Once scorned by truckers, automatic transmissions have steadily gained popularity…
Professional truck drivers deal with plenty of occupational stress, from delivery deadlines to fuel costs to watching out for dangers on the road.
Automatic and automated transmissions won’t eliminate all of those concerns, but they do give the driver one less thing to worry about.
Once scorned by truckers, automatic transmissions have steadily gained popularity as technology improved and more and more drivers learned about the advantages that can be gained by giving up manual shifting.
“We have 70-plus expediter trucks on order, and every one of those trucks has an Allison automatic transmission,” said John Lalonde of Fyda Freightliner in Columbus, Ohio.
Lalonde continues, “Fifteen years ago, maybe an automatic transmission might have left you on the side of the road, but that’s not the case anymore. They’ve come a long way.”
Linda Caffee, a Missouri-based expediter who drives as part of a team with her husband, Bob, says she wouldn’t dream of trading the couple’s automated transmission for a manual version.
“When we bought our first truck, due to stress of driving in traffic, I wanted an automatic transmission,” said Caffee, who operates a 40-foot straight truck.
Caffee cited several advantages to operating an automatic or automated transmission.
“One of the great pluses is when you’re stuck in a traffic jam,” she said. “You don’t have to constantly hold the clutch in, so it’s not so hard on your left leg.”
Maybe the biggest beneficiaries of the trend toward automatic transmissions are new drivers.
“When it comes to a beginning driver, you don’t have to worry about shifting gears so you can pay more attention to actually driving the truck,” Caffee said.
Lalonde said the automatic transmissions are especially popular with husband-and-wife teams, where one driver might not be as experienced as the other.
“What it really does is it takes the driver factor out of it,” he said. “The driver can watch the road and keep their mind on driving rather than worrying about keeping the truck in the right gear.”
In an industry that it struggles to recruit and retain drivers, automatic transmissions also can be helpful in attracting prospects who otherwise might not feel comfortable behind the wheel of a truck.
Lalonde also says the automatic transmissions are more fuel-efficient, because the transmission’s computer works in sync with the engine’s computer and shifts based on engine revolutions to maximize fuel economy.
Caffee’s truck currently uses an Eaton Ultra Shift automated transmission. Caffee described it as a 10-speed transmission that is controlled by a computer. There is no clutch, and no need to shift gears. The most notable exception between an automatic and an automated transmission, according to Caffee, is that an automated transmission will essentially shift itself into neutral if the vehicle comes to a stop, so that it will roll backward on an incline.
Caffee also pointed out that the automated transmission requires higher RPMs in reverse, meaning the driver has to back up at a higher speed than with a manual or fully automatic transmission. But she said Eaton’s newer automated transmission, the Ultra Shift Plus, has addressed that issue.
According to Eaton, the Ultra Shift Plus also has a “Hill Aid Start” function that prevents rollbacks.
Lalonde said he occasionally encounters a customer who is adamantly opposed to an automatic transmission.
“I think there’s a fear of the unknown with people who’ve never driven one.” Lalonde said. “My first question is always: Have you ever driven one? And once they drive it, they don’t want to drive anything else.”