If there’s one common thread to all the over-the-road tractor models now available, it’s that OEMs have poured reams of research and much thought into seriously enhancing the interior design and features of cabs and sleepers.
All this effort serves a very singular purpose—to assist fleets in recruiting and retaining drivers by providing them literally with home offices on wheels that are safe, productive and comfortable to work in and to live in while they rack up miles and hours, on and off duty.
To be sure, the days of Plain Jane “fleet trucks” easily distinguished if not condemned by drivers for their bare-bones cabs and sleepers are long past. Now what truck buyers and drivers will experience inside any new tractor on the market will likely astound them, even in comparison to trucks that are just a couple of years old.
Indeed, several truck builders point to their latest Class 8 models as boasting cabs designed anew from the ground up with the driver specifically in mind.
What’s more, no OEM is skimping on making improvements to their trucks’ interiors, opting instead to keep a sharp focus on meeting the universal needs of drivers to drive, work and live on the road safely, productively and comfortably.
“Talking to the fleet manager and the driver no longer has to be two different conversations” when it comes to outfitting truck interiors, contends Erik Johnson, on-highway marketing director for Kenworth.
He points out that KW’s newest highway tractor, the T680, was “designed after we spent a couple of years discussing with drivers their likes and dislikes of their current trucks.”
Johnson adds that the OEM did not stop at conducting research with their trucks’ ultimate users, but then brought in an expert—who holds a PhD in ergonomics—“to scientifically relate [to engineers] what the drivers discussed about seats, pedal positions, HVAC controls, etc., in the cab.” He says an overarching design goal for the truck was to make the cab/sleeper environment “more comfortable and less fatiguing to help make it safer for the driver.
“The design mantra for the T680 was drive-work-live,” Johnson adds. “We worked to build not just a truck for driving or a tool for working, but also one that provides a comfortable, safe place for the driver to live while on the road.”
Jerry Warmkessel, Mack’s highway marketing manager, says that lately many fleets visiting the Mack Customer Center to kick tires on new trucks are “bringing their drivers and their techs along with them—and they are definitely valuing their input” on truck specs. He says getting driver input on cab and sleeper features especially is a smart move given the ballooning driver shortage.
“Trucking is now dealing with a 200,000-person driver shortage, and it is estimated that figure will grow to 500,000 within five years,” Warmkessel states. “That fact alone makes what goes into the cab and sleeper more important than ever.”
“What we’ve been hearing more and more from truck buyers over the last couple of years is they want to spec trucks in ways that they can help the driver be more fuel-efficient, more productive and safer,” says Rhonda Zielinski, director of on-highway vehicle strategy for Navistar.
She relates that given how much has changed in truck design of late, the main avenue fleets can pursue to have positive impacts on the driver’s experience on the job is via spec’ing new technologies coupled with becoming better educated on all the features and options available to make trucks more effective work-home spaces for drivers.
A NEW START
Chief engineer Landon Sproull points out that Peterbilt’s latest highway tractor, the Model 579, was “designed off a clean sheet of paper” after the OEM “went out and quizzed fleets and drivers on what they liked about their trucks and what they felt needed improvement for higher driver satisfaction on the job.
Our take on designing this truck was to examine the livework- rest aspects of it for the driver.
“To help accomplish that,” he continues, “we completely changed the ergonomics of the cab and sleeper in recognition that those who make up today’s driving force are much more varied physically than in the past. The result is the Model 579 is designed to ‘fit’ any driver size, from tall to short.” Making this so, Sproull adds, “makes drivers more comfortable and that cuts down on fatigue, which in turn boosts productivity and safety.”
“When we think of what the driver does in the cab/sleeper, it comes down to three things,” says Frank Bio, product manager for Volvo Trucks. “He drives. He has a workstation for paperwork and his computer. And he needs space for sleeping and for rest and relaxation. To provide for all these activities in the most appealing manner, we seek to use all the real estate available inside the truck.”
He says ergonomic design is key to accomplishing this and points out that “Volvo designs its trucks for the 99.9 percentile person, meaning the cabs will well accommodate everyone, including short women.”
Bio adds that throughout the design-and-build process, Volvo employs a “driver’s advocate who okays any changes to the vehicle to ensure nothing is done that will change the vehicle performance the driver expects to experience in the field.”
“Our general perspective is that driver productivity, comfort and safety go hand-in-hand with driver retention,” remarks T.J. Reed, director of product marketing for Freightliner Trucks. “That’s why we find fleets are spending more time speaking with drivers about their needs and wants. And [given the driver shortage], it’s more important than ever for fleets to be able to accommodate drivers of all shapes and sizes.”
