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Automated Vs. Manual

Just so you know, we take this kind of thing pretty seriously. But there's nothing in the book that says you can't have a little fun on the job. A while ago, we were invited by the folks at Eaton to run a little fuel economy test, putting a pair of UltraShift automated manual transmissions up against a 10-speed manual gearbox managed by a group of drivers who claim they can play a stick-shift like a fiddle.

Eaton was betting UltraShift could better the humans at fuel economy. So, Mike O'Neill of O'Neill Public Relations -- acting on Eaton's behalf -- went to work setting up a day of testing.

O'Neill worked with Derek Varley, fleet manager at Mackie Moving Systems in Oshawa, Ont. to put a 53-km course together that included a little highway driving, and a mixture of rural and stop-and-go city driving.

Mackie also supplied the manual-transmission-equipped truck, and the real professional driver, veteran John Chrapek. The other two drivers were Steve Sturgess, editor of the American trucking magazine, roadSTAR, and yours truly, editor of highwaySTAR, Today's Trucking's sister publication.

We fueled the trucks at the beginning of the test at a marked filling site -- so the trucks could be positioned the same way each time -- and he measured the fuel with a marked dipstick. We fueled using the same procedure at the end of each of three runs, so our results could be considered reasonably accurate. Everyone rotated driving the three vehicles over the same course.


I started out in Mackie's Peterbilt 378, with a 10-speed manual, Sturgess had the International 9400 with the UltraShift LEP heavy-duty transmission, 13-speed, while Chrapek took the wheel of the medium-duty International 4300. It had an UltraShift HV, 6-speed with no clutch pedal.

Great care was taken to ensure the tanks
were refilled to the same point each time.

Chrapek left first. He beat us around the first light and more or less disappeared. I followed, and Sturgess brought up the rear. I nearly lost Sturgess in the mirrors a few times. He was basically idling around the course -- a fact I protested with O'Neill. I accused Sturgess of milking it; he countered that he was merely keeping pace with the traffic. So be it.

The results of the first leg of the test were:

Park: 10-speed manual -- 5.5 mpg (Imperial gal); Sturgess: UltraShift LEP -- 4.4 mpg; Chrapek: UltraShift HV -- 11.4 mpg.

Well, you should have seen O'Neill's face. Remember, he was out promoting the fuel efficiency benefits of the UltraShift over a manual transmission. He measured to the millimeter. He checked and double-checked his notes and conversions and the fuel pump readings. As cold as it was that day, I had him sweating.


This time, Chrapek took the LEP, Sturgess had the manual, and I gave the HV the gears. Again, Chrapek made the first light and was gone. Knowing Sturgess, he probably shut the truck off while he was sitting there. I tried staying with him, but he was going so darned slow, he was driving me nuts. Eventually, I dropped the hammer and got up to speed with the rest of the traffic on Hwy. 401.

That little HV did a heck of a job for me. In a truck of that size, the standard gearbox is a 6-speed manual. They never feel as tight as the bigger twin-countershaft hi-lo range models you find in Class 8 trucks. This seemed to shift with pedal demand, shifting later in the rpm range as I got down hard on the throttle -- out of frustration. Conversely, if I was easy on the pedal, it shifted lower in the rpm range. A very pleasant driving experience, really.

With the Mackie Pete fading in the distance, my cell phone rang. It was Sturgess. "I think I've discovered your secret in beating me on round one," he says.

"I figured you'd catch on soon enough," I replied. "Don't tell Mike, yet."

Mike O'Neill, the PR guy who set up the fuel
economy test, wonders if something's gone wrong.

Steve roared with laughter. We had the guy over a barrel -- an editor's dream when dealing with those PR guys. Sturgess and I both have nothing but respect for him, but we were going to enjoy watching him squirm.

The results of the second leg of the test were:

Sturgess: 10-speed manual -- 5.7 mpg; Chrapek: UltraShift LEP -- 5.2 mpg; Park: UltraShift HV -- 10.2 mpg


This time I had the 9400 with the LEP, Sturgess was in the 4300, and Chrapek had the manual. Sturgess was still dogging it, Chrapek kept right up with me, and I was doing all I could to keep the revs down with the LEP.

I have to tell you, the LEP is one nice transmission. Automated is good, we know that, but the clutch mechanism in the UltraShift really is a gem. It engages just as smooth as a driver could do with a pedal. And it's clever, too. Not once did I manage to fool it with gear selection. The darned thing is smarter than I am, but that's not giving it a whole lot of credit.

When we pulled back into Mackie's Oshawa yard and began fueling, poor O'Neill was a wreck. He was expecting the worst, but even he wasn't prepared for the numbers Chrapek pulled on the 10-speed. We still don't know why, but he logged an impossible 15 mpg. Clearly, something went wrong.

The results of the third leg of the test were:

Chrapek: 10-speed manual -- 15 mpg; Park: UltraShift LEP -- 4.8 mpg;
Sturgess: UltraShift HV -- 10.9 mpg.


John Chrapek proved pretty conclusively what anyone could have predicted in advance. Best we leave the driving to the pros. He consistently bested Sturgess and me on each of the three trucks -- his 15 mpg score notwithstanding. He carted home the UltraShift Fuel Challenge trophy that day.

I managed to beat Sturgess only with the LEP -- an automated box, so what does that tell you? He beat me on the 10-speed manual and the HV. So, I was the goat that day. Sturgess retains the title as far as most fuel efficient editor is concerned.

And poor O'Neill. He was now sweating his longstanding relationship with the Eaton Corporation. He'd set this day up to show us editors that UltraShift is a superior transmission in everyway -- including fuel economy.

Ah, but wait. I think it was Derek Varley who took O'Neill aside and explained what had happened. It seems that he had given the yard guy the wrong trailer number. He'd hooked it up and parked it out front for us, and we drove it. Inadvertently, he hooked up to an empty trailer.

As comparisons go, the manual box had a 40,000-lb advantage over the LEP. Given that, and that the LEP (loaded to 70,000 lb gross) suffered only a slight fuel economy penalty against an empty trailer, I'd have to give it the benefit of the doubt. That's certainly an impressive performance.

Whether Mike O'Neill ever speaks to Steve Sturgess or me again, remains to be seen. But he did buy dinner than night.

A second UltraShift Fuel Efficiency Challenge has already been scheduled for 2007. It'll take place somewhere in southern California, where we editors will get a chance at redemption.

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