Oakley Transport is a food-grade tank operation out of Lakeland, Fla. Actually, it's more than that - it is also a citrus hauler out of the groves and in to the processing plants. But it's the over-the-road tank operation that we had come to see.

When you hear food-grade tank operation, you know several things: It's a just-in-time operation; reliability of equipment is paramount; driver experience is essential; and those tanks are unbaffled. 

And green is good, because food producers and processors are picky. 

Oakley calls itself the first step in America's food production. It hauls all kinds of liquid food - every kind of citrus juice, sugar, cooking oil, coconut oil, alcohols such as whiskey (a very fine foodstuff!), you name it. If it can be pumped into and out of a tank and it goes into food, Oakley hauls it.

And it is hauled in unbaffled tanks, because cleanout between loads is absolutely critical. In fact, it's so critical that many shippers require paperwork that shows the previous three loads in a tank so they are confident that even when cleaned thoroughly every time, there's not the merest shadow of a chance of contamination of a food-grade load.

Unbaffled tank loads are an interesting haul. If they are relatively lightweight, they fill the tank and stay put. If they are dense and they load out, there's room for slosh. And slosh they do.

Under acceleration, they slam back to decelerate the outfit, then race to the front to pound you in the back when you decel.

Pulling away from a stoplight causes this slosh. It hits the back of the trailer just as you try to grab a gear and the truck slows remarkably, messing up the timing of the shift. Go to try again and the liquid has sloshed to the front of the tank and the truck takes off, messing up the shift again. 

Our question: Could the Eaton UltraShift cope with these wild fluctuations?

Different Strokes

We had already experienced an unbaffled tank earlier in the year, pulling a dummy load of water and driving a Volvo VN with Volvo's I-Shift transmission. That was a test of the transmission's ability to handle an awkward load. It sloshed about some and the I-Shift performed impeccably. 

But it didn't have to deal with anything like the fluctuations caused by this load of molasses behind this Oakley Volvo tractor. It careened back and forth in the tank so much that if you didn't sit at a junction with foot firmly planted on the brake pedal, it'd punch you out into the intersection. Pull away from a stoplight and it would slam to the back of the tank, then belt us in the back just about the time the transmission picked up third gear in the 10-speed UltraShift. As the 485-horsepower Volvo got into the power again, the load rushed off back in the tank.

With a manual, this takes patience and experience. That's why Oakley hires mostly older drivers. But drivers are always a concern.

That's just one of the reasons Oakley is transitioning its fleet of 350 tractors into all-Eaton automated transmissions. And, incidentally, all in Volvo tractors.

The transition is largely due to David O'Kelley, Eaton's field manager in Florida who has called on Oakley for years. Through sheer persistence and with the cooperation of General Manager Craig Stephens, they managed to persuade Oakley President and second-generation owner Tommy Oakley to try out five trucks with the UltraShift 10-speed. Now the fleet is in transition toward all-Volvo and all-UltraShift.

According to Stephens, there are good reasons - not least of which is the driving ease of the automated transmission. Other benefits include fuel economy, driver retention, driveline durability, uptime and safety - even driver recruitment. It seems drivers now come to the fleet asking if the trucks are automateds. As a bonus, they are pleased that the tractors are Volvos. Apparently, the word about the trucks' driver survivability in an accident is getting out.

But it wasn't smooth sailing for Stephens. He had to convince Tommy Oakley that the transmissions would work. Because of the critical uptime requirements of the hauls, Oakley couldn't afford to have breakdowns. You've heard about the penalties the carmakers place on carriers that don't get loads on time? Stephens says those pale in comparison with halting a food-processing plant. "We haven't written a check yet, though," he says. 

That was critical in the decision to go with the UltraShift as Oakley Transport settled on an all-Eaton driveline for all the trucks in the fleet, based on previous uptime experience and the relationship with Eaton's O'Kelley.

It has proven to be a good decision. Stephens says the Volvos are reliable and durable, offering the bonus of good fuel economy. The trucks currently in the fleet are powered by D13 engines - Volvo's new 13-liter engine for the 2007 emissions regs. But these trucks were all brought in as 2006 model units, complying with 2004 standards, so they have no diesel particulate filters or '07 calibrations. That's a conscious decision by Stephens. "We're part of the industry 50 percent downturn. We want others to see what might go wrong with the new engines," he says.

All the Oakley over-the-road tractors are equipped with transmission PTOs and pumps, because a lot of the product in the trailers is too viscous for gravity unloading. So the trailers have stainless steel pumps, driven from the truck PTO. As part of the Eaton upgrades, all PTOs are Chelsea through-drive on the back of the transmission, driven from the countershaft and not mounted to the side or bottom of the transmissions. The reason, says O'Kelley, is that if there's a problem with the mounting bolts loosening, the high mount of the through-drive PTO means that transmission lube doesn't leak out. And, in fact, Oakley has had no issues with burned-out transmissions from PTO leaks.

