Spec happy

If a fleet owner hopes to attract and retain quality drivers, one way to assess what driver-comfort features and equipment he or she should spec on new trucks would be to picture life in the driver's seat. But a far better approach would be to poll drivers. Ask them what current comfort- and safety-related specs most appeal to them; which ones they could do without; and which ones they have heard

If a fleet owner hopes to attract and retain quality drivers, one way to assess what driver-comfort features and equipment he or she should spec on new trucks would be to picture life in the driver's seat. But a far better approach would be to poll drivers. Ask them what current comfort- and safety-related specs most appeal to them; which ones they could do without; and which ones they have heard of or experienced elsewhere that they would like to see considered as specs or retrofits on their trucks.

Do not overlook the expertise of the truck OEMs and their local truck dealers as well as that of used-truck retailers. All of them will be more than happy to update you on what's new in their driver-comfort arsenals and which specs are gaining in popularity with other buyers of the same types of trucks you run.

HIRING COSTS

Caterpillar, which recently entered the truck market as an OEM, puts the cost to replace a single driver to as much as $20,000. Keep that tidbit in mind when you consider the cost benefit of spec'ing for the comfort of drivers.

“Professional drivers spend a considerable amount of time behind the wheel, but the truck also serves as an office and a living space,” says Frank Bio, product manager-trucks for Volvo Trucks North America. “Driver comfort is a focal point of our entire design process.”

Starting from the frame up, he points out that the OEM's “air-ride cab and frame rail work in concert to provide a smooth, comfortable ride and our unique hood mounting system isolates chassis vibration from the cab to promote an exceptionally quiet environment.

“For comfort while driving, we encourage fleets to spec our Volvo I-Shift automated manual transmission, which continually monitors road conditions and automatically selects the optimal gear for the engine, lessening driver fatigue by removing the need to constantly shift gears,” he continues.

“Our Volvo Enhanced Cruise (VEC) also monitors road conditions and works with the vehicle's cruise to maintain a safe following distance. The intelligence of the I-Shift and VEC provides an unparalleled peace of mind on the road,” he says. “In addition to a standard ergonomically designed console, Volvo customers can select seats with a ‘back cycler’ to improve circulation and wider seats for added comfort.”

THINK LIKE A DRIVER

According to T.J. Reed, director of product marketing for Freightliner Trucks, the most popular driver-comfort options available on the Cascadia 125-in. sleeper model include radio audio systems with Bluetooth; premium air-suspension seats with three-chamber air lumbar support and seat heating; cab insulation packages; ParkSmart battery-driven auxiliary HVAC system; Thermo King TriPac auxiliary power units; and Hendrickson AirTek front air suspension.

“Freightliner typically recommends the above options, as they are all very tangible ways to impact driver comfort,” states Reed. “An auxiliary HVAC system is definitely a must, as it provides year-round comfort. Our ParkSmart battery-powered auxiliary HVAC system is also recommended. It is incredibly quiet and very efficient, running off of four between-rail-mounted batteries that are recharged by the alternator. It is a less expensive option than an APU and is significantly quieter.

“A premium driver seat is also highly recommended,” he continues, “as it is a relatively inexpensive option and is a feature the driver is in contact with the most. The extra adjustability, premium padding, and available seat heating is something a driver will certainly thank you for after a long day. Like the seat, a premium quilted spring mattress should be considered, as a truly restful sleep is priceless.”

According to a company spokesperson, standard driver-comfort features on International trucks include an ergonomically designed wing panel used to house a radio, switch panel, driver information display, HVAC controls and parking brake controls, all within easy reach of the driver. Other options include air-suspension swivel driver and passenger seats with lumbar control; hydraulic clutch actuation system that allows lower clutch pedal force and smoother clutch engagement; Blend-Air heater with a maximum output of 30,000 Btu/hr.; outboard-mounted air ride suspension with finely tuned shock absorbers that reduce cab sway and provide excellent ride quality; and a pretrip exterior light inspection system.

Optional driver-comfort specs on Internationals include Suite interior sleeper trim with couch and Murphy-style fold-down bed with optional hardwood floor; premium insulation package for sleeper compartment that improves noise level and thermal value; and Bluetooth radio with integrated mic in headliner.

Driver-comfort specs recommended by International include MaxxPower battery-powered HVAC system; auto start/stop feature that allows driver to set system temperature; integrated collision-avoidance system; front air-ride suspension; ABS brakes with roll stability and traction control; ABS brakes with electronic stability control that is capable of assisting in both rollover and vehicle under- and over-steer situations; and automated manual transmissions that reduce driver training while improving driver performance and increasing driver retention.

Peterbilt Motors offers a variety of comfort features to “provide drivers the ultimate work environment.” Commonly spec'd driver-comfort features include either the Prestige or Platinum level interior packages as well as the luxurious 70-in. platinum UltraCab sleeper.

Other popular driver-comfort features ordered on Petes that the OEM notes include its SmartSound system, which provides acoustic and thermal insulating properties to significantly reduce noise by 50%; proprietary front air-leaf suspension, which is “an innovative design with high performance components that deliver significant improvements in ride and overall service maintenance”; and diesel-fired heater, which is thermostatically controlled and can be mounted under the bunk to keep the sleeper and cab warm.

CAB DEPTH

Jerry Warmkessel, highway products marketing manager for Mack Trucks, says that a key standard feature on Mack models is cab depth that allows drivers to recline seats several degrees more than in the past. “We added four inches just three years ago,” he points out. “A wraparound ergonomic dash as well as suspended throttle and brake pedals all dramatically reduce driver fatigue.”

He reports that the most popular driver-comfort options being ordered this year are premium seats, one-piece windshields, automated manual transmissions, and the Mack M-Drive automated manual transmission.

According to Warmkessel, optional driver-comfort features the OEM strongly recommends include the Sears Atlas 80 seat and the battery-operated ‘IdleFree’ key off HVAC system on sleeper trucks, as well as Bendix Adaptive Cruise Control and air disc brakes.

“To be profitable in trucking today, trucking companies need to maximize fuel economy and offer drivers comfortable and productive work environments,” states a spokesperson for Kenworth Truck.

He relates that the most popular driver-comfort options being ordered this year include the QuietCab package, standard with premium interior trim packages, and extended day cab, which provides an extra 6 in. of length compared to the standard Kenworth day cab. The extended day cab also offers five more inches of cab height, two additional inches behind the wheel, up to 21 deg. of recline in the driver's seat, and two extra cubic feet of storage behind the driver's seat.

Optional driver-comfort features recommended by Kenworth include Xenon high intensity discharge (HID) headlamps; proprietary Kenworth AG130 front air suspension that “utilizes an innovative design and advanced technology to reduce vibration into the cab and onto the chassis”; and Kenworth GT700 series seats “made to the OEM's specifications and providing drivers with the ability to fine-tune their ride experience.”

The GT701, GT702, and GT703 seats offer a range of options and features, including “an advanced air suspension system that can automatically adjust to the weight of the driver — meeting the needs of individual as well as team drivers. It also offers an adjustable shock that provides drivers with a full range of height adjustments.”

Paying attention to all of these specs, and above all else, to who sits in the cab, will help reduce driver turnover rates.

Pay attention to those and all seats — and above all to who sits in them. Driver turnover rates have been climbing right along with the freight recovery. The American Trucking Assns. has reported the turnover rate for over-the-road drivers rose to 79% in this year's second quarter, marking the third quarter in a row of increased churn in the driver market.

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