press event. “To be honest, we’re still learning from them. But we can beat a whole lot of others, enough so that fleets installing this transmission will notice a significant uptick in their fuel economy and corresponding decrease in their driveline maintenance costs.”

Now if they can just figure out a way to peel those diehard truckers’ fingers away from their beloved manual shift sticks.


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2 Comments » for Road Test: Eaton’s UltraShift Plus Transmission
  1. mitch says:

    here in australia this gearbox is disapointing just like autoshift, in face its possibly worse not having that full driver control over the clutch engagement, when hooking up to a trailer is lunges when you simply want to creep a few inches, having to use a hill start aid, it doesnt always do what you want it to do it gets confused just like autoshift it has more sensors n computers which is more things to go wrong in the long term. Of course eaton is going to say its awsome its there product u wont peel the fingers of a gear stick because you simply cannot beat a roadranger eaton fuller box, there simple tough and reliable not to mention the driver has ultimate control, people should learn to use them properly and we wouldnt have all this compter garbage we have these days not to mention pure laziness created by this automated garbage, what is wrong with a manual transmission? abslutly nothing, i do not like eatons auto boxes at all there crap to use everyone i talk to say there crap ultrashift is just the same just has more parts more components thats the reason eaton domitated in the first place making simple transmissions with little as possible moving parts to help maintanence and tare weights now we have unreliable auto crap there trying to be like volvo and people like “yank tanks” for a reason if they want automated stuff the will go for the euro trucks keep it simple eaton. keep the auto option there for the big lazy fleet guys but for god sake keep the constant mesh 18 speed fuller alive and strong!!

  2. Hank says:

    It is a POS. Like Mitch says, your adding cost and complexity to one of the single mot dependable aspects of the entire truck. Your money is better spent having your best veterans train rookie drivers then equipping your truck with that crap.

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