The day of the gearjammer shifting all the workday long is history at over-the-road fleets opting for fully automatic or automated mechanical transmissions. Fleet managers who've literally tossed the clutch pedal right out the driver's window report there's no turning back.

“Drivers don't know what to do with their left foot,” is the only negative operations manager Brad Meyer sees from the Fundis Company's migration to the automated Eaton Fuller UltraShift 10-speed.

The Sparks, NV-based Fundis fleet of 60 400-hp. Peterbilt 357s routinely gross 80,000 lb. hauling oceangoing containers over California's Sierra Nevada mountains between the Ports of Oakland and San Francisco and its home base in northern Nevada.

HIGH AND LOW

Every 400-mile plus round trip a Fundis truck makes means climbing through the famous and still formidable Donner Pass as well as spending plenty of time inching along the Golden State's famously congested coastal freeways and byways.

No recent convert to shiftlessness, Fundis has been running Eaton automated transmissions for about as long as they've been available. In 1999, the fleet started spec'ing the first-generation AutoShift, which as a “three pedal” design required the driver to actuate the clutch to start and stop. Fundis since moved onto the next generation AutoShift and now to the “two pedal” UltraShift which requires no clutch actuation whatsoever.

“We switched to automated for two reasons,” says Meyer, “safety and driver retention and recruiting. These transmissions boost safety by letting the driver concentrate on the road. That can't help but help lower our insurance costs. And this spec gives drivers something to enjoy about driving. On top of that, it helps us recruit drivers who may be good behind the wheel but not expert at the kind of shifting our routes require.”

Meyer points out the UltraShift offers something even to the unreconstructed gearjammer, as it can be run in full automatic mode or with manual intervention, depending on operating conditions and driver preference. “They might use that feature coming off a hill to help control speed,” he notes

“When we first started,” Meyer continues, “some drivers resisted the idea but once they drove with the automated transmissions, they were sold.”

As for how the shift has paid off for Fundis, Meyer says it's hard to put hard-and-fast numbers on it but he does report their insurance carrier has “complimented us on having a driver turnover rate that is well below the industry standard.”

Meyer points out that the automated transmissions have helped the fleet attract experienced truckers out of the Midwest who lack experience with mountain and urban driving alike. “The UltraShift enables them to run very smoothly over the mountains; there are no severe drop-offs; it just shifts beautifully. And when they are in traffic, they can concentrate on driving, not shifting.”

Fundis has not yet traded out any trucks equipped with AutoShifts or UltraShifts so Meyer can't speak to their impact on resale value. With a mix of older and newer tractors he also can't put an accurate figure on any fuel economy impact but notes that is “not our biggest issue right now.” He does happily report that Fundis has so far racked up to 700,000 miles on automated units with no major maintenance or service problems.

NO CLUTCHING

Carl Tapp, vp of maintenance for P.A.M. Transportation Services, estimates about 75% of the Tontitown, AR-based truckload operation's tractors are outfitted with two brands of automated mechanical transmissions. And the plan is to make the fleet 100% automated as more trucks are traded out. The fleet currently runs a mix of Freightliner, Volvo and International tractors powered by Detroit Series 60 or Cummins ISX 450-hp. engines.

“We started down this road some years back with the semi-automated Eaton Super 10 Top 2, which shifted between 9th and 10th to get the driver into top gear as fast as possible,” Tapp relates.

“Later we went standard on the Eaton AutoShift, which required using the clutch just to start and stop,” he continues. “More recently, we started spec'ing ZF Meritor FreedomLine and Eaton UltraShift fully automated units, so now there's no clutching required.”

Tapp reports that P.A.M. considers the automated gearboxes fuel-savers as they “make the worst driver perform better.” But he says the big advantage they deliver is increased safety. “Not having to shift means the driver can concentrate on driving and that makes him less fatigued and safer on the road.”

He admits that veteran drivers have been resistant to the change. “They want to be in control. But after they drive one a little bit, we can not pull them out.

“We find that the automated units are especially helpful in recruiting younger drivers,” he continues, who may not have much stick-shift experience. “There's a bigger pool of people today who'd like to drive and not shift.

The automated transmissions require a Jake brake to slow the engine down for proper shifting so you get that benefit as well,” Tapp says. “That has helped cut brake wear. We're also seeing fewer twisted drivelines.”

