Trucks at Work

What truck executives learned from Flight 1549

As noted in yesterday’s post, Jeffrey Skiles, who served as first officer aboard U.S. Airways Flight 1549 – an aircraft involved in a near aviation-disaster known as the “Miracle on the Hudson” – believes the trucking industry can gain a lot of insight from his experience both in how Flight 1549 safely ditched in the Hudson river on January 15, 2009, and how a shift in aviation culture contributed to Flight 1549’s happy ending.

Three trucking executives who joined Skiles to discuss that theme – Rob Penner with Bison Transport, Greg Pawelski with Con-way (soon to be rebranded under the XPO moniker), seen in the photo at right (Penner at the far left) and Brian Kinsey with Brown Integrated Logistics – all agreed that technology is not going to replace the need for skilled truck drivers. Rather, it will enable higher levels of safety for both the driver and the motorists surrounding them on the highway.

“The great parallel with aviation is autopilot systems,” noted Kinsey. “That is technology that’s been around for 20 years, but there are still two pilots in the cockpit to operate the plane. So autopilot has really turned out to be a tool to make air travel safer and the same will be said of similar technology for trucks.”

The key point, he believes, revolves around speeding up driver reaction time. “We know it takes a human driver 3/4ths of a second to move their foot from the gas pedal to the brake,” Kinsey stressed. “But brake assistance technology can active the brakes in 1/10th of a second.”

Skiles (seen below) noted that he understands how truck drivers must feel facing all of this safety technology now being added to their trucks.

“As a pilot back in the 1990s, I was very much where truck drivers are today,” he explained. “Also, integrating new technology and the training that goes with it is not easy, nor always seamless. And it changes how we operate aircraft; we’ve gone from pilots to being a ‘systems manager’ in many ways. And in our industry, younger pilots adapted easier than the older ones.”

Skiles added that the addition of updated and more detailed versions of autopilot and navigation systems to commercial aircraft over the last few decades also coincided with the retirement of “older” pilots, thus matching up such technologies with a younger generation more comfortable using them.

Yet he stressed that adding both semi- and fully-automated control systems to both planes and trucks doesn’t mean pilots and truck drivers become disinterested couch potatoes along for the ride.

“Training people on not just how to use them but how to then refocus their attention on other key areas to improve safety is where you will get the most benefit,” Skiles noted.

Con-way’s Pawelski echoed that assessment. “New safety technologies allow our drivers to focus more on what is happening around them, rather than what gear they are in, etc.,” he explained. “We also use the data generated by such systems to help coach them to be better, so we understand what the end result of certain driving behaviors are. And we’ve also seen an uptick in the number of one million and two million mile safe drivers within our organization as well; I don’t think the two are unrelated.”

Brown’s Kinsey (seen seated to the far left in the photo at right) added that training in key to making a successful adjustment to how new safety systems can alter truck performance.

“We’ve now equipped our vehicles with air disc brakes on all the wheel ends, but that creates a much more powerful braking,” he said. “So we’ve had to train our drivers on what to expect; that far greater stopping power requires a significant adjustment in terms of how you handle the vehicle. That’s one reason why training is so critical.”

Bison’s Penner added that his fleet spends a lot of time not just training drivers on how to best use new technology – automated mechanical transmissions (AMTs), forward collision warning systems, etc. – but how to troubleshoot them if something goes wrong.

“We also explain to them how such technology helps support and protect them better while on the road,” he added. "That's important because we view them as our 'quarterback' on the highway. And technology gives them the time to stand in the pocket, so to speak, and better see the highway space surrounding them."

Brown’s Kinsey noted, too, that new safety technology only “gradually” enters his operation, as the fleet tends to keep its trucks six to seven years as they only accumulate about 80,000 miles a year on average.

“So we require them to go thru training every time they get into a new truck,” he stressed. “You just can’t assume one truck operates like another. You need to take the time to understand thoroughly the capabilities of what you are operating.”

Yet such technology ultimately benefits drivers in a range of ways, Kinsey emphasized.

“It reduces stress, reduces fatigue, and makes them safer on the job because their alertness level is now higher,” he explained. “Because all the technology in the world is worthless without a skilled operator sitting in the left seat. They are the truck’s primary safety system; they are what makes you or breaks you.”

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