WINNIPEG, Man. - Automated mechanical transmissions (AMTs) have had some trouble gaining traction in the North American trucking industry for a couple of reasons. For one, many professional drivers fi...
IMPRESSED: James Menzies (left) and pro driver Dave Medwid prepare to part ways after putting the UltraShift Plus MXP to the test under heavy load.
WINNIPEG, Man. –Automated mechanical transmissions (AMTs) have had some trouble gaining traction in the North American trucking industry for a couple of reasons. For one, many professional drivers find shifting to be just plain ol’ enjoyable. And secondly, AMTs have had their limitations in the past, whether it be low-speed operability or weight restrictions that were too prohibitive for some applications. There’s not much that can be done about that first issue, but in introducing its new UltraShift Plus, Eaton has effectively eliminated the latter concern.
Previous versions of the Eaton UltraShift were functional, if not spectacular. They certainly helped improve driver attentiveness while also bringing the fuel economy of poor or mediocre drivers in line with upper tier drivers.
But they did have their shortcomings. Drivers often complained the old UltraShift was finicky at low speeds, making coupling more challenging than it should be. Some even said they were embarrassed to use it because shippers would think they were lousy drivers when they backed into loading docks too abrasively. However, the new UltraShift Plus transmissions effectively address those issues and others, moving into the realm of the spectacular.
Perhaps the most significant improvements are the addition of an electronic clutch actuator (ECA) and two-plate ceramic clutch, which allow for higher torque ratings and smoother shifting. The centrifugal clutch used in the previous versions of the UltraShift was the source of many of its flaws.
“With the centrifugal clutches, we sometimes would get drivers who didn’t like the engagement characteristics, it was a bit tough to do low-speed maneuvering,” admitted Ken Moodie, territory sales and service manager with Roadranger in Manitoba and Northern Ontario. “With the electrically-actuated clutch, now we can open and close the clutch and feather it (into gear) more smoothly.”
Coupled with more sophisticated electronics that make more intelligent shifting decisions, the new UltraShift Plus is superior to its predecessor.
The other advantage of the ECA is that it opens the UltraShift Plus up to a whole new world of trucking, including heavy-haul applications that were previously deemed too severe for automated gearboxes. Eaton claims its new UltraShift Plus lineup includes a transmission to fit about 99% of all known trucking applications, and its heavier duty versions are not hindered by any weight limitations whatsoever.
Intrigued by that claim, I travelled to Winnipeg, Man. where Paul’s Hauling was one of the first fleets to get its hands on a test unit. Paul’s Hauling is a progressive fleet, and has long wanted to reap the benefits of automated mechanical transmissions, but alas there was simply none available that could handle its heavy loads with the exception of the three-pedal Eaton AutoShift, which still required the driver to work the clutch.
“Eighty-five per cent of our loads are over 100,000 lbs,” John Erik Albrechtsen told me, before bravely handing me the keys to the fleet’s pride and joy -a Mack CXU 613 with 485-hp MP8 engine, disc brakes all-around and of course the UltraShift Plus, MXP version.
MXP stands for Multipurpose Extreme Performance, one of six new transmissions that comprise the Plus line-up. The MXP has an overall ratio of 20:1, features 18 forward and four reverse speeds and can haul pretty much any legal weight. Dave Medwid is the lucky driver who gets to call the truck his own. He pulls Super-Bs of fuel from a nearby Imperial Oil refinery to fuel stations around Manitoba and Northern Ontario.
Medwid is a seasoned driver who’s been with Paul’s Hauling for 17 years and like most drivers who have jammed gears for any length of time, he said getting use to the UltraShift Plus took a bit of an adjustment.
“It took me about two weeks to get used to it, but now I wouldn’t go back,” he said, as he maneuvered the double trailers through the yard. Medwid was accompanying me on the drive and would look after the finer details, like filling the tankers with 50,000 litres of dyed diesel fuel intended for farm use in the Portage La Prairie region.
The Mack I was driving was a test vehicle and as such the UltraShift Plus’s console was jury-rigged onto a conventional stick. Production models will have the console less conspicuously mounted onto the side of the seat or on the dash itself.
The flat roads around Winnipeg were not the ideal place to demonstrate the Hill Start Aid capabilities of the UltraShift Plus, so before we left the yard Moodie suggested we test the new feature on the incline leading up to Paul’s Hauling’s in-ground scale. We climbed halfway up the short, steep grade and then challenged the tractor to hold us stationary with no application of the throttle or brake pedals. Using the anti-lock braking system, the transmission obliged, holding us there until the throttle was re-applied.
“If you’re on a grade, it will give you a maximum of three seconds from the time the foot comes off the brake until it comes back on the foot feed,” Moodie explained. “As soon as we sense the throttle input, we start slowly releasing the brakes and it prevents rollback on the grades.”
Medwid finds this feature useful at a stoplight he frequently encounters on an uphill portion of the Kenora bypass. If you want to roll back for whatever reason, you can de-activate Hill Start Aid on a onetime basis using a switch on the dash or simply wait until the three-second interval elapses.
