Did you know that it’s possible for an untrained person to crawl into an 18-wheeler and take off down the road? They could even do it if they’ve never driven a car with a stick shift. Granted, this brave soul might run every car off the road because of the raw size of the thing. And of course, it’s as illegal as a trunk-load of dead bodies, but it IS physically possible. How, you say?

Some of the largest trucking companies in the US have entire fleets of trucks equipped with automatic transmissions. The debate between automatic versus manual is a big one among drivers. It’s really not that big of a deal, but you could never tell that by asking a driver which type they prefer. Drivers seem to either love automatics or they hate them with the hatred of a thousand Hitlers.

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One argument I hear from drivers is that trucks with automatic transmissions allow too many untrained drivers into the industry. There is some truth to that. After all, every minute a student spends learning to shift gears, they’re also getting actual drive time behind the wheel. If you take out the process of learning to shift, you can be in and out of a truck driving school lickety-split. You know, they’re absolutely right about this one. Although that’s really a philosophical argument, not a technical reason to hate automatics.

If you ask most experienced drivers why they prefer a manual tranny over an automatic, 9 out of 10 would say, “Because I like to have complete control of when I shift. I ain’t leaving that up to a @!$#ing computer.”  These drivers are ignorant. Now that’s not a slight to their overall intelligence, I’m just saying that they really should know what they’re talking about before they start barfing out opinions on subjects that they know very little about. When I find a driver who really hates automatics, I find that most have never even driven one.

Now I may be ignorant on a lot of subjects (The Evil Overlord’s taste in men comes to mind) , but this isn’t one of them. I’ve driven both types of transmissions so I can tell you that as far as I can tell, there’s only one thing a manual transmission can do that an automatic can’t, and that has to do with the engine speed and the engine brake, or “Jake” brake.

If you let off the accelerator in a vehicle with a manual transmission, the engine will start slowing you down. You may have experienced that in your friend’s car. You know, the one who really liked the Fast and Furious movies. Same goes in a big rig. Only if it has its Jake brake turned on, it’ll kick on immediately too. Not so in an automatic.

If you’re in an automatic, when you let up on the gas pedal it just assumes you want to coast, again, just like your auto-tranny car. If you want the Jake to kick in on an automatic truck, you have to flip a switch, tap the brake pedal or, if it has one, the clutch pedal. So again, there’s perhaps the second point for the manual fans. But honestly, I doubt most automatic-haters even know that. So really other than the whole “inexperienced driver” argument, the only gripe becomes the inability to control shifts.

Maybe I should explain how these transmissions work, in everyday Billy Bob speech, of course. If there’s one thing I ain’t, it’s a mechanic… or an English major (as personified by the use of the word “ain’t”). The manual tranny and clutch in your car or pickup truck is similar to the one found in a big rig, except that it’s waaaay harder to master. Where with a car you can shift at virtually any point that you choose, in a semi you have to shift at certain rpms (revolutions per minute, or how fast the motor is running).

While you’re shifting, you must also double-pump the clutch pedal. Double clutching involves pushing the clutch pedal in half-way, taking the transmission out of gear, quickly getting the engine to the correct rpm, pressing the clutch half-way again, and putting the tranny into the desired gear. To an experienced driver, this all takes place in the blink of an eye. But experienced drivers can also do the shifting without the double clutching. We call this “floating” the gears. The Evil Overlord and I are proud members of this holier-than-thou cult. Actually, most truckers learn to do this within a year or two of getting out of truck driving school.

Now on to that awful, shift-controlling, brainwashing, back-stabbing automatic transmission. It wants to take control of your life and drive you off the nearest bridge. It wants to stall you on a set of railroad tracks. It truly hates you and the very air that you breathe. Not.

The first automatic we drove had an accelerator pedal, a brake pedal, and a clutch pedal. The shifter was a lever on the right side of the steering column. The only time you had to use the clutch pedal was when starting or stopping. Other than that, your left foot could take a nap.

