Kenworth says optional cab features in its T680 like a 180degree swiveling passenger seat and swiveling table can help make a difference in attracting drivers

Spec'ing trucks for young and old

Dec. 7, 2016
How can fleets use trucks to entice veteran drivers and newcomers alike?

For some years now, the concern that’s topped the list for many fleets and trucking companies has been getting and keeping the best drivers—sometimes even just having enough of them. High turnover rates are disruptive and costly. As fleets look for whatever gives them an advantage, it makes perfect sense to consider the truck itself: It’s the other part of the driver job title. If there’s one piece of equipment a truck driver relies on and deals with most—even forms a bond with—is there any question as to what that is?

Taking that even further, drivers may jump ship specifically because they don’t like a company’s trucks, suggests Steve Gilligan, vice president of product marketing at Navistar. “You have this continuous driver shortage that’s causing a significant amount of churn in the industry,” he says. “Drivers go from fleet to fleet looking not only for things like a sign-on bonus, but an opportunity to drive a vehicle that they find more appealing.”

But trucks have been changing quite a bit since the turn of the millennium, and so have drivers. There are significant differences in the pool of drivers from which fleets are fishing. The average age of truck drivers is in the range of 49-53, and very similar to what’s been happening in nursing, more drivers are being pulled out of retirement when companies can’t find the talent they need. So the older generation of drivers is a key focus for fleets; meanwhile, younger drivers coming on seem worlds apart from the veterans, growing up in the Information Age against a backdrop of fewer young adults even getting driver’s licenses.

How do you spec trucks that work for everyone? What features are consistently popular with drivers? Fleet Owner has charted fleets turning to many brands of trucks to hold up as that shiny object drivers will notice, from C.R. England introducing Western Star tractors last year intended for tenured team and “million miler” safe drivers to TMC Transportation, which believes its Peterbilt tractors give the company an edge.

“Peterbilt trucks help us recruit and keep the industry’s best drivers, and the distinctive styling and Peterbilt image help make TMC’s fleet the best-looking trucks on the road,” noted Rod Simon, executive vice president of maintenance for the carrier, when TMC order­ed 1,500 new Peterbilt Model 579s back in February.

The gap

So what’s with this generational divide fleets face with drivers? The veteran drivers they need who’ve been in the business now for one, two or perhaps three or more decades came up in trucking stretching back to the late 1960s and through the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s.

“Owner-operators were out there, and you could go buy a truck and make your living. Trucking was a lifestyle; it was an adventure,” says Kurt Swihart, director of marketing at Kenworth, which has been producing products for the last several years under the distinctive tag line, “The Driver’s Truck.”

In many cases, older drivers had exposure to heavy equipment like agricultural tools or were “gearheads,” Swihart observes, racing or working on cars on the weekends. “That generation of drivers grew up in a mechanically focused environment,” he says. “They were truck experts and knew how trucks worked. They were mechanics and equipment guys.”

Up until about the late 1990s, trucks were mostly mechanical tech, Swihart adds, but they’ve since been shifting to electronic, largely computer-driven machines.  “And I think there’s also been that kind of change in the younger drivers,” he tells Fleet Owner.

Younger drivers haven’t had the same background and exposure as the old guard. They’ve grown up with the Internet, computers, video games, and more recently, a deluge of wireless devices and apps—think more of a software than a hardware focus. Their aptitudes, familiarities and expectations tend to be very different when it comes to driving a truck, but they can bring many useful skills to the table and there are ways to spec trucks that appeal to drivers regardless of age.

Easy

If you want to bring younger drivers into the fold, look for trucks that are easier to drive and feel more like cars. U.S. drivers in general today have less and less experience with manual transmissions, for one thing, so today’s auto­mated manual and automatic transmissions in trucks will appeal more to next-generation truck drivers.

Some older drivers prefer shifting their own gears, but they fit in here as well. Even if you appreciate a stick in five- or six-speed passenger cars, three times that many in a heavy truck eventually can get wearisome. “The same drivers who have driven a manual transmission for most of their career now ask for a Volvo I-Shift [automated manual] because it has less of an impact on the body,” says Jason Spence, product marketing manager for long haul at Volvo Trucks.

Swihart underscores that point. “Maybe they had poor experiences with AMTs in the past,” he notes. “Given a second or third shot at one, those veteran drivers are now often pleasantly surprised with how much they like AMTs.” And also in terms of being easy to drive, Swihart says, consider what it’s like to actually drive the vehicle.

With Kenworth’s T680, he contends, “the slope of the hood going down from the dash is such that you barely even notice it’s there. The windshield is bigger than what we’ve had on our past truck designs. Being able to view the road out the side windows and mirrors, everything about the T680 gives you great visibility and sight lines.”

Reliable

Fleet Owner has heard this one coming loud and clear from all directions. If you want a truck that reels in drivers, it’s got to work, day in and day out. For Henry Albert, owner of Albert Transport and a Freightliner Team Run Smart professional, “reliability and ease of service are the main factors [when it’s time] to purchase a truck for my business,” he says.

