Freightliner Argosy

The Freightliner Argosy has become a popular truck on Australian highways – with its roomy cabin and North American driveline it ticks all the boxes for a lot of Aussie drivers. The cabin has plenty of room for a decent-sized bunk and plenty of cupboard space, all while fitting into the 26-metre length limit with a 32 pallet B-double. Hence, it’s safe to say Freightliner got the basic concept right.

As the fit and finish of US manufactured trucks has improved, the acceptance of the Argosy has increased in recent years; and the new Detroit DD 15 engine has proved to be up to the job as well. As a result, the truck continues to be the highest selling heavy prime mover sold by the Daimler Truck operation, by a considerable margin.

The purpose of this test drive is not to talk about the pros and cons of the Argosy itself, but to look at one constituent of the driveline and two different types of transmission. One truck is fitted with the “standard” Australian gearbox – the 18-speed Roadranger – while the other one is equipped with a young opponent, the Ultrashift Plus automated manual version of the 18-speed Eaton constant mesh box.

Prime Mover recently took both models on a route around Melbourne – including the Monash Freeway, Westgate Bridge and Western Ring Road, suburban roads from Greensborough to Ringwood, as well as the Eastlink – to ensure the trucks would face the kind of road conditions a B-double would encounter on a day-to-day basis, with plenty of stopping and starting thrown in to give the transmissions a workout. 

Both trips were taken on the same day, pulling the same B-double set. Traffic conditions were similar on both journeys, so the comparison could be made between the driver experience of handling both gearboxes in like-for-like conditions.

The two trucks were both built by Freightliner to appear at the Mid America Truck Show in March as part of the company’s display of trucks they sell in different parts of the world (the Argosy is no longer sold in the US).

Although both are based on the 110-inch mid roof sleeper cab, each Argosy has a slightly different layout on the inside. The truck with the Ultrashift fitted has the traditional layout with a large single bunk and floor-to-ceiling cupboard fittings between seats and bunk. The second, fitted with the Roadranger, has foregone the cupboard space to allow for a large double bed size bunk behind the seats and cupboard space around the top of the rear wall of the cabin.

In addition, the manual version has a full bull-bar fitted, making changing trailers a bit of a squeeze. Overall, the two trucks are basically the same, except for one thing – the transmission. Climbing up the swing-out steps into the truck and firing up the engine is the same in both cases. The only difference in the layout is the absence of a gear stick mounted on the dash, as the Ultrashift model has a controller on the right hand side of the steering column.

The Smartshift controller will be familiar to anyone who has driven a Freightliner fitted with an Eaton Autoshift in the past. The strength of this controller is in the fact it is easy to intervene in the auto gear changing and skip gears just by paddling up or down – which was necessary a lot of the time when used with the Autoshift in the past. Luckily, the current generation is much smarter and more responsive than the older AMT and the need to make gear changes manually has been drastically reduced.

Out on the road, the need to intervene is a matter of choice. If the driver decides just to let the Ultrashift do all of the thinking, it is possible to leave it well alone and the job will get done. However, if the driver feels the need to grab a gear early at the foot of a grade, the Smartshift paddle just needs to be pressed once and the shift is made.

Slow manoeuvring is a different matter, though. Left in auto when trying to move slowly – for example when backing up into a parking space or onto a loading bay – can result in quite a bit of bouncing up and down in the cab for the driver.

The solution is to take the transmission out of auto mode and into manual. In that mode, the driver can give the accelerator a small push to get the revs up and then take the foot away. The truck will still move slowly at a steady crawl, which can be controlled by gentle use of the brakes or a dab on the throttle to get going again.
Of course, on the manual version of the box, no special attention needs to be paid when manoeuvring slowly. The clutch can be used to gently modulate speed and can give the driver some very precise results.

