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Driving the International ProStar with Allison TC10 transmission


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Truck News / October 26, 2014

It performs beautifully, but it’s heavier and more expensive than an AMT. Will the fuel savings deliver a payback?

Four thousand, seven hundred and fifty bucks. That’s what it cost to replace a manual transmission in a five-ton straight truck. Wendell Erb, CEO of Erb Group of Companies, signs off on every expense over $4,000 and he saw enough of these invoices cross his desk to burn that number painfully and permanently into his memory. It was enough to make him decide in 2008 to begin spec’ing Allison automatics in the company’s straight trucks and Erb hasn’t had to replace one yet.

With that in mind, it’s little wonder Erb has gradually been automating its heavy-duty fleet as well. And it’s no surprise that Erb is one of the first Canadian fleets to take delivery of Allison’s new TC10 TS automatic transmission. TC is for torque converter, 10 represents the number of forward speeds available and TS stands for tractor series. This is Allison’s first shot at the Class 8 tractor market and it seems a logical next step. Allison transmissions are prevalent in the medium-duty and vocational segments and even some of the most demanding heavy equipment applications.

The ongoing trend towards automation in the on-highway market isn’t going to disappear, but that’s not to say this will be an easy market to conquer. Automated manual transmissions (AMTs) have been vastly improved in recent years and some OEMs will be reticent to make available a new threat to their own such products. Allison’s TC10 is initially available for order exclusively in International ProStar and TranStar tractors with the MaxxForce 13 engine. It can handle 600 hp and 1,700 lb.-ft. of torque and has a current GCW limitation of 80,000 lbs.

SPECULATION ALERT: Allison will be shopping its TC10 to other truck makers but for now all we can do is speculate on potential matches. I see little reason why Cummins wouldn’t mate it to its ISX15, to provide the market with another alternative to currently available automated powertrains. Kenworth and Peterbilt trucks with Paccar and Cummins engines would seem another logical pairing. I’d be surprised if Daimler and Volvo let it near their vehicles; they’re too heavily invested in their own well-integrated, high-performance automated manuals.

For now, there are about 30 ProStar tractors with International engines and Allison TC10 transmissions on the road in Canada. Erb took delivery of five such trucks and when I visited last Thursday for a test drive, they made available the last of these trucks to be deployed into service. This ProStar was fitted with a moose bumper, revealing it will be sent on deliveries to northern Ontario and points west. The others had already scattered in all directions; some California-bound and others headed to Texas.

They’ve been given to drivers who were due a new truck and who could be counted on to provide reliable feedback on their performance. Jim Pinder, corporate fleet director at Erb Group and Wendell Erb, CEO, are excited about the potential fuel savings, which Allison says conservatively should amount to 3-5% over currently available automated manual transmissions and much more than that in regional-haul applications with lots of stops and starts.

Along for the ride with me were: Altruck International’s Joe Mitchell; John Kay, area sales manager with Allison, to provide an overview of the product; and Tom Boehler, Erb’s safety manager, who came along to serve as the local navigator and to ensure I took good care of their truck. I’m no cowboy driver, but even if I were, there’s little I could do to hurt the TC10. It has layers of protection mechanisms in place to prevent drivers from inflicting damage. Simply put, if you try to do something that would hurt the transmission or other downstream components, the TC10 will override your bad decision. Allison is prolific for the robustness of its transmissions and this is a big reason why.

However, while the TC10 is idiotproof, maybe even bulletproof, it still allows the driver to select his or her own gears when it makes sense to do so. On my drive, I didn’t encounter any scenarios where it made sense to try to outsmart the transmission and I suspect that in everyday driving conditions, few such scenarios exist. It has a built-in inclinometer and grade sensor, so it’s pretty savvy at choosing the right gear, even on hills.

There are two numbers displayed on the shift pad. The one on the right indicates your current gear and the one next to it displays the number of gears that are available at that moment. This should deter drivers from trying to choose an inappropriate gear in the first place. Seeing the two numbers displayed so closely together takes some getting used to and can hold the eye for an extra split second when glancing down to see which gear you’re in. I’m not sure the second number really needs to be there, but you quickly get used to it.

Up and down arrows on the keypad of the version I drove allow you to perform manual shifts. A Mode button provides an extra rpm boost for several seconds, which is nice when you want to complete a pass, maintain your speed on a steep hill or more quickly reach highway speeds from a stop. This feature can be a little addictive and I found plenty of opportunities to use it on my drive. It’s a nice performance feature but not conducive to maximizing fuel economy so it’s best used only when really needed. I suspect the novelty wears off and drivers will be more disciplined with its use than I was. Another nice feature is the ability to check transmission fluid levels from inside the cab. Just press the button and within a moment, the LED indicator will tell you whether or not more oil is required. I did this with the engine running and even then, received reassurance that the oil level was good.

The TC10 was designed to outperform today’s automated manual transmissions, and it will have to, given its higher price point, if it’s to gain widespread market acceptance. Kay claims the TC10 will get greater fuel economy and improved reliability over your typical AMT.

