Stirring times for enduring Eaton

By: Steve Brooks

Date: 15.11.2021


There was a time when arguably the most common component in heavy-duty trucks was the Roadranger gearbox. But then came automation and with trailblazing technology now driving the tempo like never before, Eaton will late next year launch an entirely new automated shifter called the Endurant XD 18-speeder

Back in what some might say were the good ol’ days of Australian road transport, you couldn’t call yourself a truck driver – or at least, not a real truck driver – if you couldn’t use a Roadranger manual gearbox with any degree of proficiency. In some quarters, it’s an opinion that still exists. Indeed, such was the hold of Eaton’s constant-mesh, twin countershaft shifter on heavy-duty trucking that anything other than a Roadranger was for decades seen as something outside the norm.

Spicer, for example, made a good fist of fighting Eaton’s supremacy in a multitude of demanding roles and Mack, of course, had its own brand of highly durable boxes specific to its own models. Still, neither came close to diminishing Roadranger’s domination. Meantime, for those companies and drivers challenged by the more artful skills required of the all-American constant-mesh class, several European brands offered the all-synchro alternative.

But so entrenched was the Australian market’s liking for Roadranger’s established abilities and cost-effective qualities that continental powerhouses like Mercedes-Benz made Eaton’s 15-speeder the standard stirrer in many of its former heavy-duty models. So, too, did early Iveco entrants, while even Scania and Volvo were occasionally known to add a Roadranger in place of their in-house synchromesh boxes for some applications. All up, nothing came within a bull’s roar of Roadranger’s rule and quite simply, nothing offered the operational diversity and ratio spread of a model mix spanning nine, 10, 13, 15 and later, 18-speed transmissions, either in direct-drive or overdrive forms.

Through the mid to late ’80s, however, evolution was rolling into revolution. Slowly, very slowly at first, the signs that technology was pushing drivetrain development to bold new dimensions were apparent to those who looked close enough. Automation was on the way and Eaton’s European division was soon enough a prominent player in what would become a brave new world in transmission technology, initially with its semi-automated mechanical transmission, or SAMT.

Stirring times for enduring Eaton

One of the first images of the 18-speed Endurant XD, headed our way in the second half of 2022.

Many details are still to be revealed but it is an entirely new, fully automated platform from Eaton

On the other side of the Atlantic though, North America was much slower on the automation uptake until Volvo’s and Daimler’s earlier acquisition of several US truck brands eventually, and very gradually, slid European influence into powertrain development, with automated transmissions ultimately climbing high on the agenda. Nonetheless, the American market with its historic liking for the durability and inherent economies of constant-mesh shifters, particularly Roadranger and most particularly in the linehaul sector, proved a tough nut to crack. So, too, were most Australian operators sceptical of technology that took shift control out of the driver’s hands.

Indeed, it wasn’t until 1997 that Eaton Australia took its first tentative stab at an automated shifter with a system called AutoSelect, introduced here about three years after its US debut. Eaton described AutoSelect as ‘… a partially automated Roadranger transmission that automatically selects and engages the transmission’s gears’, with initial use limited to the 10-speed Roadranger and engines with 1000 to 1600lb-ft of torque. By today’s standards, AutoSelect was undeniably low-tech, effectively using an electro-mechanical shift system to replace the gearlever with a press-button Morse pad, and allowing the driver to make shifts by simply adjusting throttle pressure.

Basically, press the accelerator down for a downshift, ease off for an upshift. Even so, several stints in different truck and trailer demo units at least confirmed the potential for a self-shifting manual box, especially for local and regional distribution work. Beyond that though, automation with its additional cost premium gained little attention and despite an extensive demonstration program, Eaton AutoSelect failed to attract much interest and quickly fell by the wayside.

AutoShift to UltraShift-Plus

Undaunted, the technology kept creeping ahead and almost five years after AutoSelect, Eaton Australia introduced the second generation of America’s AutoShift system which still used a clutch pedal for starting and stopping but offered a significantly more advanced level of automation, predominantly in Eaton’s popular 18-speed transmission.