Later on we drove a fully automatic transmission. It looked the same except for one thing; the noticeable lack of a clutch pedal. If you were to look into the floorboard of a truck with a fully automatic clutch, it would look exactly like your station wagon. It’s got a gas pedal and brake pedal. It’s truly fully automatic.

As for the shifter, well a picture is worth a thousand words; 10,000 of my words (I am a bit long-winded).

This is the Eaton Fuller SmartShift.

This is the Eaton Fuller SmartShift.

Naturally, R is for reverse, N is neutral, D is drive, and L stands for low gear. Hold your foot on the brake pedal and select a gear. Simple pimple.

Here is it's position on the steering column.

Here is it’s position on the steering column.

Okay. Now as long as that little arrow points at “auto,” you let the computer shift the truck. When you speed up, it upshifts. When you slow down, it downshifts. When you come to a complete stop, the automatic clutch takes over. The only time it pitches a fit is when the weight of your load changes.

When you have a heavy load, it lets the engine rev more before it shifts. Eventually your trailer is going to be empty, but the computer doesn’t know that. It still waits to shift. It will adjust itself if you wait long enough, but who’s got the patience for that? Heck, I can’t even wait for the toast to pop up by itself. And that’s when you point the little arrow to “manual.”

So here’s where the stubborn old timer’s arguments falls apart. I can retrain my truck to shift by shifting it manually. If you pull this lever toward you (up), it shifts up one gear. Push it down and it downshifts one gear. “Yea, but you can’t skip-shift!” Ah, but you can. Skip shifting is precisely what it sounds like. If you have a light enough load, or you’re going downhill, you can sometimes skip a gear to save some time and effort. The auto shifter lets you do the same thing. Bring your rpms up high enough and quickly pull the handle toward you twice. Well, what do you know, cranky pants? I believe that was a skip shift. You can also downshift two gears at once following the same principles as you would with a manual shifter. Any time you feel like shifting gears for yourself, one little finger flip will do the trick.

There is, however, one time when I completely agree with the stubborn old coots. When I’m getting ready to go down a steep mountain pass, the last thing I want is a computer controlling my shifts. With a flick of the switch from automatic to manual, I’m in complete control. If I left it in automatic, it would assume I’m just speeding up really fast and upshift all the quicker. Bad news on a twisty 7% downgrade.

Although I’ve never had it happen, I’ve heard tales of automatic transmissions that upshifted by themselves. This happens when the motor is revving too high and the computer takes over to save the engine. I’ve also had a manual shift transmission pop out of gear under the same circumstances. If you’re super paranoid about that kind of thing, Low gear should give you some peace of mind. When the automatic transmission is in low gear it cannot shift up, again except to save the motor. Let me put it this way. If it upshifts because you’re revving the engine too high, you’re doing it wrong. Plain and simple. However, if you’re doing it properly it’ll maintain its current gear, whether in automatic or manual mode. No upshifts are allowed, but you can downshift until your little heart is as happy as a dog in a leg-humping contest.

So here’s the way I look at this whole debate. If you want to wear your left knee out by double-pumping a clutch pedal, be my guest. If you’re cool enough to float the gears, well, you just go ahead and busy yourself with a constantly moving gear shifter, especially during rush hour traffic.

Me? I’d rather blow out my left knee with my horrendous golf swing. And you’ll wish you had a healthy set of knees if you’re ever trying to escape the path of my wicked banana slice.

So what’s your opinion? I know you’ve got one. Automatic or Manual? Tell us all about it by leaving your thoughts in the comment section. And how about giving this post a rating and passing it on to your online friends. Thanks

About the Author
I'm a 22-year truck driver with an interest in tech stuff. I do the Trucker Dump podcast and blog, which is all about life as a trucker. I have also written two trucking books, "Trucking Life" and "How to Find a Great Truck Driving Job."
34 comments on “TD33: Automatic Or Manual Truck Transmission?
  1. Truck Drivers News says:

    Hey Todd, hope the holidays treated you well. Another great post here, a lot of good info to it.