Ergonomics are also at play in truck design in a big way, advises Dr. Josef Loczi, manager of engineering strategy & market intelligence for Freightliner’s parent, Daimler Trucks North America. “To improve the design of truck cabs and sleepers, we spend a lot of time with drivers and also drive the trucks ourselves,” he points out.
“We access all that info to optimize the ergonomics as well as by tapping into our own large database on the body size of today’s truck drivers,” Loczi continues. “Our approach aims to make the cab as comfortable and safe as possible. That includes designing the cab to make it possible for the driver to have his hands on the wheel and his eyes on the road as much as possible when he’s driving.”
Kenworth’s Johnson points out that the “less fatigued and more comfortable a driver is, the safer he or she will be.” Toward that end, he notes that KW’s new T680 features automatic temperature controls for the HVAC system so the driver “can turn the dial to whatever temperature setting is comfortable for them. It eliminates the need to constantly look at the controls and make numerous manual adjustments so they can focus on driving.”
He says another safety-booster is the truck’s “smart wheel” that places the most regularly used controls within the steering wheel. “We avoided putting every possible control there. Instead, we studied which controls drivers touch the most—which are for cruise control and music/entertainment systems—and placed them there to use easily without reaching anywhere.”
“There’s no question fatigue is a major factor in accidents,” says Mack’s Warmkessel. “To help alleviate it, when we transitioned to the Pinnacle model [a few years back], we brought the dash closer to the driver, went to suspended pedals, and made the cab deeper. Those changes make it more comfortable for the 99.9 percentile person. It fits all drivers and that lessens fatigue. Thanks to the closer-in dash and suspended pedals, a shorter person can keep their back to the seat and still reach the controls. And the deeper cab means the taller driver has four more inches of room for seat travel. So fatigue is reduced for all drivers.”
Gauge placement and visibility is also crucial to safety. “Our electronic display is placed in the upper center of the dash so drivers can check it with their peripheral vision,” says Warmkessel. “Our primary gauges, such as for fuel and DEF fluid, are NASCAR-style—all read ‘OK’ at the 12 o’clock position so drivers need only glance down to check them.”
In the sleeper, he points out that Mack uses a standard net system to restrain drivers in a bunk in case of an accident as “seat belts in the berth can be very uncomfortable.”
Optionally available from Mack, he notes, is an emergency exit door in the sleeper “as any fire is likely to occur in the engine/cab area. The door is placed curbside at the front end of the bunk. Frankly,” he adds, “I’m shocked that the National Highway Traffic Administration does not mandate these doors.”
Navistar’s Zielinski says that optional safety technologies, such as active braking and collision mitigation systems, are “now being seen less as an added cost and more as a benefit in terms of lowering insurance [premiums] and reducing accidents. The Bendix and Meritor safety systems available help drivers be more aware, awake and safe and will take vehicle control away from the driver when necessary to avoid an accident,” she notes.
“A piece of this [safety spec’ing] is due to the [lower] skill level of many of today’s new drivers,” Zielinski says. “With turnover that’s over 100% commonplace, fleets are just not going to get the cream of the crop applying for jobs. Another spec that can help with this is automated mechanical transmissions [AMT] and automatics, as new drivers can’t operate as safely, productively and efficiently as seasoned ones. These transmissions boost safety because they let the driver pay more attention to the main task of driving.”
Zielinski says that, in general, spec’ing for safety can also help attract better drivers. “With CSA scores following them too, drivers are more concerned than ever with their own ability to operate safely and efficiently” and thus may seek out or be more likely to stay with fleets that provide safer equipment. “Any technology that can help drivers avoid violations will be seen as a boon to them,” she adds.
“Since Peterbilt has gone standard with disc brakes, the ‘take rate’ has grown close to 50%,” reports Sproull. “We’re also standard with electronic stability control, and we are continuing to see a higher take rate on these systems as well.
Freightliner’s Reed points to air bags, lane-departure systems and electronic stability control as among the safety technologies that are being spec’d “more widely” by fleets. As for AMTs, he says the new model recently announced by sister firm Detroit is being well received by customers running demo units. “The volume is still overwhelmingly standard gearboxes here,” he adds, “but once we get the [sales] volume up and gain some scale, we expect to see an uptick.”
“One of the [design] technologies we are deploying is eye-tracking,” advises Daimler’s Loczi, “to determine how frequently and how long a driver scans a gauge. This helps us optimize the driver’s interface with the truck’s controls to improve safety.”
