They took my stick and I don’t miss it
Back in February, I jumped into a 2015 Freightliner Cascadia Evolution. The catch was that it came equipped with a Detroit DT12 automated transmission. I talked to a few folks I knew who had made the change to an automatic – drivers that I thought would never make the change from a stick – and received a lot of positive feedback.
Turns out, I found it to be a pretty slick combination myself. I had tested an automatic for a three-month period several years ago and couldn’t wait to get back into my old truck at the time. Automatic transmissions have come a long way in a short period of time. I’m already averaging a full mile per gallon in fuel savings over my previous Cascadia equipped with a 13-speed standard transmission, and since my company pays a fuel bonus, what’s not to like? A couple of things have come up, but so far the good outweighs the bad by a long shot.
The DT12 has an economy setting which is the fully automatic mode and a manual setting, allowing the driver full control over gear selection. Once the cruise speed is set in the economy mode the DT12 pretty much drives itself. On a downgrade it will grab lower gears and engage the engine brake to hold your cruise speed. For steep mountain grades and/or poor weather conditions, simply flick it over to manual mode and you have full control of gear selection and engine brake applications.
The transmission shifter and engine brake are combined in a paddle lever mounted to the steering column under your right hand, so if you’re cruising along and have a need to avoid that deer or moose spooked out of the bush, just flick your fingers downward to manually engage your engine brake as you brake and steer. With disc brakes on all axles there is plenty of smooth stopping power. Rollover stability provided by Meritor gives some additional peace of mind. Like I said, it pretty much drives itself.
Because I do a fair amount of LTL work, I had some concerns about how it would handle the city driving and how responsive it would be working in tight quarters. I had no need to worry. The DT12 shifts smoothly under a variety of loads and will “creep” slowly if just left in gear as you reverse into a dock. Nice. So far so good, but what about snow and ice?
At this point I have not completely overcome my bias for a standard transmission in poor weather conditions. Maybe it’s not so much a bias as a comfort level I have developed with a stick. I still feel somewhat disconnected from the road surface sitting on top of an automatic. Maybe that will change in time. That being said, I’ve had the opportunity (or bad luck) to have run in a variety of snow conditions as the never-ending winter of 2014 dragged on. The DT12 gets a passing grade from me on snow and ice but I have plenty of experience to fall back on. What I have been wondering is how a new driver would handle winter conditions in one of these trucks.
Because trucks equipped with automatic transmissions are so easy to drive and provide improved fuel economy, they are very attractive to large fleets. With the driver shortage there’s no doubt fleets are using the attraction of an automatic to lure new drivers behind the wheel. But what about driver training? These trucks may require far less input from the driver by removing the burden of shifting gears, but what are the disadvantages of not having that experience in your toolbox as a professional driver?
My concern for new drivers in these trucks is their first experience in poor winter weather conditions. In a truck with a standard transmission, you can feel a truck breaking traction. It’s difficult to describe but you develop a sensitivity to the road surface when you have driven a stick for a number of years. You carry that experience forward when you climb into a truck with an automatic transmission, but I don’t believe you can develop that feel by driving an automatic. I’m not sure if that statement will make any sense at all to someone that has no experience driving a big truck but I’m sure any truck driver reading this will get it.
The DT12 will downshift on its own and apply engine brakes as needed. What if that occurs with a light load on a slick road? Has the new driver received the much-needed mentoring to recognize the line between driving for economy and driving for safety? Perhaps my concern in this regard is misplaced. I hope it is.
The bottom line is that I’m willing to give this truck a couple of years to grow on me. I’ve probably shifted gears millions of times over the course of my career. At this point I’m not missing it.
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I have been driving the DT12, since Sept 2013 now. And find Freightliner still has BUGS in the tranny and the truck, and they need to be fixed! I wish frieghtliner would talk or send a question to me then i can give a BETTER full report.
Great read. Just one question, if the company you work for shuts off the manual mode and only allows the AutoEcono mode to work, would you feel confident that the smart truck will drive safely down a mountain in snow and icy conditions?