    I guess I am one of the ignorant ones though, but I have driven a few auto shifts, and still do not like them.

    But, the ones I drove were from the Freight-liner factory in NC and most of the time they would not make it past the Freight-liner Dealership just outside of Charlotte. Probably were put together on Friday, or at least that is what I always said when I would break down in one of them.

    It could have been that this was a few years ago, and they were still working the bugs out of them too. But, anyway in a manual I never double clutched one either, so I don’t think I was going to wear my knee out..

    Have a good one and keep up the good postings..


    1. Todd McCann says:

      Hey Jason, hope your Turkey Day was great too.

      I gotta say I was surprised to hear about your troubles with automatic transmissions. The first one I drove was in 1998 and in 4 1/2 years we never had a problem. Our company’s maintenance department said that they were nearly as reliable as a manual tranny. We’ve driven automatics on and off ever since without one little glitch (knock on wood).

      I only met one team who had a problem with automatics. Their truck was in the shop and they weren’t happy about it. Other than that, every driver who has actually driven them, has been ecstatic, even a bit surprised at their reliability. Maybe you had some bad mojo at the time. 🙂 That does suck though.

      Thanks for the comment.

      Sent from my iPhone.

      Follow me on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ToddMcCann

      or subscribe to my blog at http://www.abouttruckingjobs.wordpress.com

      1. Truck Drivers News says:


        As I mentioned these were trucks directly from the factory, I hauled and delivered piggy backs for a while. They were “brand new” some with less than a mile on them..We drove them to deliveries, so maybe they used us as testers as well, to get the bugs out of them.

        Anyway glad you have had good luck with them. Be safe, and have a Happy Holidays coming up!

  2. neuLindsay says:

    Yay! Awesome post! I never knew trucks had automatic transmission or how cool they were. Keep the posts coming!

    1. Todd McCann says:

      Thanks for leaving a comment. Glad you learned a little something. I love writing this blog. It’s just hard to find the time, especially this close to Christmas. Freight is cooking like a short order cook on crack.

      Sent from my iPhone.

      Follow me on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ToddMcCann

      or subscribe to my blog at http://www.abouttruckingjobs.wordpress.com

  3. Pam Court says:

    This is my favorite trucker blog ever! True story!

    1. Todd McCann says:

      Really folks, Pam is kinda like George Washington. She cannot tell a lie. Then again, she did forget to mention that mine is the ONLY trucking blog she reads. 🙂

  4. I cannot believe I read an entire post on shifting gears automatically or manually on a semi and loved it! And I even learned a few clever cliche’s too! Thanks Todd… say hi to evil overlord for me!

    1. Todd McCann says:

      Glad you enjoyed the post and learned some new terminology. Similarly, I enjoy your posts on wedding stuff over at http://www.trulyengaging.com/ , despite the fact that I hope to never have another wedding again. The Evil Overlord says hi back.

  5. Oz Brau says:

    We have 5 Smartshift trucks and we love them. It makes any drive a pleasure, no shifting. The only thing is not to forget to push the clutch in for a full stop. I forgot once at a weight scale and iot rocked the house, the State Trooper inside was not happy about it. he he he

    1. Todd McCann says:

      I’ll share in that chuckle with you. Making a trooper grumpy, well, it’s the the little things in life that bring much joy.

      I’ve driven automatics with and without clutch pedals. I too have been brought to a jolting stop by forgetting to mash the clutch pedal. I’ve also rammed my left foot to the floorboard on models lacking the pedal. Either way, you wind up feeling like an idiot.

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

  6. kredytowe says:

    I prefer the sign: “No entry”, to the one that says: “No exit”.

    1. Todd McCann says:

      I’d love to reply to your comment, but I have no idea what you’re talking about. Didn’t see any mention of “no entry” or “no exit” in this blog post. Did you perhaps mean to be commenting on another blog post of mine?

