An Automatic Decision

by James Menzies

CALGARY, Alta. – A typical driving day for many truckers requires up to 600 shifts, each requiring an approximately 60 lb. depression of the clutch pedal.

It’s little wonder that at the end of some days this can leave you feeling like you just competed in a 12-hour rugby match.

While some resist the new technology, wanting nothing to do with “sissy sticks,” fleets and owner/operators are beginning to take notice that there are real, tangible benefits to be reaped from spec’ing automated transmissions.

The two most obvious benefits are among the two top priorities at virtually all trucking companies – safety and efficiency.

Charlie Allen, director of sales and engineering with ZF Meritor, says automated transmissions are proven to significantly reduce driver fatigue.

“Anytime there’s a lot of shifting involved, an automated transmission will really shine,” says Allen.

“You’re taking the driver from being the powertrain manager and letting him be the vehicle manager.”

This allows drivers to focus on safely maneuvering the truck rather than worrying about shifting at the optimum RPMs.

It also enables the driver to remain more alert throughout the course of his driving day.

“Because a driver is trying to focus on piloting a vehicle, maybe he isn’t shifting at the most optimum times and that’s where the electronics in an automated transmission can benefit you because they don’t get tired and they’re always ready to make an optimal shift,” says Allen.

Peter Messeroll, Canada national accounts executive with Eaton, says safety is definitely the primary reason for spec’ing an automated transmission.

“It promotes safety because drivers can concentrate on maneuvering down the road instead of figuring out what gear they’re in,” says Messeroll.

Since the electronics in an automated transmission routinely shift at the optimum RPMs, that translates into better fuel economy, says ZF Meritor’s Allen.

He claims the company’s FreedomLine transmission delivers at least three per cent better fuel mileage than traditional manual transmissions thanks to its precise shifting abilities and its reduced weight.

Some fleets have reported gaining up to 10 per cent better fuel economy, thanks to the FreedomLine.

However Eaton, which produces the AutoShift (three-pedal) and the newly released UltraShift (two-pedal) automated transmissions is wary of promising better fuel economy.

“One of our fellows often points out that he’s yet to find a fuel inlet cap on a transmission,” says Messeroll.

“Transmissions don’t burn fuel, they just manipulate engines.”

He says fleets shouldn’t expect to see dramatically improved fuel mileage, especially if the fleet already has fuel conscious drivers behind the wheel.

It may deliver moderate fuel savings in some circumstances, but Messeroll says if so, that’s a bonus.

Despite the advantages of automated transmissions, Allen admits there’s still some resistance within the industry.

“There is some resistance until they go out and give it a chance,” says Allen.

“I think there’s some resistance because it’s different and I think that drivers feel that they won’t be in control.”

The FreedomLine, as well as Eaton’s AutoShift and UltraShift, can be switched into manual mode so drivers can override the automatic shifting.

This is particularly useful when descending large hills.

“The driver can see the crest of the hill, but the transmission can only see as far as the bumper,” Allen says.

“Going up grades, I think the FreedomLine does a great job. The only time the driver may want to override it is maybe going down a grade when he wants to utilize the engine brake and control his speed.”

Even then, however, Allen says automated transmissions have an incredible amount of smarts and are generally able to select the proper gear regardless of the situation.

Messeroll says Eaton’s transmissions excel on hills, but a driver may want to override the automatic shifting in slippery conditions to prevent it from grabbing a gear when the driver prefers to stay in his current gear.

Despite the lingering doubts of many truckers regarding automated transmissions, ZF Meritor says 25 per cent of its output is now automated trannies, so they are gaining acceptance.

Brian Schilling, a Calgary-based territory manager with Roadranger Marketing, says the vocational markets in Western Canada have embraced the concept as well as some major linehaul carriers right across Canada.

Those who’ve tried it rarely go back, he says.

“Drivers have to change their thinking habits. They have to realize that the best way to handle it is to let the two computers talk to one another and do what they believe is right,” says Schilling.

“It is a mindset change.”

Mitch Murray, manager of North America marketing with Allison Transmission, says automated transmissions are great, but fully automatic transmissions such as Allison’s HD series go even further towards increasing efficiency.

“Our big claim to fame is we’re more productive,” says Murray.

While automated transmissions utilize electronics to take care of shifting, they are essentially the same in make-up as traditional mechanical transmissions.

They’re just less work to drive. Fully automatic transmissions such as Allison’s on the other hand, feature torque converters and operate more like the transmission you’d find in an automatic passenger vehicle.

Shifts are done seamlessly and fully automatic transmissions offer a true continuous power curve.

Murray ways Allison’s automatics go from 0-40 m.p.h. in one-third to one-half the time it takes automated or mechanical transmission-equipped trucks to do so.

That makes it ideally suited for stop-and-go applications such as city driving.

“If you can deliver 10 per cent more goods in a day, you become more efficient,” says Murray.

But as with automated transmissions, Allison’s automatics are also being touted as a safety enhancement.

They help reduce bad driving habits, such as creeping through an intersection in anticipation of the light turning green just to avoid having to pop the clutch.

Each of the manufacturers of automated and fully-automatic transmissions have their own claims when it comes to return on investment.

Allen says the payback time on a FreedomLine is fairly short when you consider up to US$1,200 in fuel savings per year (based on fuel economy gains of three per cent).

On the other hand, Eaton’s Messeroll refuses to promise customers any financial return on investment.

But there are other reasons for spec’ing an automated or automatic transmission, he says.

“Is it going to give the fleet or the driver any return on investment, financially? I would say ‘No.’ But you can’t put a price tag on driver safety,” Messeroll adds. “The drivers can focus on what’s over the steering wheel rather than what gear they’re in.”

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