But if AutoSelect was uneventful, AutoShift was downright disappointing and almost archaic compared to the increasingly slick, smooth and highly intuitive automated mechanical transmissions (AMT) coming from the Europeans, led largely by Volvo with its superb I-shift box.

Stirring times for enduring Eaton

Eaton Australia business unit manager and transmission guru, Graeme Weston. Can’t hide his optimism for the future of Endurant XD

It was soon evident that Eaton’s problem stemmed from the software protocols of the different US engine makes. A Cummins engine, for example, used different algorithms to a Cat or Detroit engine, and when that was combined with the vast variations in applications and operating conditions, programming AutoShift for individual engine brands and applications became complex in the extreme.

The result was a self-shifter that regularly shifted too late or too early or too often. About this point in AutoShift’s Australian career an Eaton engineer named Graeme Weston was increasingly mentioned as someone with the skills to fine-tune AutoShift to suit various requirements, but we’ll get back to him shortly. Moreover, the introduction of a Gen III AutoShift helped streamline the engine/transmission relationship, but inadvertently easing Eaton’s AMT issues were the changing dynamics of the corporate world.

Cat walked away from the truck engine business altogether, Detroit Diesel was firmly part of a Daimler group intent on keeping the engine for its own Freightliner and Western Star brands, and similarly, Volvo and Mack were pushing ahead with an in-house powertrain. Thus, in the AMT space, Cummins and Eaton became more mutually compatible than ever. Locally, AutoShift at least demonstrated that Eaton was intent on competing with the Europeans whose AMTs were becoming standard issue in almost all their new models.

Consequently, the arrival around 2010 of UltraShift and later, UltraShift-Plus, delivered the impetus needed to reboot Eaton’s ambitions and largely make the transmission specialist a stronger player in the AMT game, based of course on the ever-resilient Roadranger platform, and more than ever linked to Cummins and by association, Kenworth. In the US though, far bigger developments and far deeper discussions were setting the scene for a bold new chapter in Eaton’s business. In fact, the most important chapter in the company’s long history was being crafted, inextricably tying two giants in the engine and drivetrain industries to a future which would effectively fight the Europeans at their own game: Vertical integration!

As we reported in 2019: ‘Two years ago, Cummins Inc. paid a big heap of money – around US£600 million – to consolidate a joint venture with transmission and drivetrain specialist Eaton Corporation. ‘The result was an entirely new division called Eaton Cummins Automated Transmission Technologies … with the complete intention of creating advanced powertrain packages developed as a single integrated unit. ‘European truck makers are, of course, the masters of vertical integration – using in-house engine, transmission and driveline equipment – and their influence on the global trucking industry and North America in particular has never been greater.

‘Even Paccar, that fountain of American fervour, is now entrenched in pushing the vertically integrated line, increasingly promoting its own self-described Paccar powertrain in both Kenworth and Peterbilt brands. It all starts with the DAF-designed MX-11 and MX-13 engines built in purpose-built facilities in the US, driving through the so-called Paccar transmission. ‘Yet such are the contortions – if not contradictions – of modern corporate life that the Paccar transmission is actually a rebranded version of Eaton’s modern 12-speed Endurant HD automated box which is, in fact, one of the first creations to emerge from the Eaton Cummins joint venture.’

Stirring times for enduring Eaton

On show in the US, a Cummins X15 coupled to a 12-speed Endurant HD transmission.

Endurant shifters are the product of a vital joint venture forged in 2017 which created a new entity called Eaton Cummins Automated Transmission Technologies

To anyone with even a modicum of foresight, it was inevitable that an Endurant version of Eaton’s 18-speeder would ultimately emerge. And so it will in the second half of 2022 in the form of the Endurant XD, but in a notable departure from tradition, it will not be based on a Roadranger platform other than retaining the highly durable twin countershaft gear layout. In short, XD is a completely new design and in our part of the world, it would probably be hard to find anyone more excited with the new transmission’s potential than the leader of Eaton Australia’s vehicle group, Graeme Weston.