  7. Clyde CLOWER Jr. says:

    Great idea to put controls next to the wheel. what happened to the windshield wiper control stick? Ha… AUTOMATICS AND DOWNHILL GRADES can quickly ruin your day. New drivers take heed… It will kill you! Glad you mentioned that. I’ve had my moments of “seat grabbing” like everyone else. Manual control is the ONLY way to run down steep grades. Great to see Eaton Fuller has phixed this way overdue/overlooked safety issue. Thanks! Clyde Clower Jr.

    1. Todd McCann says:

      Thanks for the comment, Clyde. It’s always nice to have experienced drivers back up what I say. It helps in fooling people into believing I know what I’m talking about. 😉

  8. Rodger Moir says:

    Hi Todd,
    I’m in my 28th year of commercial truck driving and am currently driving a Freightliner Columbia fitted with an 18 speed smart shift.
    Most of the time it is fine but when it warms up on a strech of highway driving it will not down shift below 11 gear unless the engine is shut down and time allowed for trans to cool, around 10 to 15 mins.

    Previously I drove a mack Vision with eaton Fuller 18 speed manual with about 87000 kms and no problems.

    Before this a mack Vision with 18 speed eaton auto changer,every 130000 kms the solinoid packed up it locked between gears and twice cost over $1200 to be repaired plus time off the road.

    I drove a near new Scania the spent two weeks having it’s auto trans completly rebuilt because it was made from inadequate materials.

    Previously I drove Mack Fleetline fitted with a 13 speed eaton fuller and had no problems with it.

    I also driven Scania and Volvo manual boxes that require to be cluched everytime with no problems.
    I have a mate that drives a Mack Granit with 10 speed auto and he hates the way it screams it’s mack arse off at low speed and dies in the arse going up a hill.

    So for me a good old 18 speed road ranger any day.
    Cheers Rodger Moir

    1. Todd McCann says:

      Well Rodger, it looks like you’ve had mixed results with automatic transmissions… leaning heavily toward the “they suck” viewpoint. Thanks for sharing your experiences with these auto trannys. It’s always good to hear both sides of the story. Sorry to hear you’ve had such crappy luck with them.

  9. Bhekinkosi says:

    Thank you so much for this comment of you. I’m a leaner truck driver you have helped me a lot l wish to meet you one day in life

    1. Todd McCann says:

      Glad I provide you with a little help. If I can help you with anything in your learning process, don’t hesitate to ask. Thanks for dropping in on the blog.

  10. Candace says:

    With where I’m working at they did a road test on me with an automatic (with clutch). Can’t say I really liked it much. Felt like it took forever get up to speed. And of course forgot to hit the clutch when stopping. Maybe with time I could have learned to like it, but for that 20 minutes I just wasn’t very impressed with it or like it.

    1. Todd McCann says:

      You’re right, Candance. Automatic transmissions do tend to accelerate slower if you don’t know what you’re doing. But once you figure out how to skip-shift with one it’s almost as fast. Almost. For me, it’s a nice trade-off that I always realized when I was creeping along in rush hour traffic. Love me some automatics! Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this.

  11. John says:

    I enjoyed reading about the differences in transmissions. I am in my mid 30s and am seriously thinking of entering the transportation career field. I was wondering if you could provide any insight, words of wisdom, the best way to go about getting in the trucking biz. Thanks and keep up the great , entertaining writing.

    1. Todd McCann says:

      Sorry for the delayed response, John. I somehow overlooked your comment. My bad.

      I like to direct prospective truckers to an interview I did over at JobShadow.com. It goes into a lot of detail about being a truck driver. And I would read all the comments too. There are a lot of good discussions there. Have a glance and let me know what you think. Good luck!

  12. Leona Slinkard says:

    I have a question but it is not related to automatic and manual transmissions. I am going to be going on the road with my husband soon and wanted to know if there is a website somewhere where people post sites that can be visited when you are traveling in a semi. I want to get to see some sites while I still can. Places like maybe Yellowstone or anywhere worth visiting that you can park a semi. When I am trying to find something on the internet, I mostly see restaurant’s. Not real interested in the food part, just scenic or historic stuff. Thanks.

