Con-way Getting On Board With Automatic Transmissions

by Jana Ritter - Published: 6/05/2014

Last week, Con-way Truckload announced that it had ordered 550 new trucks and all but 10 will have automatic transmissions.  Last year the company had surveyed its drivers and among the top requests were automatic trucks and axles that allow more control of how power is distributed to the wheels.


However old school truck drivers like Bill Johnson was skeptical when Con-way first made the announcement to its employees. “I was disappointed when they announced it. I had that mindset ‘real truck drivers’ shift gears,” he said, referring to manual transmissions. But Johnson said his attitude immediately changed after the company gave him the green light to take one of its 540 new automatic trucks out for a spin.

“The first time you get stuck in slow-moving traffic, you’ll appreciate it a lot. I believe they’re safer because you no longer have to worry about gear selection and things like that, and can keep both hands on the wheel and pay attention outside the truck. It’s almost like driving a car — you just happen to have a 53-foot trailer attached to it,” Johnson said.

Up until now, Con-way had only 50 automatic trucks in its fleet and the purchase of 540 more marks a major shift for the company. Gretchen Jackson, recruiting manager for Con-way Truckload, said the purchase was part of an effort to “lower the barrier of entry” for the next generation of truck drivers. “We’ve found that many younger drivers looking to enter the industry prefer the automatic transmissions because it removes the perception that operating a truck is outside of their ability,” she said. Con-way is still unsure whether they will completely shift to trucks with automatic transmissions until they review the data from different brands and models, looking at things like miles per gallon.

Bill Johnson, who is also a 51-year-old Air Force veteran who has traveled more than 269,700 miles and visited all 48 contiguous states since taking a job with Con-way in January 2012, said that aside from everything else, he believes automatic transmissions will make things safer on the highways. “It’s one less thing to worry about and allows you to focus more on maneuvering the truck than shifting the truck,” he said.

 Johnson also said that whether the speed-shift obstacle will be removed for prospective drivers is likely contingent on whether driver schools and community colleges embrace the automatic transmissions. He cites schools such as Crowder College in Neosho, which offers a five-week course to train truck drivers and all of the trucks used currently have manual transmissions.

“Unless the driving schools shift over to automatic transmissions, then people are going to have to shift at least to get through driving school,” Johnson said.