Making new medium and heavy-duty trucks more user-friendly and driver-centric

Products from Curtiss-Wright’s Industrial division – including its legacy Arens Controls brand – can be found in a wide-range of applications for today’s most advanced commercial vehicles, including medium- and heavy-duty trucks and transit buses. In fact, the company is a major producer of electronic transmission shifters for North America’s commercial vehicle sector.

So, when approached by a leading OEM and asked to develop its first electronic column-based transmission shifter, Curtiss-Wright was well placed to offer design and engineering advice and work with its customer to define the requirements for the product. 

The Challenge
Working as a Tier 1 supplier, Curtiss-Wright was tasked with designing a solution that incorporated both the standard controls and functionality of a transmission shifter – such as gear selection, shift-up/down – and additional features including engine braking. 

These functions also had to be designed into a single, column-based electronic shifter system that would make the truck’s cab more efficient, more user-friendly and free-up vital real estate on the instrument panel for other essential feedback systems, switches, controls and value-added options including navigation screens to be incorporated. 

However, perhaps the biggest challenge faced by Curtiss-Wright was integrating more software communications into a package that, coupled with the mechanics, ensures safe operation that eliminates all possible error codes.

No matter what the operator demands of a component, it must always remain in a safe operating mode. So, whatever task a driver asks of the gear selection and/or engine function, the software Curtiss-Wright developed is error-proved to ensure that the transmission doesn’t receive an invalid command.

The challenges aren’t just based on ergonomics and efficiency. Traditionally, trucks had been driven using manual transmissions and, in North America for example, there is a real shortage of skilled Class 8 drivers. So, moving towards automated manuals and automatics has made the operation of trucks simpler for new drivers, therefore reducing the skill-shortage gap. 

An electronic column-based transmission shifter makes it very easy for new operators to climb into the truck cab and start driving, without having had a lot of experience for operating manual transmissions. Drivers can also become efficient operators fairly quickly because automatic transmissions, coupled with our column shifters, make it easier for new drivers to operate a truck.

The Solution
Traditionally a Tier 2 supplier of pushbutton and lever-based transmission controllers to some of the world’s leading transmission manufacturers, Curtiss-Wright’s solutions are typically bundled through OEM product lines and eventually mounted on a dashboard or console in the cab. 

However, predicting a trend towards automatic transmissions, Curtiss-Wright has been working with OEM design teams and engineers about column shifters for over 10 years. The automatic transmission prediction was subsequently confirmed from input over numerous research sessions and driver clinics with end-user customers and operators; and the move towards integrating an electronic column shifter into the cab layout started to gain momentum to a point where Curtiss-Wright knew its development was required. 

With support from the transmission suppliers, product engineers from Curtiss-Wright and industry-leading OEMs started work on a Class 8, column-mounted electronic shifter. The OEMs industrial design team championed its look, functionality and operation, with Curtiss-Wright developing the tooling, software and IP for the core of the product. 

While most systems like these are customized for a particular project, partnering with OEMs to design, engineer and launch a solution often yields the best results.

Launching an off-the-shelf product in the hope of being approached by an OEM isn’t the most successful way of bringing a product to market. Instead, you must work with OEMs from the ground up, designing the core, keeping the core as your IP, re-using that core and then, with other OEMs, semi-customizing the overall solution so it looks, integrates and operates with their own products.

As well as freeing up vital instrument panel space for other feedback and safety-related features for the driver, ergonomically, a column-based shifter also allows OEMs to remove traditional console-mounted transmission solutions that take up space around the driver’s seat and inhibit maneuverability around the cab. Its placement on the steering column also allows drivers to easily reach and smoothly operate shifting and engine braking, while ensuring hands are kept on the wheel and eyes on the road. 

Incorporating multiple functions including shift-up/down and engine braking into a single solution also enables OEMs to take cost out of their trucks as they negate the requirement for two or more different component parts. 

The Results
From the outset, the truck in question was designed to be one that drivers would want to drive, so hundreds of operator and driver recommendations shaped the design of its ergonomically advanced interior and instrument panel.

Using the Curtiss-Wright column-based transmission shifter – which uses industry-standard SAE J1939 electrical architecture – couldn’t be easier. Gear selection (shift-up or shift-down) is operated by pushing/pulling the shift horizontally; engine braking can be engaged with a simple upwards movement of the shifter and then controlled on the downward vertical axis; and manual/auto selection by simply engaging the pushbutton on the end of the shifter stalk. And depending on the operators’ choice of transmission, modes can be selected by rotating the shifter’s head to either L, D, N or R for Eaton transmissions and D, N or R for Allison transmissions.

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