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Saturday, January 19, 2013

I Drive the Smart Shift Automatic Automated Transmission
I've driven tractor trailer combinations for about 32 years now and have never driven a tractor with an automatic transmission in it, until a couple weeks ago:

Having been scheduled to take a load from Salt Lake City to Grand Junction and back the following day, the tractor I was supposed to use broke down. My manager made arrangements  for our Ryder shop to leave me keys and paperwork for a rental tractor to use. I got to the shop about 5 AM, filled out the paperwork and went out to find the tractor. It was a “day cab” with a California license plate on it, so I knew it wasn't from the local rental fleet. Getting ready to pre-trip the unit, I opened the door, entered the cab and looked at an empty space between the seats where there was supposed to be a shift lever! Sticking out from the right side of the steering wheel, where the trailer brake valve normally is, was an odd looking lever with a big paddle on it. I looked more closely at it and read the words Smart Shift on it. Oh great! I’m leaving on a 580 mile trip, already a long day, and I have to figure out how this transmission works? And by the way, it was snowing moderately heavy and I wanted to get going to see if I could get out ahead of the storm! I also had to go over Soldier summit, a 7,000 foot pass on US HWY 6 on the way to Grand Junction.
First order of business was to bobtail a couple of miles to the Coke yard, get my trailer, then go to the office and pick up a set of chains.
So I found “D” on the shift lever and decided I would figure out the transmission later. As I bob-tailed out on the street in the snow, there came a rude awakening. The highest gear the tractor would start out in was second gear and it was a ten speed transmission. Treading lightly on the throttle, the drive tires would break loose on every shift and it was a handful to control it. On top of that, it was a California truck with highway tires, not good for traction on snow or ice! I was wondering how I was going to get that thing over Soldier Summit if it was still snowing in the canyon! I quickly flipped the switch over to manual mode, where at least I had control of when it shifted.
My impression after completing the trip was that this particular transmission left a lot to be desired. You can flip a switch and shift it manually by pulling the paddle up for up-shifts and pressing down for downshifts. But, no matter whether you are in manual mode or automatic, it always starts out in second gear. In automatic, it will shift through all nine gears and never skip shift. All that does is waste fuel if you are lightly loaded, empty or bob-tailing. You never need second gear to start out bob-tailing or empty. How many years have we been taught that if you can start the truck rolling by letting out the clutch with no throttle, that’s the gear you should use to start? When bob-tailing, I will generally start out in third or fourth gear, third gear if pulling an empty or light trailer. Also, when empty or light, I often skip gears on the up-shift side as long as I’m not lugging the engine. Running through every gear when you don’t need to just wastes time and fuel.
I also quickly discovered that on slippery roads, you do not want to let that thing shift itself! You really have no way to know precisely when the transmission will shift, if you are using the throttle on an upgrade for instance, the tranny will suddenly downshift on you, apply full power and break the drive tires loose without warning. This can get you in trouble before you realize it. I started up the canyon with it snowing heavily and the road snow packed. I engaged the power divider, put the tranny in manual mode and started up the canyon. At least I then had control of gear selection and felt much more comfortable driving the truck. It snowed all the way up to the top of the summit and finally quit after I got down the other side. After that I put it in automatic after getting on dry and level pavement.
The fact that you have to start in second gear (you can select first gear, if needed) and shifting through every gear in auto are my two big gripes about this transmission. While bob-tailing back to the shop at the end of the day, I discovered that you can skip shift while in manual mode by pressing up or down on the paddle two times quickly. It will skip one gear, but you still have to start in second from a stop. I also got tired of my left foot trying to find a nonexistent clutch pedal every time I came to a stop!
My conclusion, you can keep these automatics, I don’t think the extra cost is worth it. A “professional” driver can drive more efficiently with a good old 10 or 13 speed!

Update 5/25/2015: In June of 2013 I drove a tractor equipped with the Detroit DT12 Automated Manual tranny. Click this LINK to read it.


  1. This is very helpful, Dan. Driving a car an automatic transmission car for the first time can really be a challenge to the driver. This post can give others an idea on what to do when they encounter the same things. Anyway, it's good that you got the hang of it. Some are not as fortunate as you that they end up calling to have their car towed.

    Jae Gunderson @

  2. I'm 21, and I learned to operator tractor trailers when I was 14, because my father owns an O/O company. All I ever knew was older models, 1985-2002s, and I think you're being dumb. I found a CDL School that allowed me to just take the test for way cheaper rather than doing the unnecessary learning bullshit. They gave me
    2 attempts to do everything, and I passed it in one shot, easily. The weird thing is, that they had automatic trucks, and I had never in my life used one until that day. I have to say, it was fairly easy to use. To be very honest with you from perspective, I've been all over the country with my father as a kid, teen, and to this day, oh hell I even work for his owner op company now.... but as I'm saying, I think in my opinion, a truck is a truck and I don't care if it's a 9, a 10, a super 10, 13, or even an 18 speed, i will drive it if assigned to me. Before you say anything about my age or whatever it is you feel, I've operated most of today's Manuel transmissions, over the course of these years, and I feel as long as they stay within a safe measure, I could care less what I'm driving. At the end of the day, I'm more worried that I'm going to have to fix the darn thing or even change some tires for no pay, just for the fact that I respect my father enough too. Stop complaining and keep learning on HOW to keep safe, because just because you aren't used to it, doesn't mean it shouldn't be on the road. I've met so many people, and it really astounds me that so many are hating auto transmissions. I understand for the maintainence, but really for safety? It's fine, just master it. If you prefer the manual, then go ahead, but not everyone is like you. I could care less what kind of transmission it is, as I learn to use it, and can operate safely and properly, I'm fine. I've only ever used them a handful of times, but honestly who cares. Got my CDL when I was 18, and I could give 2 craps

    1. I'm being "dumb"? I wrote an article that expressed my opinion of the Smart Shift Automatic. Everyone can have their own opinion, I don't have any problem with that. If you click on the attached link to another post I did a couple years later on the DT12 Automated Manual, my opinion changed after experiencing the much better control and ease of use.

      Comments are welcome, but I don't know why you feel the need to insult, Thanks.