The "fleet spec" sleeper has become a much nicer place to rest those weary bones
Forty years ago, the longhaul sleeper was a board that fit across the seats and a sleeping bag. Now, says the head of one small truckload fleet who slept on those boards, drivers are unhappy if they can't stand up to put on their pants.
It's not that drivers have become soft. Like everyone else in the world, longhaul drivers have always appreciated a good night's sleep, even if their "night" happens to be in the middle of the day. Truckload drivers, and those who work in similar private fleet operations, probably have the most erratic schedules of any workers in the country, so it should be no surprise that when it comes to sleeping arrangements, they want to compensate for the irregular hours with comfort, convenience, and room to move around.
What has changed is the drivers' clout. There are plenty of open seats for a good driver, and truckload carriers are doing everything in their power to retain the drivers they have. In addition to driver retention, there's also a growing recognition that safety and simple human consideration require more attention to driver comfort out on the road.
Even as recently as four or five years ago, one of the perks of being an owner/ operator was the freedom to spec a big, roomy, well-appointed sleeper that let you bring some home-like comfort to the road. Today, though, given the carriers' desire to please drivers, the "fleet spec" sleeper has gone from bare-bones functionality to equipment that is almost indistinguishable from that of owner-operators.
Five years ago, you could tell at a glance whether a truck belonged to the driver or the fleet, says Danny Blalock, president of Howard Hall Co. "Not any more," he says. "Now you have to look at the door to see if it's leased. Otherwise, you don't have any drivers."
A 50/50 mix of leased and company-owned equipment, Howard Hall is a regional TL carrier operating 210 tractors in the Southeast. It used to run only COEs with flat-top sleepers, no auxiliary air conditioning or heating, no rear radio or lighting, not even a 12V power outlet. "They were generic fleet trucks with rubber floors and no real amenities," says Blalock.
Today, Howard Hall doesn't own a single cabover. While it's replaced them with a mix of truck brands, all are conventionals with "condo style" sleeper cabs. The stand-up sleeper sections have separate AC and heating controls, fluorescent lights, lots of storage compartments, hookups for TVs, and a wide range of other amenities, including better mattresses and air-ride cab suspensions.
Doing the right thing "We've done a 180-degree turnaround," says Blalock. While driver retention was the motivation behind the switch, "to be honest, it's also the right thing to treat people the way I'd want to be treated," he says. "Even though our drivers get home every weekend, that truck is their home away from home. It's not right to put them in equipment that just meets their bare minimum needs."
While drivers certainly appreciate the new equipment, shippers are another story. "That's the sad part," Blalock says. "We get very little pricing relief from shippers even though we are buying this more expensive equipment."
In the early 1990s, truckload carrier Cargo Transporter Inc. ran raised-roof COEs. Now all 230 tractors in the fleet are conventionals with raised-roof integrated, or sleeper cab, configurations. It's latest order was Freightliner's Century Class with a 58-in. sleeper section, "and we were considering the 70-in. model," says fleet vp John Pope.
"Certainly it costs more, but we feel it's a good investment," he says. "We don't use the equipment as a driver recruiting tool, but rather as a retention tool. We give them more space to move around in and for storage because we want them to be comfortable and to enjoy driving."
Private accommodations The move to upgraded sleepers is not limited to truckload carriers. Batesville Casket Co. has a large, well-known private fleet of 130 tractors carrying its products to distribution centers through the 48 continental states and Canada, all with single, assigned drivers.
"We used to run COEs with 24-in. sleepers, then we moved to 36-in. boxes," says Robert E. Weiler, manager of fleet maintenance. "Now we run only conventionals with 48-in. bolt-on sleepers."
The bolt-ons, supplied by Able Sleeper, have raised roofs with premium interiors, lots of additional lighting, a good deal of storage space, and a TV hookup; some also have diesel-fired heaters.
The upgraded specs are all aimed at improving driver conveniences. Like most private fleet operations, Batesville "doesn't have a driver retention problem," says Weiler. "But if you don't addressthe issue of driver comfort, you will develop a retention problem."
Batesville has stayed with the bolt-on sleeper in part because it has a corporate relationship with Able, which supplies all the sleeper boxes for Mack Trucks. The sleeper cab has become so popular, however, that the fleet's latest equipment bid request had to consider integrated cab models or it would have ruled out most manufacturers.
Safe and sound Upgrading sleepers is a safety issue as well as a driver recruitment/retention strategy, according to Tim Jenkins, vp of human resources and safety for O&S Trucking Inc. A dry van TL carrier with 45 company-owned tractors and 140 leased vehicles in its fleet, O&S is now purchasing Volvo VN conventionals with 62- and 70-in. integral sleepers. All have double bunks with electronic climate control, and some have even been spec'd with built-in refrigerators.
