Truck News


The Eaton UltraShift

TORONTO, Ont. - Today's truck cab has all the complexity of an airliner cockpit, complete with navigation systems, busy driver displays and a seemingly endless array of rocker switches and gauges.

TORONTO, Ont. –Today’s truck cab has all the complexity of an airliner cockpit, complete with navigation systems, busy driver displays and a seemingly endless array of rocker switches and gauges.

So I find it refreshing when I climb into a cab and find the comparably simple interface of an Eaton UltraShift automated transmission, with its intuitive push-button console.

What can be simpler than selecting ‘D’ for drive and then stepping on the gas?

That’s not to say it’s a simple piece of equipment. The Eaton UltraShift is actually highly-sophisticated.

It has its own electronic control module (ECM) and the ability to precisely read the engine’s RPM and hit the perfect shift point every single time. I’m not too proud to admit, it shifts much more accurately -and thus more fuel-efficiently -than I do.

But that’s not to say everyone will realize substantial fuel savings from the use of an automated transmission. Seasoned veterans can come pretty close to matching the pinpoint accuracy of the UltraShift.

But where the automated transmission thrives is its ability to take the less experienced drivers, and by taking shifting responsibilities out of their hands, allow them to attain the same fuel-efficiency achieved by a fleet’s most skilled drivers.

This philosophy has become an integral component of Purolator Courier’s quest to optimize fuel mileage. The UltraShift alone isn’t a cure-all solution, but it’s an important part of Purolator’s fuel management program -and is now a standard spec’ for the fleet, which operates some 500 trucks across Canada.

Serge Viola, national fleet manager with Purolator, explained his company’s reasons for making the switch to the UltraShift.

“Fuel today is a hot topic with everybody,” he said. “Anything we can do to save a little bit of fuel, we’re going to investigate incorporating that into our program -one being the UltraShift transmission.”

Purolator has 30 such units in place today and has 45 more on order. Viola admitted there was initially some resistance from drivers.

“Initially, they weren’t too happy about losing their stick shift, but I think after they drove it for a while they were really impressed,” recalled Viola, adding some driver training with Eaton field reps was also required.

Truck News’ on-road editor Harry Rudolfs is a full-time company driver with Purolator.

Like many of his peers, he had his reservations when Purolator first decided to automate its fleet. However, even a grizzled ol’ pro like Harry has grown to accept the change, when his slip-seat job requires him to drive one of the company’s UltraShift-equipped Internationals.

“Most drivers don’t like them at first, but then they will tell you they get to like them,” Rudolfs told me.

“Pinning to trailers can be tricky, as the tractor rolls away unless you’ve got just the right throttle applied. I have to two-foot or I hit the pin too hard. Another factor is ramp and cornering speeds since I’ve always been conscious of what gear I’m in and how many RPMs. Unless you shift the transmissions manually you’re not aware of this and a couple of times I caught myself taking a turn a little too fast. But once I made the leap to thinking ‘automatic’ this was no longer a problem, it’s actually less effort and just as smooth.”

Mike Sharpe, territory manager with Roadranger marketing, admitted the UltraShift takes a bit of getting used to, but no more than any other piece of unfamiliar equipment.

“As with anything that’s new, you have to adjust to it and understand how it works,” Sharpe explained. “After operating it a few times (when backing), it becomes second nature.”

Purolator was gracious enough to allow me take its brand new UltraShift-equipped International 9200i with Eagle trim out for a quick spin around its Mississauga headquarters.

It was a miserable day for driving, with icy rain and gusting winds providing a late April reminder that winter is never far away in these parts.

But ghastly weather provides the perfect opportunity to experience the UltraShift -its user-friendliness is most welcome when the weather is lousy and driving conditions require your full attention.

While Purolator’s main motivation for adopting the UltraShift was fuel economy, safety is an equally-important benefit of the automated transmission. Purolator’s drivers spend much of their time navigating city streets, where taking your eyes off the road to check the tach for even a split-second can be a hazard.

Inner-city routes are also where Purolator is achieving its most significant fuel mileage increases, according to Viola.

“Some of the runs we have them on are the long-distance highway runs, and you won’t see a lot of difference there,”Viola said. “It’s in the city where you see the variance.”

Viola admitted it’s still too early to provide concrete fuel mileage comparisons between the 10- speed UltraShift LST such as the one I was driving, and its traditional manual transmissions. However, he’s confident that fuel savings are being realized. He’s also anticipating a substantial savings in maintenance costs.

“You can’t abuse the system as much as you could a manual transmission, so we’re looking for an overall lower maintenance cost as well,” Viola said. “We haven’t validated that, but that’s what we’re looking for.”

And ironically, now that initial resistance from drivers has subsided, the company is finding the UltraShift is actually helping it in its driver recruiting and retention efforts.

“Like everybody else, we’re having a driver shortage issue. With newer equipment, better spec’d equipment and easier to drive equipment, we’re finding it easier to recruit drivers,” said Viola. “We absolutely use it as a recruiting tool.”

Joining me for my drive was Roadranger’s Sharpe, part of the UltraShift’s field support team. He’s the guy that Purolator calls when there’s a problem with the transmission.

Fortunately, support calls are rare -but when they do occur, his ability to promptly trace and correct any performance issues has been one of Purolator’s main reasons for choosing Eaton’s UltraShift. Viola recalled an incident a couple years ago where drivers were complaining about a shift point of the transmission. He placed a call to Roadranger support, who responded immediately.

