It will be a long time before freight is moved along our nation’s roadways by driverless trucks. Trucks today require rested, safe, competent drivers behind the wheel. And those men and women are – famously – getting harder and harder for fleets to find and keep.
Truck makers have been trying to help. Even while headlines gush about advanced vehicle technologies, a great deal of the enhancements on the latest round of Class 8 trucks are primarily focused on making drivers more comfortable and productive while they’re on the road, as well as increasing their chances of coming home safe and sound.
Focusing on drivers is not a new concept, of course. But it is instructive to see how new technologies and design and engineering methods are blending together on different fronts to create cab interiors with amenities that would have been unheard of just a few years ago.
“When we talk to fleets today, we hear that a lot of them experience greater than 100% driver turnover annually,” says Jim Natchman, heavy-duty product marketing manager for International Trucks. “In fact, a typical driver today may work for a fleet for less than a year before moving on for better treatment. And driver training and background checks cost fleets a lot of money. So there are real benefits to retaining drivers today. And we think the interior of the trucks they drive, work and live in for extended periods is a logical place to start.”
Kenworth says fleets are telling the company that the battle for good, qualified drivers has become more intense with every passing year as more veteran drivers reach retirement age. “For many fleets, replacing drivers can cost upwards of $5,000 or more and also saps the ability of a fleet to respond to emerging business opportunities,” says Marketing Manager Kurt Swihart. Fleets can’t afford to keep turning away business because they can’t find enough good drivers to assign to those new lanes, he says.
“Without a doubt, driver-centric cabs are really a trend,” Swihart says. He says Kenworth’s driver-focused design efforts began as it designed its T680 tractor with the stated intention to create the most driver-friendly truck in the industry – a process it began by sitting down and talking to drivers. “During the concept and development process, Kenworth collected recommendations and suggestions from 75 fleets and maintenance managers and 500 drivers with a goal of creating a new level of both truck performance and driver comfort and ride,” Swihart says. As a result, he says, “customers specifically buy the T680 and T880 to enhance both their productivity and driver retention rates. We’ve even heard about longtime drivers deciding to postpone retirement plans because they feel they can continue working more comfortably in these trucks.”
Freightliner touted a deeper focus on the driver experience when it launched its new Cascadia design. “We want professional drivers to be able to work and be as productive as possible,” says Mike McHorse, manager, on-highway product marketing for Freightliner Trucks. This not only includes the design of the cab, he notes, but also features such as automated manual transmissions that make the truck easier to operate for newer drivers, as well as new features that make the environment and functionality better for the driver, such as additional storage, the optional Driver’s Loft, featuring opposing seats and a dinette/work table that fold down in seconds, and a full-size Murphy bed.
“The simple fact,” McHorse notes, “is that as trucks continue to offer more desirable features, the profession becomes that much more appealing. And, if a fleet can appeal to drivers with their equipment and use it to differentiate themselves from their competitors, they’re willing to spec more premium driver-friendly features.”
A safer, less stressful cab environment
While it’s hard to argue with comfortable and ergonomic interiors, from seats and mattresses to the tiniest storage details, creating a driver-centric cab goes much further than simply making a cab interior more comfortable. A cab is a home and an office. It’s also the nerve center for an 80,000-pound commercial vehicle with the potential to hurt or kill a lot of people if things go wrong. So for designers, safety is another key factor in designing driver-centric interiors.
“Roads are becoming more and more congested, and drivers unfortunately have more distractions to deal with on a daily basis,” says Brian Baliicki, chief interior design for Volvo Trucks North America. That reality, he adds, means designing a layout that puts vital functions and features within easy arm’s reach for drivers as a way of enhancing safety. When features and controls are intuitive, adaptable and improve alertness, he says, they usually result in improved efficiency for both the driver and company.