Green Fleet

Other interesting specs include 8 5/8-inch-wide brakes and spring brake chambers on both drive axles. Oakley is ultra-concerned with stopping and safety. 

All the trucks have auxiliary power units to cut engine idling. This is of concern because the fleet is domiciled in Florida, where a lot of the loads originate, and air conditioning is a fact of life. The target is to reach less than 15 percent idle time, and the company has a rigorous compliance program, flagging idling as part of its SensorTracs monitoring.

Drivers like the APUs. Not only do they enjoy the comfort and convenience of in-cab 100-volt supply, but they can reduce the likelihood of ticketing for idling as more and more jurisdictions move to outlaw the practice.

"Idle time includes PTO operation," said Stephens. "So the actual idling may only be 5 percent."

Being a bulk carrier, Oakley is extremely weight sensitive. In fact, with federal regulation allowing 400 pounds for APUs (even though some states don't have enabling legislation), Oakley runs to an 80,400-pound gross weight. All drivers carry what Stephens describes as a certificate showing the allowance, and he says they have yet to have a problem.

Using APUs has benefited Oakley in another way. Just recently, says Stephens, a soy-milk customer significantly increased its percentage of freight to Oakley because it sees the company as "green" in its efforts to minimize idling. And green is often a concern of food producers and processors.

With weight an issue, all the tractors are spec'd with aluminum wheels, aluminum clutch housings and aluminum transmission crossmembers. 

Another critical item is fifth-wheel height. The tank has to sit absolutely level so it will scale the load equally on truck and trailer axles.

On The Road

So how does the 10-speed UltraShift perform? I found it easy to use. I started out from the Florida terminal with O'Kelley riding shotgun, using the manual mode and upshifting as early as I could to maneuver out of the yard. It's just easier that way because you can minimize rpms. But O'Kelley told me to keep it in drive and let the transmission sort out what was needed once we were on the road. 

It turned out to be good advice as I accelerated away from the driveway and got the first piledriver thump in the back. This sort of stuff can really mess with gearshift timing, especially if you float shift the transmission.

Thereafter on the relatively short drive, I kept it in D, though I did switch the Jake in and out somewhat.

Under deceleration, the transmission downshifts early when the retarder is selected (not a Jake on the Volvo, but the V Brake). It works very well in the higher gears, but as you slow down to the low side of the transmission, the relatively short periods in each gear prompted all kinds of lively activity in the tank, so I switched it off each time I slowed for the many traffic lights on Highway 27, running north-south just to the west of Orlando.

The UltraShift made short work of pulling away from the lights, but no amount of feathering the throttle or backing down power could make up for the sloshing of all that molasses. I'd pull away with the truck feeling dead, then it would race ahead, slow again. We'd pick up a gear and then the liquid would slam into the head of the trailer. I later asked if this was hell on the fifth wheels. "Not really," said maintenance director David Cahill. "They stand up very well."

I missed having a trailer hand valve. I like it when pulling away on a ramp, especially since the UltraShift has a centrifugal clutch and it needs a few rpms to bite. The trick when starting out is to get straight on to the throttle and get the truck moving before it has a chance to roll. I did have the usual issues with backing up on returning to the terminal, where you need enough rpms to engage the clutch, but just not too many so you take off like a jackrabbit in reverse. 

The same applies to backing under the trailer. I suspect that a little use of service brake and rpms could be the answer, but this time the outfit was hooked up for me, so I didn't have an opportunity to put my theory to the test.

As we noted recently in a Peterbilt/Cummins test, the match with the engine was a whole lot better that some of the engineering trucks we have driven in the past. With this truck, loaded to 80,000 pounds (maybe 80,400 pounds using the APU exemption the fleet applies), the progression through the gears was smooth, with the re-application of throttle nicely progressive once the shift was completed. It was also possible to persuade the transmission to pick up a higher gear on the more open sections of the busy route by backing out of the throttle. Once the upshift was complete, slight application of the footfeed again was sufficient to hold cruise speed without incurring a downshift. When needed, though, the transmission would respond quickly with the necessary shift.

Post Drive

At the debriefing after the drive, I had nothing but compliments for the transmission. For a fleet like Oakley, it seems a perfect fit. They have drivers who are heading toward the end of their career. (If you think about it, the loads are great, they don't have to be fingerprinted and for the most part, the receiver wants it off as soon as possible.)

So they are experienced drivers, but they haven't necessarily ever pulled an unbaffled trailer. The automated transmission handles any concerns there, while allowing the drivers to concentrate on the driving task that is often in congested, urban areas. That task is only made easier by the Volvos with their tight turning and great visibility. As a total package, it works well for Oakley, allowing for safety, economy, driver contentment and reliability and productivity.

It's a great basis for building a business that's all about service.