Carrying the "home away from home" concept a step further, O&S is also testing a cable TV/telephone service for drivers. Called Park 'N View, it allows a driver to plug into a receptacle at participating truck stops for both cable TV service and private telephone access, including voice mail.
"A more comfortable sleeper is directly tied to fatigue," says Jenkins. "People who sleep better are better drivers. Also, the new sleepers have a lot of closed compartment storage instead of the older open-storage bins, which is another safety factor."
Whether the investment in a better sleeper is justified by safety or driver retention, "ultimately it tells drivers that we appreciate the hard work they do under difficult conditions," says Jenkins. "We rarely have a company truck open."
In 1991 truckload carrier Pohl Transportation Inc. started business with half a dozen used cabovers it bought from J.B. Hunt. Today all 70 tractors in the fleet, most of which run with single drivers, are Navistar conventionals with the company's 72-in. Hi-Rise Pro Sleeper cab.
"They have double bunks, air-ride cab suspension, hot-air auxiliary heaters, TV hookups, and lots of storage," says Robert Epperly, the fleet's vp and general manager. "The single bunk and flat top sleeper is the truck of the past."
It's no accident that so many truckload carriers have moved to such fully featured cabs, adds fleet president Harold Pohl. "We have to attract an owner-operator type of person to drive in this kind of operation, so we have to offer an owner-operator type of equipment."
Economic sense One truckload fleet that hasn't upgraded its sleeper specs since the mid-1980s is C.R. England & Sons Inc. "We've been ordering big, well-spec'd sleepers for years," says Todd England, vp-maintenance. "We're a longhaul, coast to coast operation, and our drivers are away from home for two to three weeks at a time. Driver retention has always been an issue for us, so we felt we needed to move to large, raised-roof sleepers when they first became available."
The most recent company equipment added to the 2,600-tractor fleets has been Freightliner Century Class models with 70-in. raised-roof sleeper cabs. While the initial price may seem high, C.R. England believes it's the most economical spec for its particular application.
"Just last year, we looked at a 112-in.-BBC tractor with a 10- or 11-liter engine and a 48-in. sleeper," says England. "When we looked at residual value, it turned out that it was cheaper to stay with the 120-in.-BBC, 14-liter engine, and 70-in. sleeper."
In an effort to provide a career path for its 2,300 company drivers, C.R. England has just introduced a leasing program for those who probably wouldn't qualify for financing on their own. While the leased tractors have been spec'd with some traditional owner-operator features such as 13-speed transmissions and higher horsepower engines, the Century Class sleepers are nearly identical to those in company-owned equipment.
"We've always ordered mesh nets for the storage bins, but these will have cabinet doors and slightly higher grade upholstery," says England. "That's about the only difference."
These days with fleet spec'ing creature comforts like climate control systems, double bunks, cable TV, telephones, refrigerators, microwaves, and a long list of other amenities, there isn't much room for improvement.
It's a power struggle While few fleets begrudge their longhaul drivers the higher level of comfort that's quickly become the industry standard, most do have one complaint about the more home-like sleepers. Powering all those creature comforts leads to a decrease in battery life and an increase in idling time.
Like many other fleets, Batesville Casket tried a system that isolated three of the four batteries from the auxiliary load, "but it wasn't too successful," says Bob Weiler. "We've gone back to the straight four-battery system. We just can't depend on them to last as long. They rarely go over three years now."
C.R. England & Sons was also unhappy with the isolated battery configuration. Now the fleet is using a system that monitors battery voltage. As voltage drops, it begins progressively shutting down accessories to preserve enough power to start the engine. "It seems to be a better solution, although we've only been using it for the last few months," says Todd England.
As sleepers get more home-like and drivers spend more time back there, keeping temperatures comfortable brings another kind of power problem. Idling engines is an expensive way to provide heat and A/C to a sleeper, and many regions of the country have also introduced increasingly stringent restrictions on diesel idling. Auxiliary power generators, or "pony engines," have been around for some time, but most fleets are unable to justify the cost or additional maintenance.
A more cost-effective solution, at least for cold weather, is a diesel fired heating system. "We're using a Webasto hot-air heater," says Harold Pohl, Pohl Transportation. Not only does it eliminate the cost of idling, but it also gets rid of the engine noise, "and that lets the drivers get some quality sleep," he adds.
Others, like Cargo Transporter and O&S Trucking, have begun spec'ing Detroit Diesel's optimized idle control. Tied into the electronic engine control, it provides drivers with a thermostat that automatically stops and starts the engine to maintain a constant temperature in the sleeper.
"We're trying it on several engines right now," says O&S' Tim Jenkins. "It's cutting idling time in half and has a relatively low cost. The payback (in lower fuel costs) should be less than a year."