The only downside he's seen is on the maintenance training side, particularly at dealers. “Many dealers are not yet familiar with these units and their electronics. Pride can be the real issue-it can keep them from calling the manufacturer for help,” Tapp advises.

REAL-WORLD PRICE

Another truckload user of automated transmissions is Murray, KY-based Paschall Truck Lines. The fleet's 800 or so company-owned trucks started on the automated route with the Eaton AutoShift.

Now, Paschall's mainly Cat-powered Freightliner Columbia and Navistar 9400 tractors are 100% automated, says vp of maintenance David Graham, with the latest trucks boasting the Eaton UltraShift.

“Driver satisfaction in the cab at a real-world price is what we're after,” is how Graham explains what got Paschall to go shiftless.

“The new hires coming into trucking do not have the shifting skills of those who've been driving for 15 years or more,” he says. “We felt automating the transmission would raise the bar of the average driver entering the business at very little training cost for us.”

Graham says automating shifting has clearly reduced driver fatigue and improved safety especially in heavy traffic. “It eases up on the driver; they are less fatigued from not engaging the clutch.”

Paschall served as a test fleet for the UltraShift and now has 15 of the two-pedal units in service. “We felt the UltraShift would feature the very latest technology so wanted to try them out. We've found they are simpler and easier to drive than three-pedal units and they have improved electrical performance. They also take the stress out of the driveline since clutches are not being popped.

“We've had zero problems with the UltraShift,” he continues. “We think that says a lot when you take into account it was still in the testing stage when we got our first units.”

As for the gearjammin' veterans, Graham says some showed “hesitation” when first confronted by an automated unit but “once they try it, they like it. All of a sudden, they do not have to shift. The reality is they do not miss depressing a clutch 500 times day and like ending up less tired.”

Graham says going automated has had a “positive impact” on fuel economy. “Back when we tested the original AutoShift product against our manuals, we saw a gain.

The resale value of the transmissions is not an issue as Paschall has had its trucks on guaranteed buyback programs. “One nameplate says there will be no impact,” he advises, “but the other says this spec will have a positive impact.

“We looked at driver recruitment, driver safety, maintenance savings and fuel economy all as positive considerations for spec'ing these transmissions,” Graham sums up. “We pay an upcharge but feel we will recoup that investment over time.”

AUTOMATIC DECISION

For Mike Moran, Jr., vp of Moran Transportation Corp., the only way to be shiftless is with an Allison automatic transmission.

He describes Moran as a “sub-regional” next-day LTL carrier serving much of the Midwest Elk Grove Village base outside Chicago. Its all-day cab fleet, split 60/40 between Class 8 tractors and straight trucks, totals 125 power units.

Five to seven years ago, according to Moran, the fleet began looking into Allison automatics. “We started by spec'ing them on our single-axle 36,000-lb. straight trucks. Now we have them on everything.”

Moran says they were drawn to spec'ing Allison automatics because “at the time they were one of the only options for full automation and we knew they had a dummy-proof, even a bullet-proof reputation.”

He says some veteran drivers “put up a beef at first, then two days into it they're loving the automatic. Of course, safety is the top reason we switched. Our drivers have enough other things to do without worrying about shifting. We feel the Allisons reduce driver fatigue and wear and tear on equipment, which both come from stop-and-go driving.

“Having the automatics has absolutely widened the pool of driver applicants we can draw from,” he continues. “And not having to teach shifting means we can focus our training on safe driving.”

While Moran says the initial decision to switch was driven by the desire to improve driver performance and recruitment, “as soon as we had six or so months of experience, we saw the maintenance savings were impressive, too.

“We find the automatics to be super reliable,” he states. “We've saved tons of money on maintenance in reduced brake and driveline wear. The lack of downtime due to transmission problems has been phenomenal.”

Moran also reports “not seeing a substantial drop in fuel economy” from going shiftless. With the fleet's trucks on a seven to eight year trade cycle, he has yet to see how the Allisons will impact vehicle resale value.

But that is not much of a concern given that Moran declares “payback is very quick-and tenfold. Going automatic is one of the single best innovations that's been made to our trucks in the last ten years,” he adds.

Clutch pedal… what's that?