Truck News Plays “Trick the Trannie”

by James Menzies

CALGARY, Alta. – “Go ahead, give it a try,” said ArvinMeritor’s Canadian region district manager, Jeff Habke. We were on a barren stretch of blacktop just outside the city limits and he was daring me to try to stall the 16-speed FreedomLine automated transmission-equipped Volvo VN 630 we were testing.

After ensuring there was no traffic on this desolate piece of road that served as our testing grounds, I performed a panic-stop application of the brakes at the posted speed limit of 60 km-h.

No clutch pedal – but surprisingly no stall either. As with virtually everything else on the FreedomLine, everything was taken care of for me instantaneously by the transmission itself.

Despite giving countless demos of the FreedomLine, Habke has yet to see anyone stall the truck. In fact, he’s yet to see anyone trick the trannie in any way. The FreedomLine is virtually foolproof, as I found out first-hand during my recent test drive on Calgary-area roads. Although I didn’t want to subject the truck and transmission to too much abuse, Habke says it’s impossible to shock-load the FreedomLine.

“If you are going to over-rev, it’s going to kick back into the proper gear,” says Habke. “It protects your whole drivetrain.”

Although running the transmission in automatic-mode is the best way to ensure you’re getting the best fuel mileage, there is a manual-override feature for those truckers who don’t feel they’re actually driving the truck if they’re not shifting. It’s a tempting little button located on the side of the shifter that puts you back in control of the transmission.

But while the transmission will let you call the shots by selecting the manual override option – don’t push your luck too far or it’ll put you in your place.

“This thing is going to do everything it can to put you in the torque band that gives you the best fuel mileage,” explains Habke.

If you stray too far from the optimum RPM operating range, the transmission will revert back to automatic-mode and select the most appropriate gear.

The ultimate goal of the FreedomLine is to allow the driver to focus on maneuvering the truck. Having to negotiate corners and intersections while keeping a close eye on the tachometer and continuously shifting at the optimum RPMs can wear a driver out, physically and mentally.

The FreedomLine allows you to keep both eyes on the road, which is one of its greatest attributes.

Habke estimates there are more than 500 FreedomLines in use in Western Canada. The biggest customers are H&R Transport out of Lethbridge, Alta. and Winnipeg’s Bison Transport. Both companies have seen fuel mileage improvements (even on EGR-equipped engines) and even the most old-school drivers have embraced it.

Another benefit I noticed of the FreedomLine is its quietness. You can barely hear it make a shift because it’s such a smooth and subtle action. Habke says the quietness can be attributed to the smaller helical (or angular) gearing.

I’ve been in the cab with some seasoned trucking veterans who’ve made shifting seem like an effortless and graceful dance. However, I’ve yet to see any human that can match the efficiency of the FreedomLine.

Although we were bobtailing, it was impressive to see the trannie routinely skip three or four gears at a time without missing a beat. Within seconds of applying the throttle following a red light we were in 16th gear and approaching highway speeds while truckers in adjacent lanes were laboriously working their way through the gears.

On our test run, it was hard to find a flaw with the FreedomLine, but there are two important considerations to keep in mind. Obviously the truck does want to roll backwards on an uphill grade if you don’t have the brake pedal depressed, so it’s important to always keep a foot on the brake when stationary. Using the throttle to keep the truck stationary on a grade can burn out the automatic clutch. However hill-starts are simple – it’s just a matter of sliding your foot from the brake to the throttle and off you go.

Also, there’s somewhat of a continuous power curve which may take some getting used to. As long as you’re pressing the accelerator, you’re going to be picking up speed.

Another nice feature of the FreedomLine is that it’s easy to back up. With no clutch pedal, all you need to do is feather the throttle when backing up to the dock.

Like all Volvo trucks, the VN I was driving had the shifter mounted on the side of the seat, leaving plenty of extra space up front. The FreedomLine can be spec’d on any make of truck, but it may be mounted differently. Freightliner, for instance, has paddle-type shifters mounted on the steering wheel.

Of the 500 FreedomLines in Western Canada, Habke says he hasn’t had to pull a single one out of the truck for replacement or warranty work. It’s a maintenance-free trannie that requires no clutch adjustments or lubrication of the clutch release. The FreedomLine is also available as a 12-speed. There are several FreedomLine demo units in Calgary. For more information, call Habke at 403-606-1853 or visit

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