“We called Eaton for support and they were here within a couple of days. They did a little training class, they found the issue was a software update and then they went back and updated all the vehicles,” Viola recalled. “We were back up and running and we didn’t notice a blip in our service. That’s what’s important to us, how fast you react. They’re mechanical trucks, they’re going to have issues. It’s how fast you react and how fast you correct it -that’s what we need.”

Sharpe’s responsibilities include training new drivers on the operation of the UltraShift. It’s a lot easier to operate than a manu- al transmission, but there are some fundamental differences that drivers need to understand.

Before pulling out of Purolator’s head office and hopping onto the ever-congested Hwy. 401, Sharpe provided me with an abbreviated version of the training session. The core of the UltraShift is Eaton’s standard gearbox, featuring a centrifugal clutch that engages as the engine’s RPM increases, providing a “natural engagement.”

Starting out is as simple as selecting ‘D’ for drive and then applying the throttle.

The UltraShift generally starts out in second gear and then works its way smoothly through each gear. Since I was driving a 10-speed version of the transmission, skip-shifting really wasn’t necessary. I wasn’t pulling a trailer, but I’ve pulled loaded trailers behind trucks equipped with previous generations of the UltraShift, and it’s as smooth and reliable with weight behind it as it is while bobtailing.

The precision and smoothness of each upshift is a thing of beauty, and could only be matched by the most seasoned driver
. I don’t pretend to

fall into this category, so I welcomed the assistance, especially when starting from a standstill at a red light and then soon after when merging onto the 401.

Where I really came to appreciate the UltraShift was when downshifting in city traffic along Derry Rd. When approaching a red light, I slowed the Eagle down and then when the light turned green, I simply stepped back on the gas; the UltraShift selected the ideal gear on the fly and allowed me to continue without scrambling to find the appropriate gear.

In addition to Drive mode, which I used almost exclusively on my test run, there were two other modes at my disposal: Manual and Lower (in addition to the obvious, Reverse and Neutral).

Manual mode is handy when you think you know better than the UltraShift. It allows a driver to override the UltraShift’s gear selection. You may want to select Manual mode if you’d rather start out in first gear rather than second or to hold a certain gear.

It’s a nice option to have, but I can’t think of too many times you’d really need to use it. I think it provides peace of mind for drivers who are not entirely comfortable with the idea of relinquishing the task of shifting. To some, shifting is an art form. To me, it’s a burden.

Lower mode is great for scrubbing off speed when approaching a red light or stop sign. This mode increases the downshift RPMs and ‘whoas’ the truck down in a hurry. It can also be handy when dropping a trailer or hooking up to one in the yard, especially in the snow or mud where traction is lacking.

Because the centrifugal clutch is dependent on engine RPM, the truck wants to roll back when on an incline. Most drivers perform a two-footed maneuver to avoid rolling back, holding the brake with the left foot and then applying the throttle with the right. It takes a little bit of getting used to, but it’s no more difficult than starting from a standstill using a manual transmission.

The UltraShift is also remarkably resistant to abuse, another reason why Purolator’s Viola likes it so much.

“It has a very low exposure in terms of any kind of damage,” Sharpe said.

The most likely damage-incurring scenario would be wrecking a clutch by holding it halfway open, causing it to overheat.

But it’s not a common problem and such incidents can be logged in the transmission’s ECM, identified by a technician and if necessary, driver behaviour can be corrected through further training.

Beyond that, the UltraShift’s electronics protect it from most other types of abuse, and failures are rare – especially with the third generation version that I was driving, Sharpe pointed out.

The beauty of the UltraShift is its versatility. Each model is configured specifically for the make of engine it will be paired with.

All told, there are more than 40 different configurations available, and the transmission works equally well with whichever engine it’s matched with, Sharpe said.

There are three linehaul models of the UltraShift available: the 13-speed LEP, rated at 80,000 lbs and configured for maximum fuel mileage; the 13-speed LHP, which can handle weights of up to 110,000 lbs; and the 10-speed LST, Purolator’s preference and the model that I drove.

There are also 18-speed, threepedal vocational offerings available for more rigorous applications. In Canada, most fleets opt for the LHP or LST, Sharpe said.

“It’s application-specific,” he explained. “We have a lot of automotive (fleets) that run 80,000-110,000 lbs and the LHP seems to be the answer. We’re also selling a lot of the 10-speeds.”

Most Canadian customers appreciate the 1,650 lb.-ft. of torque offered by the LHP (a multitorque version capable of 1,750 lb.-ft. of torque is also available).

I would suspect that the UltraShift would also offer some benefits come resale time. Purolator’s Viola couldn’t confirm this – his company hangs onto its trucks for 10 years.

“Resale is not top of mind for us, but it would probably help a little bit. If you replace your vehicles every four to five years, it’d be a bigger issue,”Viola said.

While the value proposition behind the UltraShift generally centers around fuel and maintenance savings, the bottom line is that it makes driving a lot less stressful. Today’s drivers have a lot to worry about out there, and an increasing number of in-cab distractions to contend with.

Where the UltraShift really excels, is in its ability to simplify the task of driving, allowing the driver to keep two hands on the wheel and his eyes on the road.

A safer, happier and less stressful driving day? It’s hard to put a price on that.

Want more information on Purolator’s decision to make the UltraShift a standard spec’? Visit and watch the video in the multimedia section of the site.

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