A good Weston

There isn’t much Graeme hasn’t done with Eaton since joining the company in 1993 as an engineering intern with a freshly framed Bachelor of Mechanical Engineering degree.

His career has steadily moved through stints in sales, key account and regional management roles, managing South-East Asian operations, and vitally, a US posting in Seattle as Kenworth account manager before returning to Australia in 2006 just as the Gen III AutoShift hit the local market. Despite a humble and somewhat conservative nature, his reputation for expertise in ‘tuning’ Eaton’s automated offerings to various requirements grew quickly and from the outside looking in, Graeme Weston had perhaps unwittingly become Eaton’s quintessential ‘go to’ man. However, his biggest and most important role arrived last year when, following a restructure at Eaton Australia which saw the company divest its hydraulics division, he was promoted to business unit manager of the entire vehicle group.

For many, his appointment was seen as both deserved and wise as the company now prepares for the introduction of an entirely new product platform emerging from its critical joint venture with Cummins.

Stirring times for enduring Eaton

One of the first ‘local’ initiatives of the Eaton Cummins joint venture was the Cummins Integrated Power project, led by the technical expertise of Cummins South Pacific engineering chief Neil Husband (below left) and Eaton Australia’s Graeme Weston. Vitally, for fleets such as Don Watson Transport, impressive fuel gains have not come at the cost of performance

Stirring times for enduring Eaton In a wide-ranging phone discussion recently, Graeme was quick to refute any suggestion that Eaton Australia’s current transmission business is just a shadow of the days when Roadranger ruled the heavy-duty truck market.

In fact, he insists, “We’re selling more components than we’ve ever sold before. Our manual transmission is very strong and still the choice for many customers. “It’s a healthy market for us, but the market is certainly more concentrated.”

And obviously enough, that concentration sits largely within Kenworth’s continued domination of the heavy-duty truck market. Quick to emphasise that Eaton Australia has many customers other than Paccar’s Kenworth, it is nonetheless a practical Graeme Weston who asserts, “Sure, we are enjoying Kenworth’s success and that has certainly shown through in the COVID pandemic which highlights the importance of local manufacturing and being able to provide the local market with product that’s manufactured here.” But given European ownership of brands which were once strong Eaton customers, is the company’s local future now inextricably linked to Kenworth, typified perhaps by the rebranding of Eaton’s Endurant HD 12-speeder as a Paccar automated transmission?

Quiet for a few moments, he answered, “I wouldn’t say it’s inextricably linked because we do have other customers but the automated side of our transmission business comes from the Eaton Cummins joint venture and when Paccar determined that they wanted to have their own branded drivetrain, that was something the joint venture was able to facilitate.” As for the performance to date of the 12-speed Paccar transmission, an upbeat Graeme Weston says the box, “… has been well accepted and operating very well. “We (Eaton) still do the shift-point tuning of the transmission but we work very closely with Kenworth locally, of course.

It’s very collaborative on all manner of integration between the engine (Paccar MX) and transmission.” Again, however, he was quick to emphasise, “It is an Eaton Cummins transmission, not Eaton alone. As far as new products and developments go, it is lock, stock and barrel a joint venture arrangement.

“It is in our mutual best interests to maximise the powertrain (and) the real path forward is to have that deeper integration between the two, Cummins and Eaton. “Call it vertical integration or whatever, we’re simply working on the deepest possible integration in the powertrain.”

Stirring times for enduring Eaton

Paccar powertrain combines the DAF-derived MX-11 or MX-13 engine coupled to the Paccar-branded 12-speed automated transmission, otherwise known as the Endurant HD. However, there’s no suggestion there will be a ‘Paccar’ version of the 18-speed Endurant XD due in the back half of 2022

Yet one of the first truly ‘local’ initiatives stemming from the joint venture was the introduction several years ago of Cummins Integrated Power, a development based on a high torque (2050lb-ft) version of a 550hp X15 engine coupled to a specially calibrated Eaton UltraShift-Plus automated 18-speed transmission.

