Photo: Mack Trucks
Inside a Mack Anthem cab.

Spec'ing the right interior

Aug. 21, 2018
OEMs strive to keep drivers happy by asking what they want.

In 1909, Henry Ford, the father of American motorized travel, famously said, “Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants as long as it’s black.”

In contrast, buyers of International’s current LT Series can choose from roughly 1,000 advertised options to customize their trucks’ interiors and nearly as many unadvertised ones, according to Jim Nachtman, marketing director of the company’s heavy-duty product segment.

Spec’ing interiors has come a long way. Truck drivers who began their careers in the early 1980s wince at the memories of seats bolted to the floor and CB radio as the only alternative to AM/FM. In comparison, most of today’s seats can be heated or cooled and adjusted in several ways, while Sirius XM Radio provides constant entertainment and information. Many sleepers come with a table and chairs, and all kinds of devices can be run on a truck’s various power units.

“When I started driving, I was in an old cabover,” recalled Ploger Transportation’s Joel Morrow, who has been behind the wheel of a truck for three decades. “I didn’t even have power steering. I had air wipers. Your hand was constantly on the radio tuning it from station to station to station as you were driving. Talk about distracted driving! CB radio was about the only form of communication you had. If you wanted to make a phone call, you had to stop and find a truck stop and then wait in line at the phone booth. You look back and wonder, how did we ever drive any distance at all?”

Currently, the truck driver shortage has made spec’ing interiors more important, even as the proportion of daycabs to sleepers is growing because more drivers want to be home at night.

“People have probably been catering a little bit more toward the drivers,” said Stu Russoli, highway product manager at Mack Trucks. “There’s a lot more. ‘Give the guy a better seat. Give him satellite radio.’ ”

Russoli advises fleets and drivers to get the most comfortable seats possible and adjust them to how the latter likes them because they’re in them all day long.

“For longhaul driving, you want to go with an ultra-leather that’s more comfortable, but if you’re in and out of the cab more often, maybe you want to go to a cloth seat or a [denim-like] heavy-duty seat,” Russoli said. “We have extensions that can be retracted or expanded so that your legs can fit correctly. You can move the steering wheel so that you can see all the gauges. Comfort and convenience are what matter in the sleeper: TV, microwave, refrigerator, power ports, being able to control your stereo and HVAC from the rear. And being able to store things is huge. If you’re gone for a week or 10 days, you don’t want to be washing clothes all the time.”

Navistar, Mack, and other manufacturers are also spending a lot more time asking drivers what they want, which helps explain the seemingly endless variety of choices that Nachtman cited.

“Before we launched the Anthem [in September 2017], we talked to hundreds of drivers,” Russoli said. “We had people in from focus groups. We had people get into prototypes. We did surveys at truck stops. We actually got into other OEMs’ trucks to see how the drivers lived in there.” 

That was a similar story for Volvo Trucks, which said it interviewed more than 2,000 drivers to ensure the right interior features were included in the new VNR regional-haul and VNL long-haul models, introduced in 2017. Volvo said the interiors were so well accepted by fleets and drivers that the company then carried much of the new interiors to the VHD vocational and VAH autohauler models. 

Navistar's Nachtman said that his company has engineered mirrors and entry stairs for driver ease, adding that the vast majority of trucks that it sells have some creature comfort upgrades over the base offering.

“In the past, we used to bundle a lot of features together in packages,” he said. “Our à la carte pricing strategy allows fleets to order just the content that they want.”

About the Author

David Elfin

David Elfin has run his own web site and served as a media strategist for a successful Congressional campaign. He was the reporter for a national award-winning multimedia series that followed a class of prospective truck drivers seeking their commercial licenses.

Elfin wrote a daily column for washington.cbslocal.com and worked as an on-air analyst for WUSA-9, the local CBS affiliate. A regular for a decade on WTOP-FM, Washington's top-rated station, Elfin has written seven books and served as President of the Pro Football Writers of America and on the selection committees of the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the D.C. Sports Hall of Fame.

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