    1. Todd McCann says:

      Well Leona, I’ve got bad news for you. The Web site you’re looking for doesn’t exist. Well, not for truckers anyway. There of plenty of Web sites like http://roadtrippers.com to help you find stuff along your route, but as far as I know, none of them provide information on truck parking.

      I have a trucker friend named Kevin who does a lot of siteseeing on his bicycle. He does a blog called 18 Wheels and a 12-Speed Bike. http://kevinmckague.wordpress.com From what he tells me, he ALWAYS has to call ahead to places to make sure they have truck parking.

      Sorry to bring you the bad news, but there you have it. I’m going to ask the listeners of my podcast for their help on this one. Maybe they’ve got some suggestions. If they do, I’ll follow-up with another reply here. In the meantime, if you discover something on your own, please let me know ASAP so I can help spread the word. You can’t be the only trucker who wants a service like this.

      Thanks for writing in. Happy trucking!

      1. Leona says:

        Thank you for your reply. When I hit the road I will be keeping track of the places we get to stop by and see in the big truck. If it ever becomes of any interest to anyone, I would love to share.
        Thanks again.

  13. Dcheney801@gmail.com says:

    I start truck driving school in 2 days. I have knee problems. Left knee worse then the right. I’ll deal with the issue if I have to, to make a living and provide for my family. But my question is, how likely is it that I’ll end up with a automatic. Or atleast a semi automatic.

    1. Todd McCann says:

      Congrats on starting truck driving school, Dcheney. So… what is your likelihood of ending up with an automatic transmission? Well, that all depends on you and the questions you ask.

      If you’re going to a typical truck driving school, you’ll likely be visited by a bunch of trucking recruiters. Here’s where you come in. If they don’t mention automatic transmissions in their spiel, you HAVE TO ask about them. I know this seems obvious, but I remember how timid I was about asking “too many” questions when I was at school.

      It’s like I tell anyone who asks about finding a good trucking job. You have to prioritize what’s important to you and make sure the prospective employer meets your main requirements. If a driver insists on having an APU (auxiliary power unit), they need to rule out any company that doesn’t have them. If you insist on taking your two ugly mutts with you, you don’t want to wind up working for a trucking company that only allows one pet in the truck. And if you want to make sure you’re going to get an automatic transmission, you need to ask what the likehood is that you’ll get one as a new driver.

      One last thing; don’t fall into the trap of deprioritizing your desires. If you wind up going with a company that pays more but sticks you with a 10-speed manual stick shift, you’ll be miserable in the long run. There is no such thing as a perfect trucking company. You are likely going to have to sacrifice one thing you want in order to get another. I’m not saying that companies with auto trannies pay less, I’m just saying don’t let money or anything else take your eyes off your main desire.

      So to sum up; there are plenty of trucking companies out here that have automatic transmissions in their fleet. Find out who they are and ask them if you’ll get one if you choose to work for them. If they don’t give you an answer that’s acceptable, keep looking. And remember, don’t be inticed by higher pay or other great perks. If your priority is an automatic transmission, stay focused on that. Hope that helps, Dcheney. Good luck! And don’t hesistate to holler if you have more questions.

  14. nath says:

    I recently purchased a freightliner argosy as a second truck just to do local work, 2006 model with the autoshift and clutch set up..i like sticks and couldn’t go past them. I ruptured disc’s in my back a few months ago and got back into the stick and my timing was out quiet a bit so i went back to double pumping only to find out that it does not sit well with my back over a good trip.

    I got this freightliner and got local work for it and i’ve been doing that and i actually don’t mind it, I’ve been in DAF and Mercedes auto’s and well didnt enjoy them but didn’t fully hate them but i do enjoy the auto in the freightliner.

