Going Clutchless

Perhaps the only way to convince some veteran fleet drivers to give an automatic or an automated transmission a fling is to assign them to drive one. The road-weary and the hard-headed will summarily dismiss automatics for any number of logical-sounding reasons.

Rick Drivstuen, a retired driver for Lynden Transport who ran the Alcan Highway for years, had little faith in automatics to handle the inevitable snow and ice of his 4,000-mile ride to Skagway and back. But one day he found himself in a new truck with a turtle rather than a gearshift, and quickly discovered that his fears were unfounded. Rick may be road-weary but he is not unwilling to change his mind.

The test drive I took in Peterbilt’s top-of-the-line 387 – from Dallas to Tuscaloosa, Ala., and back, a distance of 1,200 miles – convinced this entirely prejudiced old fleet driver that many who hold their 10-, 13- and 18-speeds close to the heart might, like Drivstuen, actually change their minds, given the opportunity to spend a few thousand miles with a turtle in their strong right hand. Peterbilt is offering the ZF Meritor automated 12- or 16-speed in the 387.

This particular test drive presented the opportunity to test the FreedomLine transmission both in highway use and in the punishing world of commercial driver’s license training. My class of five editors from Randall Publishing’s Trucking Media Group trained for somewhere near 600 miles, at least 300 of which was driven on a skills course. There is no better test of a transmission’s durability than to give it to a bunch of trainees, even if the transmission is automated. While there is no clutch to ruin, this transmission does require a few hours’ training to use efficiently. The Trucking Media Group, my students and myself are grateful for the use of the big yellow Pete.

The automated transmission makes things easier in tight spots because you don’t have to worry about getting on the clutch.

Watching and listening to the Pete circle around the parking lot at Shelton Tractor Trailer School in Tuscaloosa, it was impossible to tell my students were anything but pros. The sound of the ZF moving through the gears is very different from the sound of an automatic. Mike French, service engineer for ZF Meritor, explains that automated transmissions do not use continuous-torque helical gears. Gears are shifted electronically to provide optimal fuel mileage given existing conditions. Even quickly losing speed on an uphill does not faze the computer. The ZF will find the right gear and apply it as needed. A driver always has the option of shifting manually in situations he feels require his meager human input. Shifting means pushing the turtle forward to shift up and pulling it back to downshift. Once a driver has lifted his left leg looking for the nonexistent clutch a few times, he will become accustomed to the ease of using only one appendage to change gears. Gear selection shows up as a digital readout on the dash, and drivers no longer have corky left legs. It can grow on you.

I noticed a lag between the time gear selection is done and when the transmission actually catches, which at first seemed long. But it takes no longer than depressing the clutch, making sure your button is where it’s supposed to be, and shoving the thing into gear. The difference is that you are waiting rather than doing anything to make the change occur. My students and I did a lot of backing and found that the creeper reverse gear was smooth and slow enough to back easily. Not worrying about that clutch made it much easier for the trainees and makes it easier for the experienced in tight places where getting on the clutch to keep from stalling in tight spaces can cause apoplexy, especially when the truck is rocking in a jackknife.

In short, I did not find any situations that caused me to feel I had lost control or compromised safety. In fact, my overall impression is that this transmission improves control and thus improves safety. It certainly will improve fuel mileage when coupled with the proper engine and drivetrain. My guess is that these components are important to fully appreciate the ZF. A high-torque engine might keep the ZF from shifting as smoothly as possible at slow speeds in the lower gears. On the other hand, a driver will find that correctly controlling fuel application negates the possibility of pitch. There is, as noted, a learning curve involved in using the ZF efficiently, just as there is a learning curve to using a standard. And unlike a standard, the ZF does not allow for a loss of acceleration or power when it shifts, as might happen double-clutching down out of 10 high, let’s say, into seventh or eighth on an uphill.

While the ZF automated transmission might perform better than a dyed-in-the-wool gear-jammer expects, some guys will still want their sticks and buttons. I suspect, however, that many drivers will be won over by this improvement. It sure made the job of teaching trainees a whole lot easier. In fact, learning everything but shifting in an automated like the ZF, then learning to shift a standard, is probably a very efficient way to learn. Gear-jammers could do themselves a favor by learning how some of the newfangled technologies coming down the pike can make life easier, safer and more productive.

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