Performance-wise, the TC10 excelled. Kay says it takes about 18 fewer seconds to go from a stop to 55 mph in a TC10-equipped truck than in one with an automated manual. We were pulling a full load with a gross weight of nearly 80,000 lbs and got up to highway speeds incredibly quickly, often launching from third gear. On the 401 I cruised comfortably at 100 km/h at about 1,150 rpm, which provided a smooth, quiet and relaxed ride.

The TC10 is comprised of a five-speed main box with a two-speed range pack, giving it 10 forward speeds. The torque converter replaces the clutch and flywheel in an AMT design. Two reverse speeds give drivers more flexibility when backing up to a dock. While automated manual transmissions suffer a torque interruption every time they shift gears, the torque converter-style automatic provides seamless powershifting for greater efficiency. This is what allows the driver to get up to speed more quickly. Kay admits there’ll be little fuel economy gain provided by the TC10 over an AMT in a low-rpm powertrain when cruising down the highway in top gear, however he said it will deliver fuel economy savings in regional haul applications where increased shifting is required.

The TC10 appears to be a robust, well-engineered piece of hardware, but where it really shines is in its software calibrations. The transmission comes standard with Allison’s fifth-generation electronic controls and its FuelSense Max calibrations for maximum fuel economy. These programming features allow the transmission to adapt its performance based on variables such as terrain, load and even driver behaviour.

What this means is that even the most lead-footed fuel lush in the fleet will be able to do little to harm the fleet’s fuel economy, even on a bad day. Even if he has an axe to grind with the boss. The transmission won’t let him. You can bury the throttle while accelerating but the FuelSense’s acceleration rate management feature will provide only the acceleration that’s needed to get the load up to speed in an efficient manner. Every driver with a TC10-equipped truck should be a fuel-efficient driver – the transmission will assure it.

Unlike other torque converter-style automatics, the TC10 comes to full neutral while stopped, eliminating the load on the engine and providing further fuel savings. The output drive is locked internally within the TC10 to prevent rollback on grades, but this feature is not connected to the vehicle’s ABS, which Kay says is an advantage since brake issues on the vehicle will not interfere with its hill-holding capability.

Drivers will notice the TC10 wants to creep forward the moment you release the brake. It’s not a problem, but something you need to be aware of if you’re accustomed to driving an AMT, which won’t begin moving forward until the throttle is engaged.

AMTs are better than they’ve ever been, but Boehler told me they still have their quirks, which he hopes will be eliminated with the TC10. For example, in slippery conditions when approaching a stop, trucks with AMTs have been known to experience wheel slip when the torque is lost during a shift. This causes the speedometer to spike then drop suddenly and is recorded by the Qualcomm as a hard-braking incident. This has led to some interesting discussions with drivers.

“This (TC10) has constant torque so you don’t get that slip during the shift,” Boehler explained.

The TC10 is backed by a five-year, 750,000-mile warranty and there are few concerns about reliability. However, if there’s a knock against it, it would be that it’s heavier and costlier than today’s AMTs. Kay has an answer to both those complaints.

The cost premium, which is ultimately determined by the OEM, will be quickly recovered if the fuel savings of 5% or more are realized, Kay says. For forward-thinking fleets like Erb, who have an eye towards total cost of ownership, the acquisition cost of the TC10 becomes more palatable when fuel savings are achieved over the component’s life-cycle, Pinder confirmed. As for weight, Kay acknowledges that at 1,074 lbs, the TC10 could be about 250 lbs heavier than today’s AMTs. However, by spec’ing the MaxxForce 13 over Erb’s other favourite engine, the ISX15, there is a weight saving of about 600 lbs, more than offsetting the weight penalty the transmission incurs.

One other limitation within the Canadian market is that the TC10 is currently approved for gross combination weights of up to 80,000 lbs. This suits most of Erb’s routes just fine, but some Canadian customers will want to hold out for a GVWR of 110,000 lbs. Kay says “As with most new Class 8 tractor transmissions the TC10 is initially being offered at the US standard 80K but in time may be approved for higher payloads.”

Erb will be keeping a close eye on the fuel performance of the TC10. Pinder said he tracks fuel mileage using fuel tax data, to negate the varying degrees of “optimism” reflected in ECM readings. The transmission performs beautifully and will no doubt be a hit with drivers. If it provides a fuel economy advantage over existing products and can deliver a speedy payback, it could become a serious player in the Class 8 on-highway tractor market.

The Spec’s:

Tractor: International ProStar+ 122 6×4

Engine: International MaxxForce 13 EPA10 w/SCR, 450 hp/1,700 lb.-ft.

Cab: Conventional w/ 73-inch hi-rise sleeper and 42-inch bunk

Transmission: Automatic Allison TC10 w/ fifth-generation controls; 10-speed with overdrive, incl. oil level sensor

Drive axles: Meritor MT-40-14X-4CFR single reduction tandem axle, 40,000-lb capacity

Steer axle: Meritor MFS-13-143A wide track I-beam type, 13,200-lb capacity

Wheelbase: 221-inch

Front suspension: Spring parabolic, taper-leaf, 14,000-lb capacity with shock absorbers

Rear suspension: International ride-optimized air-ride tandem suspension w/ 52-inch axle spacing and 40,000-lb capacity

Safety: Bendix ABS w/ electronic stability program; headlights turn on automatically when wipers activated; hood-mounted convex mirrors




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