“Some of the largest fleets out there have sizable departments that do nothing but recover vehicles that drivers have simply gotten out of and parked and said, ‘I’m done,’” Navistar’s Gilligan contends. “Then they go down the road and work for somebody else.

“It’s not like they’re tethered to a desk; drivers are already traveling. Their truck is their office,” he continues. “So why not upgrade to a better office?” The other side of the reliability coin is fuel efficiency, Albert notes, which keeps drivers on the road longer and tanking up less.

Safe

The safety of the truck driver’s “office” is another part of the equation. “While it might not be the first thought on a driver’s mind, most would agree that having a safe truck to operate would top the list,” Volvo’s Spence says. He also points to Volvo’s Active Driver Assist collision mitigation system, which is based on Bendix Commercial Vehicle Systems’ Wingman Fusion technology combining radar and video.

“Companies that would like to attract drivers could do so by promoting truck safety features that help the driver and provide alerts to prevent potential collisions,” Spence adds. There’s also the design and structure of the vehicle: Volvo’s truck cabs are also designed so that the engine and transmission drop down in a front-end collision and the foot pedals break away, lowering the risk of injury to the driver.

Comfortable

Going hand in hand with trucks that are easier to drive are ones that don’t beat up the driver who’ll be spending so much time in that vehicle. “Important features include fully adjustable seating for the driver and passenger seats, comfortable ergonomics, and a quiet cab,” says Albert, who notes that he’s been driving a Freightliner Cascadia Evolution for the past two years.

Here’s another area where trucks today can be very car-like, Swihart notes: “We have an automatic temperature control function. You can turn it to 70 deg., 65 deg., whatever you want, and it’s just like a car.” Comfort extends to things like diesel- or battery-powered heat and A/C units to provide climate control without having to idle as well as power inverters to provide outlets for refrigerators, microwaves, video game consoles, and more.

Swihart adds that Kenworth particularly focused on making efficient use of that cab space. For instance, a swivel option lets the passenger seat spin around 180 deg. for use like a lounge chair in the sleeper area, and a swivel mount lets you attach and watch a flatscreen TV from the chair or lying in bed.

Connected

Piggybacking on comfort and reliability, connected technology in trucks today ranges from built-in telematics/ fleet management systems to multimedia displays in the console to wireless hotspots and Internet. That’s entertainment: Trucks that feature Internet and satellite radio/TV capability can be more appealing to drivers of any age and can help them stay connected with friends and family.

OEMs are hearing these things consistently. “When we were out talking with drivers as we were making our new LT model, most of the drivers and I would say almost all the fleets wanted to make sure that the vehicle architecture was set up to support the latest and greatest new devices and technologies,” says Navistar’s Gilligan.

Connectivity can also be part of reliability, and it can help bridge the generational driver gap between the DIY-minded veterans and newer drivers—no drivers are making money with broken-down trucks. Rather than just kicking out a fault code, trucks are providing more options to help drivers and fleets understand the severity of a problem and what action is called for to fix it. Two examples are Mack’s GuardDog Connect and Kenworth’s TruckTech+ remote diagnostics systems.

Hey, good-lookin’

At the end of the day, don’t forget the basics. Drivers want to drive good-looking trucks, part of the motivation behind TMC Transportation’s Peterbilts or Albert’s Freightliner. “Drivers take pride in their trucks, and they want their truck to display a stylish design,” Albert notes.

“When it comes to good-looking trucks, that’s what gets drivers in the door,” says Gilligan. “When they see a certain truck that looks good, drivers say, ‘I want to drive that!’ As much as someone might say chrome has no functional purpose, we sure sell a lot of it.”

And as a final note, it’s always a good idea to know your audience, says Wade Long, director of product marketing for Volvo Trucks, so consider who’s using your trucks and their specific needs and preferences rather than trying to generalize. Noting a crossover between Volvo and Mack trucks, which are under the same corporate umbrella, he’s seen drivers who prefer a Volvo because of the cab’s greater width so they can throw a duffle bag between the front seats, for example, and others who like a Mack with a more narrow cab and enjoy those trucks’ iconic image. 

About the Author

Aaron Marsh

Before computerization had fully taken hold and automotive work took someone who speaks engine, Aaron grew up in Upstate New York taking cars apart and fixing and rewiring them, keeping more than a few great jalopies (classics) on the road that probably didn't deserve to be. He spent a decade inside the Beltway covering Congress and the intricacies of the health care system before a stint in local New England news, picking up awards for both pen and camera.

He wrote about you-name-it, from transportation and law and the courts to events of all kinds and telecommunications, and landed in trucking when he joined FleetOwner in July 2015. Long an editorial leader, he was a keeper of knowledge at FleetOwner ready to dive in on the technical and the topical inside and all-around trucking—and still turned a wrench or two. Or three. 

Aaron previously wrote for FleetOwner. 

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