There was a time when gauges and controls were physically activated and connected by cables, oil lines and air lines, notes Stu Russoli, highway product manager for Mack Trucks. That meant that the dash layout and cab interior were actually dictated by the cables, pipes, tubes and hoses running to your dash. “Today, we have wires to work controls, solenoids to activate the components, wires running to computers (ECUs) to run things, and even digital instruments,” he says. “This enables us to transition from simple and utilitarian cab designs – fitting things where you could due to cables and lines and letting the driver learn where they are – to more driver-friendly layouts of switches and gauges so drivers can see and reach them better.”
Russoli says the next step was understanding the needs of drivers and reducing fatigue by moving controls closer and keeping them visible and within reach. “Mack Trucks went to a ‘wrapped’ dash back in the early ‘90s, and the center panel got a more drastic tilt in 2005 so that drivers could reach out their right arm and be able to see and touch all the switches,” he adds. “All the gauges and switches were designed to be unobstructed and in the driver’s view.”
Freightliner’s McHorse notes that attention to these kinds of details improves safety. “We’ve added passive safety enhancements such as an improved steering which is now further forward to improve precision and reduce driver fatigue, along with an ergonomically designed wraparound dashboard and steering wheel controls so drivers can work without leaning and stretching to see outside the truck or locate needed knobs or switches.”
Then there are active safety systems, such as Freightliner’s Detroit Assurance 5.0, which includes Active Brake Assist for full braking to avoid or mitigate collisions with moving and stationary vehicles and partial warning and potential braking on pedestrians, as well as adaptive cruise control and lane departure warning systems. Other truck makers offer various active safety systems as well, either as standard or optional equipment.
OEMs also must keep up with the fast pace of technological change in our personal lives, Nachtman points out. “We live in a world filled with personal electronic devices, today,” he notes. “So the first thing we did when we sat down to design the new International LT tractor’s cab was focus on adding lots of power outlets so drivers can plug their phones and tablets in.”
Sound dampening has become a big deal in cab design today, too, with many new truck models featuring dramatically reduced interior noise levels – both when a truck is moving and when it’s at rest. “One way to do this is to use the most modern, up-to-date materials in the cab as possible,” Nachtman adds. “As a truck ages and surfaces start to loosen up, we want to have materials in place that can touch, bump or rub together and not make a lot of noise.”
In another noise-reduction effort, Nachtman says International designers doubled the stiffness of cab door panels on its new trucks. “This puts a lot more compression on the door-seal gasket when a door is closed,” he explains. “And that provides more insulation from road noise on the road, and a warmer cab in winter, and a cooler one in the summer.”
Sights, sounds and space
More luxurious cab and sleeper interiors of the type once primarily seen in the owner-operator market are beginning to show up on fleet semis. McHorse notes that the new Freightliner Cascadia can be spec’d with a premium interior packages that feature amenities such as heated/ventilated seats, ambient aircraft-inspired LED lighting and dimmer switches, and dedicated space for drivers to prepare their own meal. There’s also a mini-gym, in the form of the Freightliner In-Cab Training (FIT) System, as well as an integrated C-Pap machine option for drivers suffering from sleep apnea.
Swihart points to the Kenworth T680’s Driver Studio package, which features amenities such as a drawer-style refrigerator and a microwave oven to give drivers greater control over their dietary habits. “Entertainment options are important too,” he adds. “So we also offer an optional EpicVue pre-wire for satellite TV and a premium audio system with 320-watt amp, 10-inch subwoofer and eight stereo speakers.”
And it seems the current trend to making drivers safer and more comfortable is only going to gain steam. Mike Padrnos at OEM and RV interior supplier Lippert says his company is looking at a range of new and futuristic approaches that could transform truck interiors even more. These include a fully functional, dedicated “kitchenette” concept for a cooking and dining area, as well as exploring the potential use of “slide-out” sleeper walls commonly used on recreational vehicles today to dramatically increase interior space when a truck is at rest.
Whether or not the day ever comes when robots finally take over trucking, American truck drivers are now enjoying a golden age of comfort, safety and even luxury on their long hauls away from home.