This is one of those areas where the AMT struggles to match the performance possible with a manual and traditional clutch. Even the most precisely controlled creep modes on the best of the European AMT gear boxes require a switch to be pressed or a separate mode to be engaged. The computer control systems matching engine speed and clutch position are very precise, but just not quite as responsive as the left foot on the clutch pedal linked directly to what the driver can see.

Once out of the yard and onto the road, the Ultrashift comes into its own. Ploughing through the busy morning traffic on the Monash Freeway in Melbourne involves constantly changing speeds as the traffic flow increases and decreases.

The Ultrashift reacts well to the situation, maintaining momentum and keeping the truck moving at the right speed, but also keeping the rpm levels relatively low – giving the driver an opportunity to keep and eye on the traffic around the truck.

The actual gear changing is swift and seamless, but the decision to change the gear can take a little longer when compared to the responsiveness available in the latest European trucks. A change in conditions or a move on the foot pedal does not provoke an instantaneous response. The computer is clearly weighing up the options for a split second before making any change it deems necessary.

The decision-making is consistently correct and when the decision is made, it is carried through precisely. The Ultrashift will skip gears up and down, or not, as the conditions demand. In performance terms, this Ultrashift is a quantum leap ahead of its predecessor, Autoshift, in terms of speed, accuracy and decision-making.

Life in the manual is not quite the same, not as relaxed. In these sorts of traffic conditions, it’s often easier just to leave the left hand on the gear stick. Quick up and down splits and full gear changes are needed all of the time to keep the truck up to speed. The visibility around the truck is the same and it’s just as simple for the driver to keep correctly in lane, but just the fact there is one less hand on the wheel must compromise, to a certain extent, the ability to react fast and positively in a dangerous situation.

There is also the physical effort involved in changing gears. Inter-capital city runners spend most of their life in the top two gears and often only split the odd gear every now and then, but in this kind of traffic the driver is going up and down through the gearbox, missing traffic lights and then trying to accelerate and catch the next green. Time and energy is expended just keeping up with gear changing to maintain momentum and efficiency.

In a conventional set-up, the gearstick goes directly into the transmission and some precise control and ease of shifting is a given. In a cabover like the Argosy, the issue is more complex. The distance from the gearstick to the transmission itself is quite long and the crowded real estate under the cab in the engine compartment means the gear control system has to travel by a difficult route. 

The solution is a cable gear linkage and this, by its very nature, introduces a less responsive feel from the gearstick. In the case of the Argosy, the feel at the gearstick is quite heavy. However, the throw across the different gears is quite short and the gears are exactly where they should be, the linkage remains precise. A bit more familiarity with this particular gear linkage would probably make gear changing a little easier on the left arm than it proved in the busy Melbourne traffic.

An interesting feature on one of the trucks tested is the small circular safety device, about 35 mm across and fitted to the A-pillar. This is the interface for the lane keeping system and the proximity control. Its simple screen design keeps the driver informed about safety concerns with well-designed graphics and a low level of distraction.

At the top of the dial a car symbol lights to show the radar is measuring the distance to the vehicle in front. If the distance drops below four seconds, a number appears, counting down from 3.5 to below one second in half second steps, accompanied by a small beep every time the vehicle in front gets a step nearer.

At the same time, if the vehicle drifts out of its lane without the indicators on or a major steering wheel movement, a beep sounds and a line appears on the relevant side of the instrument. This proves especially useful in tight situations on multi-lane highways in busy traffic, where the system keeps the truck on the straight and narrow.

This kind of technology is currently becoming commonly available, but it can become obtrusive and confusing when a number of different beeps sound and the driver has to check the information screen to see what the issue is. This simple, small instrument gets the message across in a simple, yet effective way in one small screen close to the eye line.

At the end of this comparison run, the conclusion comes down to the kind of work the truck will be doing and the skill levels of the driver. An Argosy with the manual box can do any job well and, over continual long haul work, do a great job. If there’s quite a bit of stop/start driving involved at high masses, especially in the city, then the Ultrashift is going to prove more effective over the long term, especially if a number of drivers with different skill levels are in the driver’s seat.


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