Representing a new generation of fully automated transmissions, UltraShift Plus transmissions feature automated clutch technology and intelligent shift selection software that employs grade sensing, weight computation, and driver throttle commands to make intelligent shift decisions for safe and efficient vehicle performance. Photo: Eaton Corp.

The automated clutch and new programming help answer one advantage that fully automatic transmissions have had: the constant application of torque during acceleration or hill climbing. As great as the features seem on paper, these transmissions have to be driven to be fully appreciated.

There is no way to describe the feeling of confidence and safety when using the UltraShift Plus' Hill Start Aid feature that prevents rollbacks on grades. When test-driving, I started from a full stop on an 8% grade with no noticeable rollback in a dump loaded to 80,000 pounds. When I tried the same thing in a similarly spec'd and loaded truck with an automatic transmission, I experienced considerable rollback and almost bumped a vehicle behind me.

It also amazed me to creep the dump ahead and in reverse at 1/2 mph.

I also took a 160,000-pound Michigan trailer (8 axles plus the tractor) up a 15% grade. The VXP transmission went from 16th to second gear in just three steps with never a shudder or shake, and we kept moving all the way to the top.

The entire family of UltraShift Plus transmissions represent a new generation of automation. More important, they offer safety, control, and economy not possible just a few years ago.

— Paul Abelson is a former director of the Technology and Maintenance Council of the American Trucking Association, a board member of Truck Writers of North America, and active in the Society of Automotive Engineers.

Getting out of neutral

Big rigs depend on the engine to help keep control. Diesel engines' higher compression ratios help retard the truck, and compression brakes — also called Jake Brakes — help on steeper grades. But they cannot work if the truck is in neutral.

Experienced truckers know when they can complete a shift and when they might get in trouble. But no one starts out as an experienced driver. We all make mistakes, and if we survive, we learn from them.

When stuck in neutral, pull onto the shoulder, stop the truck, and start all over — even if it means creeping up or down a hill in first or second gear. Of course, that assumes you can stop: that your brakes can handle the truck's weight or the steepness of the grade.