    Going down steep decents is good, wack it in manual skip shift and coast down maintaining steady speed, only once i had it want to take off when going down, was towards them bottom of the range and left it in auto, bumped the accelerator pedal which de activated the jake and skipped up a few gears but nothing major, just lesson learned.

    all in all quiet happy

    cheers all

  15. Buster says:

    You morons are apparently sucking up all the Kool-aid. Auto trannys are being pushed to put butts in seats, i.e., steering wheel holders. I want to chose the gear that I want, WHEN I want. So simple.
    BTW, Todd…”gas pedal”?
    Were you driving an old ’61 Jimmy equipped with a gas engine at some point in time? Doubtful.
    Seems to be you’re full of words.
    Alas, not words of wisdom.
    Please find some other subject upon which to expound.
    You’re at a serious disadvantage in the trucking department.

    1. Todd McCann says:

      Hello Buster,

      Thanks for your spirited response to the article. First off, you are exactly right. Automatic transmissions are mainly being used by companies because it’s easier to bring in new drivers. But my question to you is, why is that a bad thing? Personally, I’d rather have a newbie focusing on lane position and surrounding traffic than panicking to find the right gear. If a rookie wants to move up to a manual tranny once they gain some experience, then they’ve got that option. Lots of carriers still out here with stick shifts.

      Secondly, my use of the term “gas pedal.” Again, technically you’re correct. My bad. I’m just not a stickler for this kind of stuff. Everyone reading the article knew what I was talking about, including you. I don’t get bent out of shape if a trucker says he/she needs to “get gas” either (I always say “fuel” in that context though).

      If you get worked up about this kind of stuff, then I trust you don’t mind if a person ignores you if you ask for a Kleenex when the box clearly says Puffs. You weren’t very precise after all. And you should really get bent out of shape if your spouse brings home generic brand cotton swabs on a stick after you asked her to buy Q-tips. Just saying.

      As for me being full of words. Yes, I am. That is the very nature of a podcast/blog. Without words there would be silence on a podcast or a blank page on the blog. And need I remind you the Trucker Dump is my podcast/blog, therefore I will continue to expound on any subject I choose. The tagline clearly says “One driver’s views and OPINIONS…” If you don’t like those opinions, you’re welcome to find a less entertaining trucking site with less errors. Unless of course someone is holding you at gunpoint and making you read my articles.

      And while we’re on the subject of spouting “not words of wisdom,” let’s discuss your comment. For starters, the brand name Kool-Aid is spelled with a capital K and a capital A. You used a lower case a. Congratulations on the dash though. Spot on. Also, the ending quotation mark you used around the words “gas pedal” is wrong. It should have gone AFTER the question mark.

      There. See how easy it is to make mistakes? Alas, I won’t tell you to quit commenting on my blog posts. Just be sure they’re perfect before you post them. Because what’s good for the goose is good for the gander, right?

      My point is, writing is hard. It’s even harder to do it perfectly, especially when you write as many words as I do. And podcasting, well, it’s basically impossible for your mouth to say everything perfectly the way you formed the words in your head. So my advice to you is, if the written blog post bothered you, please don’t ever submit yourself to the torture of the Trucker Dump podcast.

  16. JT Peters says:

    Todd, this was a fantastic post. Really cool to hear about floating the gears.

  17. Matthew says:


    I’m trying to get into trucking school now. I’ve always thought they were all manual transmissions. I’m relieved to know that there are automatics.

    As you stated to Buster, as a beginner I’d feel far more comfortable focusing on the road and my surroundings instead of if I’m shifting right. At least until I get to be experienced.

    By the way, love how you handled Buster by the way. ?

  18. Eaglewind357 says:

    Buster the good old days are gone, in some ways that’s to bad, and to hang on to the integrity of some of those days is a good thing but to be critical of things or people that are hopefully making life better and more understandable is only hurting your self as well as in the eyes of others.
    This is a great,very good, informative eye opening blog, thank you for sharing open mindedly the info and knowledge you have on the subject.

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