Another major improvement is the Creep feature, which allows for better control at low speeds -a feature I’m told is popular with cement company Lafarge and other customers that spend a lot of time in low gear. This feature allows for easier backing, curbing and coupling/ uncoupling and addresses perhaps the biggest beef drivers had with previous versions of the UltraShift.
Out on the road, starting from a complete standstill posed no problems and I was able to get up to speed quickly. The transmission felt third gear was an appropriate starting point and skip-shifted its way to 18th without impeding traffic flow; impressive, since even empty the truck and two trailers weighed about 44,000 lbs. I’m not too proud to admit that I’d still be clumsily working my way through the lower gears by the time we were already cruising at highway speeds. That alone is a fuel saver -getting to cruise speed quickly and then maximizing the time spent there. Moodie admitted previous versions of the UltraShift had limited skip-shifting capabilities, but the Plus jumped from third to seventh to tenth as smoothly as though it were hitting every gear along the way. Only the dash display revealed we were skipping gears two or three at a time.
After a short and uneventful drive to the Imperial Oil refinery in West St. Paul, Man., I turned the wheel back over to Medwid and climbed out of the truck, allowing him to continue into the secure area to load up. Forty minutes or so later, the truck re-emerged and it was once again time to climb behind the wheel, this time of a fully-loaded combination that grossed nearly 140,000 lbs with 92,292 lbs of payload.
This is where the UltraShift Plus would either shine or stumble. Rolling from a complete standstill, I felt the weight of the load and expected the transmission to lumber through the gears. But surprisingly it once again launched in third, and then skip-shifted effortlessly through the gears exactly as it had when empty: third to seventh to tenth…I asked Moodie if he was surprised by the UltraShift Plus’s skip-shifting capabilities while under such heavy load and he just smiled and shook his head. Noticeably absent while up-shifting was any side-to- side cab sway -an inevitability if I were shifting myself or probably even pulling heavy loads with the old UltraShift.
Moodie credited this to the way the throttle is precisely modulated – not “mashed,” a word some may use to describe my own shifting style.
On the high
way, we explored some of the UltraShift Plus’s other capabilities. One of Medwid’s favourites is its integration with the vehicle’s cruise control. I set it at 92 km/h and then on an open stretch of highway slowed the truck right down to about 60 km/h. When I took my foot off the brake I reactivated cruise control and the truck climbed smoothly and steadily to my previous speed. Medwid assured me it works just as smoothly when pulling a grade -the transmission downshifts as required and then resumes its cruise speed when it’s able without any driver intervention.
Before setting out, I was warned about the sensitivity of the disc brakes on the tractor and trailers. However, I must admit the performance benefits were lost on me as I barely needed to touch the brake pedal at all. The UltraShift Plus’ ‘Low’ gear did a wonderful job slowing the truck using the engine brake, which can only be a good thing for brake life and maintenance. When approaching an exit ramp, I flipped the UltraShift Plus into Low mode and let it rein in the 485 horses all on its own. Who needs brakes?
As we neared the Paul’s Hauling yard, it was time to pull over and relinquish the truck back to Medwid for the 70 or so kilometres remaining to Portage La Prairie. I was only half joking when I told him I’d rather continue on the drive.
My short experience with the UltraShift Plus MXP left me thoroughly impressed and I have to believe other versions from the Plus family are equally capable of serving their intended markets. I was a fan of past versions of the UltraShift as well, simply because they allowed me to keep my eyes on the road and my hands on the wheel rather than continuously watching the tach and searching for the next gear. It’s a more relaxed driving experience, and for a novice driver especially, the importance of that from a safety standpoint should not be underestimated.
Still, automated mechanical transmissions have been slow to catch on with a large segment of the professional driver population, who contend they can outperform an AMT and in many cases had trust issues – especially in bad weather and on steep grades. The newest version, however, should go a long way towards putting those concerns to rest.
Back at Paul’s Hauling headquarters, Albretchsen seemed giddy about the UltraShift Plus’s leap into the previously uncharted waters of 140,000 lbs. He said the transmission will reduce stress on drivers, allowing them to focus on their external environment. And he’s also confident it will produce better clutch engagements in the marginal traction conditions the fleet often encounters. Albrechtsen also has another reason for welcoming the newest generation UltraShift.
“The pool of drivers is getting to be smaller and smaller,” he said, noting thousands of drivers have fled the industry throughout the recession. “In this downturn, attention has gone away from driver retention. What has happened to those drivers who left? Have they found other careers? What percentage is coming back? It won’t be the old-timers, the experienced guys -it will be a mix. We need to have more people coming into this industry and we need to reduce the barriers of entry and allow them to get experience in a safe manner.”
The UltraShift Plus seems like the perfect tool for that, but it’s not just new drivers who will be impressed by its performance. The UltraShift Plus is so much better than previous versions that it has the potential to win over even the most cynical gearjammin’ veterans, if they’re willing give it a chance. •
The UltraShift Plus’ ‘Low’ gear did a wonderful job slowing the truck using the engine brake, which can only be a good thing for brake life and maintenance.