“Passive occupant protection is very important, especially for younger drivers,” says Volvo’s Bio. “That’s why air bags are standard. But occupant protection should extend to the cab’s design itself. We build our cab, which is made of high-strength steel, to absorb energy in a collision and cause the engine and transmission to ‘drop down,’ all of which helps make it possible for the driver to walk away from a crash.”
Bio adds that in his view, active safety systems, such as electronic stability control, can be spec’d “to help retain drivers,” as many today are concerned about operating safely and being safe, too.
“The sleeper environment, of course, is very important to a driver’s comfort,” says KW’s Johnson, “because it’s not just a truck for driving or a tool for working. It’s home away from home. That’s why we offer such features on the T680 as an optional passenger seat that rotates around to ‘meet’ with a table in the sleeper capable of holding 200 lbs.
“The rotating passenger seat helps open up the cab to the sleeper and there’s a windshield wraparound to provide privacy,” he continues. It takes away that feeling of being crammed up in the sleeper. Teams can even sit down and have a meal at the table while being able to reach various controls.” He notes the sleeper also boasts “LED lighting throughout and plenty of ambient lighting so there’s less need to use overhead lights,” which helps make it feel more home-like inside.
A VIEW FROM THE SEAT
P ete’s Sproull says perhaps nothing’s more important to comfort onboard than the driver’s seat. The proprietary seat in the new Model 579 is a result of the OEM starting from scratch. The seat features “multiple adjustments plus an independent suspension that’s separate from the seat’s air ride. The seat’s overall ride characteristics are outstanding,” Sproull notes.
Sproull reports that another spec that scores high with drivers is a high-quality sound system. “The audio in the 579 is actually tuned to the acoustics of the interior and is designed to sound great whether the driver is behind the wheel or relaxing.”
“If you’re trying to attract and retain drivers by offering a comfortable, appealing truck,” says Volvo’s Bio, “there are a good number of cab and sleeper features to consider.” He says these include “a quiet cab, which helps drivers relax and be able to get rested and refreshed.
“A back-cycling system on seats that increases the air in the lumbar area as well as seats that are heated or cooled are worth considering,” he continues. “Bluetooth connectivity is important as it enables hands-free communications,which is more convenient and safer for the driver.
“And don’t overlook AMTs,” Bio adds, “such as our I-Shift, which is already being spec’d on 45% of the trucks we sell that are powered by Volvo engines. It makes the driver’s job easier and so contributes to comfort and safety. We’re even hearing stories of drivers delaying their retirement from or staying longer with a fleet because they’ve come to prefer driving without needing to shift.”
Some specs not only improve driver comfort or safety, but also cut operating costs, observes Mack’s Warmkessel. “For example, we offer the Webasto heater, which will run for 10 hours on just a third of a gallon of diesel and is capable of heating the inside of the cab to 100 deg. F when it’s zero degrees outside. We provide for key-off air conditioning as well as heat via the IdleFree system. It’s capable of keeping the cab at 70 deg. for 10 hours when it’s 100 deg. outside. This system is also versatile as it can be powered four ways— by the alternator on the road, by shore power, by a reefer link or batteries. In addition, we offer power inverters for those who don’t select the IdleFree system.”
“The battery-powered HVAC system we offer truly brings fuel efficiency and driver productivity and comfort together,” says Navistar’s Zielinski. “We’re finding many are selecting it over a diesel-fired auxiliary power unit. Usually, there’s some initial worry about battery life with this solution, but ours alerts the driver when to turn the truck engine back on to recharge the batteries.”
As drivers look for more ways to remain healthy on the road, Freightliner will next year make available (on Century, Columbia, Coronado and Cascadia models) what it calls the in-cab training system.
“It employs a set of resistance bands for exercise and mounts very easily on the back wall and floor of the sleeper; drivers can even remove it and use it at home or in a hotel room,” explains Daimler’s Loczi. “The system allows performing up to 100 different exercises while the driver is inside the cab.”
According to Freightliner’s Reed, this home gym system is a response to the feedback the OEM received from drivers who want to live more healthfully—including getting more physical activity without having to find somewhere to exercise outside the cab. “We’ve been amazed by the demand shown for it right away by both fleet buyers and drivers,” he notes.
“It is one way to help lower the healthcare costs of drivers. And the system can be a tool to help recruit and retain drivers as providing it will show that the fleet cares about its driver’s well-being and health,” Loczi remarks .