No shifting needed

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What’s nice about this is that the shifting is smooth while drivers get to totally focus on the road – keeping the truck centered in the lane, watching the traffic flow. It’s much safer.” –Clint Bushong, engineering supervisor, Peterbilt Motors Company

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I rode shotgun in Peterbilt Motors Co. Model 387 highway tractor equipped with an Eaton Fuller 10-speed Ultrashift last week with Clint Bushong at the helm and came away yet again thinking automated transmissions are just going to be the way to go in the near future for most over-the-road operators out there.

Let me stress that I said “most” as Clint would be the first to tell you that automated transmissions like the Ultrashift are not for everyone.

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A 12-year veteran engineer with Peterbilt, Bushong drove for a living for a while back in his hometown of Los Angeles, making residential deliveries for a landscaping company in posh places like Beverly Hills – and in places like that, you needed to not only have a manual transmission, but be VERY skilled with it.

“One of the things an automated transmission still can’t quite do is help you ‘feather’ a trailer while backing up – simply because the clutch is fully engaged all the time,” he told me. “Aside from that, though, it’s pretty much a winner – especially for new drivers.”

As we zipped along I-35E, Clint merely had to nod his head at the roadway around us to show me why he thinks automated transmissions are the wave of the future. “Look at this traffic – not only do you need to maneuver the truck, know where the cars and other vehicles are around you, we’d also need to be simultaneously aware of where we are in the gears. That’s a lot for any driver to manage – but more so for a new one.”

[Clint discusses the other advantages of transmissions like the Ultrashift below.]

The new automated models today, he told me, are much, much better in terms of how they “synch” with the engine, not allowing the torque to fall off as much between shifts so drivers get smooth steady acceleration and deceleration. The engine brake is also integrated into the package so drivers don’t have that to fiddle with either – enabling them to stay totally focused on the road.

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It was no accident that the Model 387 we were in was headed to a fleet after our test runs – U.S. Xpress Enterprises, to be exact – a fleet that’s no stranger to automated transmissions. They’ve been focused for years on brining more automated models into their operation, to make it easier to both recruit and retain drivers.

Another thing, too – taking out the shift lever frees up a lot of room in the truck cab, making it much easier to move from driver to passenger seat (and vice versa) along with moving from the driver’s area to the sleeper. “Let me tell you, on our longer test runs, you can fit five guys comfortably in a truck cab equipped with an automated,” Clint mentioned to me. “It’s much more cramped when we’re using a truck equipped with a manual shifter.”

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