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ZF Meritor’s FreedomLine two-pedal automated manual transmission

It was a typical four-wheeler stunt. The compact pickup was about 100 yards behind me on the nearly empty divided highway. As the road started to curve to the right, signs warned that we’d soon be back to two lanes. The pickup had closed-up, and I held my speed at about 57 mph. Visibility was limited out my left side mirror, because of the right turn, which tightened as we neared the merge. Coming the other way, I could see a six-wheel city truck. The pickup couldn’t. The six-wheeler would meet me about 20 feet after the lanes came together. 

Sure enough, the little pickup didn’t want to get stuck behind the big, bad 18-wheeler I was driving. Not on a stretch of two-lane. He came out of my blind spot, foot to the floor, accelerating as quickly as his ancient, overloaded pickup could go … not very. It seemed there was no way he’d avoid a head-on with the six-wheeler. I stood on the brakes and got the 2000 Peterbilt off on the shoulder. The city truck did the same on his side, and the pick up squeaked through with inches to spare.

Now, I know how to drive, but I’m the first to admit I don’t have the skills or experience you do. It probably takes me a year to rack up the miles most of you do in a week. I do know that after scrubbing off most of my speed, concentrating on steering out of harm’s way, and trying to recover my composure, I would probably have stalled the engine in an ordinary truck. But I wasn’t driving an ordinary truck. My ride was the ZF Meritor demonstrator for the FreedomLine two-pedal (accelerator and brake) automated manual transmission. Although it is not the first automated on the market, this transmission won the coveted Technical Achievement of the Year Award from Truck Writers of North America for the 2000 model year. I’m on the committee, but I didn’t vote for it. That’s because I hadn’t yet driven it. Now that I have, I completely agree with the outcome. 

I’m a proponent of automation. I believe that electronics can make trucking better and safer. The situation I had with the pickup is a perfect example. Being relatively inexperienced, I was almost at a standstill when I remembered about my gears. With the FreedomLine, I didn’t have to shift. I didn’t even have to press in the clutch. This transmission has a clutch, but it’s computer controlled and air actuated. I just fed the truck fuel, and off we went, just as smooth as you please. No stalled engine. No missed shifts. No problems. 

“We” refers to ZF Meritor trainer driver Duane Warren of Lincoln Park, MI. Duane has a great background for his job. He recently drove Michigan doubles, grossing 164,000 pounds hauling gravel for Hayball Trucking in Livonia, MI. Before that, he was in charge of a motor pool at Fort Bragg, NC. During his last two years in service, he was attached to Special Forces, teaching defensive and evasive driving as part of anti-terrorist training. His students included VIPs, senior officers, their families and their drivers. Duane taught in a variety of vehicles, so he teaches the FreedomLine well. And make no mistake, there’s more of a learning curve than I imagined. I couldn’t just get into the truck and drive. There are procedures to be followed and tricks to be learned. 

The key has to be off for several seconds before the engine will start. I found that out when I screwed up on a hill (more about that later). With the parking brake set or your foot on the brake pedal, the transmission must be in “neutral” before you can start the engine. You should always have a foot on a pedal, but only on one pedal at a time. When you’re ready to go, release the parking brake, hold your foot on the brake pedal and push forward on the paddle shifter. Give it a second or two for the transmission to engage. The dashboard gear position indicator will show an up/down arrow and “4,” the default starting gear for the 16-speed. When you move the paddle, the computer signals the air-actuated clutch to disengage. Step on the throttle pedal, and the clutch will engage as smoothly as possible, each and every time. If you need to start in a lower gear, you can either push the “function” button (at the driver’s thumb) and pull back the paddle, or just let the computer figure it out. The FreedomLine transmission will always find the perfect gear for the grade, the load and the power demand. 

To back up, put your foot on the brake. Push the “neutral” button (on the shifter’s right side, opposite the “function” button) and press the “function” button before you pull the paddle back. One pull puts you in “low reverse.” Pull again for “high reverse.” If you push forward again, you’ll shift back into “low reverse.” To go forward, press the brake pedal, push the “neutral” button, then push the paddle forward. 

When driving, you can take command of the transmission at any time by simply pushing the “function” button. The arrows in the gear position indicator will disappear, signaling that the computer will not change gears. You have to. I learned that the hard way, too. 

We were loaded to 72,500 pounds with crushed rock ballast. The weather report called for scattered thunderstorms and wind gusts exceeding 45 mph. I chose the route to provide a variety of conditions. We started at the Petro in Rochelle, IL, and headed up I-39 to Rockford, then west on US-20 to Galena. It seems as if all the real hills in Illinois are concentrated in the northwest corner. When the road went from four lanes to two, and the pickup disappeared over the next hill, the fun began. The Pete has a 565 hp Cummins ISX with 1,850 lbs.-ft. of torque, enough to pull all the hills at 14th or higher. On several occasions, I purposely slowed to let the transmission go further down the gears, which it did as smoothly as can be. Going down a 7-percent grade, I took control and pulled it back a few gears, as many as the computer would allow. Try to go too far down and the transmission just says “no.” Downshifting, it won’t let you over-rev, and it won’t leave you hanging, looking for a gear to get into. 

At the bottom of another hill, I learned the hard way that you either have to hit the “function” button to let the transmission regain control, or push the paddle to shift up. I forgot to do either, so Duane had to instruct me not to over-rev his engine. He called it a rookie mistake. Another embarrassing moment came when traffic was stopped for construction going up a 4-percent upgrade. We were first in line. When the sign was turned from “stop” to “slow,” I tried to juggle the brake and throttle pedals, and wound up stalling the engine. Remember, only one pedal at a time. I forgot to turn the key off before trying to restart. When you turn the key off, the transmission automatically defaults to “neutral.” When I turned it back on, I forgot to wait for the computer to reset. I finally got the engine going but by then, the sign was back to “stop.” I had kept the whole line behind me from going through the zone.

Duane told me to lift my foot off the brake and immediately mash the throttle. Let the computer figure out what to do. The truck did not lurch. The frame did not twist. The truck started smoothly up the hill as if I were an old pro. I love automation.

The Eaton AutoShift does about the same things in the same way, but you still need to press the clutch to start and stop. That difference alone puts the FreedomLine ahead, at least for now. Technology has a way of catching up, and Eaton has already announced a two-pedal transmission for medium-duty trucks. For now, if you want only two pedals in a Class 8 truck, it’s got to be ZF Meritor’s FreedomLine. And for a while, Peterbilt and Kenworth have it exclusively.