As we reported after an exclusive test run in 2019, the technical team heading the project was Eaton’s Graeme Weston and his engineering counterpart at Cummins South Pacific, Neil Husband. The aim of the exercise was unequivocal: ‘To prove to linehaul B-double operators that an integrated powertrain is no longer the exclusive domain of continental corporations, and most importantly, that high performance need not be compromised in the pursuit of good fuel economy.’ Even so, and despite the stated success of the Cummins Integrated Power project, are the Europeans still more advanced in transmission technology than Eaton?

Quick to respond, Graeme said, “In the past I would’ve agreed that the Europeans were more advanced but the focus of our work is integration and we saw some really big improvements with Cummins Integrated Power, but Endurant sets a whole new benchmark. “We won’t be playing catch-up and we now have all the tools to set the benchmark,” he added earnestly. And the biggest tool in the chest will be the 18-speed Endurant XD which is effectively the big brother of the 12-speed HD version and, according to Graeme Weston, “… follows a similar design philosophy to the 12-speed and is only available as an AMT.”

Critical changes, he continues, include the use of all helical gearing, the provision of six reverse gear ratios compared to four in the current 18-speeder, optimised ratios for enhanced fuel economy and, “one of the biggest changes is the ability to really fine tune a software programme to meet our local needs and requirements. “From that perspective alone, it makes a major difference compared to the current UltraShift-Plus.” Still, it’s an obviously cautious Graeme Weston who says there are a number of factors yet to be decided, including a launch date sometime in the second half of next year. “Exact timing is still to be determined,” he says, “Our aim is to launch as quickly as we can but it’s not yet known if it will be at the same time as the US launch.”

Will Endurant XD be sold alongside the current 18-speed manual Roadranger? “The manual will be an ongoing product from Eaton. There’s still a market for a non-synchro manual transmission and as long as that market is there, Eaton will supply,” he says firmly.

Will the XD immediately supersede the current UltraShift-Plus automated box? “That hasn’t been fully determined yet,” he quickly answers, adding that the Endurant XD will start with gross weights up to B-double applications and gradually work up from there, though the “… overall view is to use Endurant XD where UltraShift-Plus currently operates.” But will the XD’s’ input torque capacity be greater than Eaton’s current limit of 2250lb-ft?

Again, “Torque capacities will be divulged closer to the release.” Importantly, particularly given that around 30 percent of all new Kenworths are now fitted with an automated transmission, Graeme was asked, ‘Will there be a Paccar-branded version of the Endurant XD as there is with the HD? “I have no knowledge of that,” he said bluntly.

It was a long shot, but it seemed reasonable to also ask, ‘Is an integral retarder part of the Endurant XD design?’ Once more, “That hasn’t been confirmed. I can’t say I’ve seen anything on a retarder as part of the design at this stage (but) if there was real market demand for an integral retarder, it’s perhaps not off the table.”


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Critically though, it was a decidedly definite Graeme Weston who emphasised that thorough testing of Endurant XD is paramount in Eaton Australia’s plans.

“We rely on all the extensive testing that’s being done in the US for the base transmission and reliability. Talking to the team in the US, they have that totally under control and on track to meet the reliability targets.” For local testing, “There are a couple of pre-production units here now and we’re just embarking on the calibration and tuning process.

It’s still early days but the signs are already very encouraging,” he asserted before adding, “The biggest difference we can make, and the biggest difference for the fleet operator and driver, is how the transmission actually performs in the vehicle: Does it deliver the fuel economy, is the driver happy with it, and 99 percent of that comes down to how the software is calibrated for local requirements. “We’ve talked a lot about those things and having that local experience really makes a big difference in the final product.” Despite the details still waiting confirmation, it is an entirely positive Graeme Weston who insists the Endurant XD is an exceptional step forward for Eaton Australia, taking the brand’s automated transmission standards to an entirely new, game-changing level.

“It really sets our trajectory for AMT for the next 10 years, so I’m absolutely looking forward to it,” he says with total conviction. “But I also know we have to put the work in to make sure it’s right straight out of the box and right now, that’s where our efforts are focussed. “With something as important as this, there are no second chances.”

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