Seating has a profound impact on driver comfort, satisfaction, and ultimately safety. Of all the points of contact a fleet has with a driver, it's seating that is a constant reminder of how much the company appreciates its workers.
Do what you can with safety technology and specs like aluminum wheels and disc brakes, but drivers aren't happy when they aren't comfortable.
"Drivers have a rigorous and physically demanding job being on the road for so long, so they're looking for products and solutions that can address discomfort," said Kelly Muldoon, product marketing director for the Faurecia Comfort and Wellness Solutions Division. Faurecia is a France-based global automotive supplier dating to 1914 whose first product were seats for trams and the Paris Metro.
Muldoon's remarks came as a panelist at an S.4 Cab and Controls Study Group session aimed at looking into spec'ing cabs and sleepers for driver comfort and safety at the Technology & Maintenance Council's Annual Meeting in Atlanta.
There are not many bad seats on the market these days, but some drivers have distinct preferences for one brand or model of seat over another. As retention bonuses, slipping a seat of the driver's choosing into a cab is a pretty easy way to show a driver that their service matters. For fleet managers facing difficulty in attracting new talent and retaining the talent that they have, looking for new ways of keeping drivers comfortable and happy is a necessity.
So, how do we measure comfort? It's subjective, and that's why letting the driver choose a seating product sends the right message. But it's not just the physical aspect, like the thickness of the foam inside the seat cushion. There's something psychological about comfort as well.
Faurecia came up with a way to test drivers' responses to certain products using electroencephalograms to measure brain activity and responses to the situation. "That lead to the development of an aftermarket seat cover that you install on the seat after it comes out of the factory," Muldoon said.
"The cover incorporates heat, ventilation, and pneumatic massage, which is different from vibration massage," she continued. "It has inflatable bladders which we find to be more effective. There’s also a lumbar adjustment, which is one of the primary features that drivers have told us was important to them."
And there's a safety side to this as well. "Not only are you addressing physical comfort, but also safety, because of the high risk of developing blood clots from sitting for long periods of time," Muldoon said. "Drivers can't constantly be stopping, so using dynamic massage and ventilation to get the blood circulating impacts safety as well."
Muldoon said there's still a lot of room to incorporate sensor technology into the cockpit of the vehicle and especially into seats.
"You can start taking in biometric data from the driver, things like heart rate and respiration rate, and it becomes really powerful because you start to see and anticipate," she said. "For example, if the driver is becoming drowsy or stressed, Then you take that information and convert it into an action with the full system, like turning on the HVAC system if they're drowsy. Turning on the ventilation in the seat. Having more dynamic massage. All those things impact comfort, but they can also impact safety."
Who would have thought fleets could be collecting data from a seat, but apparently, it's possible. Once fleets learn to recognize patterns in driver data, they can start to make educated decisions about things that are happening in their fleet, according to Muldoon.
She said that if sensors embedded in the seat could reveal patterns in driver breathing or heart rate changes-- in effect, detecting the early onset of sleepiness-- drivers could be advised to take a break or have a nap or take some other corrective action.
"But ultimately, the way we see the future we would like to have the driver exit the vehicle feeling better than when they entered," Muldoon added. "So, it's about enhancing that onboard experience for a safer and more comfortable journey."
And it can all start with a comfortable seat.