Navigating the virtual road

Oct. 1, 2012
Simulator training is slowly gaining trucking’s attention

The steer tire blows with a tremendous, reverberating boom. And the truck driver does what anyone behind the wheel would instinctively do at highway speed—hit the brakes. Hard. But that’s precisely what a truck driver with a blown steer tire should never do. Hitting the brakes with a blown steer tire transfers the entire load of a tractor-trailer to that very wheel end, putting all 80,000 lbs. at the one point on the truck that now lacks traction as well as control.

The end result is devastating: The big rig jack-knifes, rolls over, and slides down the crowded asphalt, wrecking nearby cars, as well as injuring and killing their human occupants, before ending up a mass of crumpled metal on the side of the road.

Maybe the truck driver ends up dead. Just as likely, since he wore his seat belt, he’s badly injured. But now the fuel tank ruptures, helping feed a raging fire that now threatens to envelop the cab and burn the injured trucker alive. We’ll never know, though, because just then the instructor hits the “stop” button on the dashboard and speaks four simple words: “Let’s try that again.”

Welcome to the world of virtual simulation training for truck drivers.

The scenario above isn’t make-believe, either, stresses Don Osterberg, senior vice president-safety & security for TL carrier Schneider National. Despite the rarity of steer tire blowouts in the real world, it’s a hazardous driving situation Schneider routinely recreates in its 42 virtual simulators during training sessions for its corps of 12,000 drivers.

“Instinctively, in a steer tire blowout situation, you want to hit the brakes; that’s the intuitive response, but it’s wrong,” Osterberg emphasizes. “What you have to do to successfully survive this rare situation is counterintuitive—you must first moderately accelerate to establish control of the vehicle before beginning a controlled deceleration to stop safely.”

It’s a scenario that calls for what behavioral experts call a “conditioned response,” one that’s established through repetitive exercises until the response becomes almost second nature to a person; conducted almost automatically, without deliberate thinking or, more importantly, any trace of panic.

Developing a similarly conditioned response for weatherrelated situations such as snow, black ice, heavy rain, and wind is another reason Schneider relies heavily on simulator technology, says Osterberg.

“You can’t provide refresher training about how to drive on black ice in September—obviously, winter hasn’t arrived yet,” he points out. “But you can reinforce the basics of skid control with simulators, and we use the months leading up to winter to offer such reinforcement training, all to better prepare our drivers for such conditions.”

Osterberg relates a conversation with one of Schneider’s Toronto-based drivers to illustrate the value such training provides, and why it also functions obliquely as a retention tool.

“We’d just run him through a ‘mountain driving in the snow’ course as part of our simulator-based refresher training and about a month later he found himself hauling a load in the mountains during a snowstorm,” Osterberg notes. “Yet he told me the situation didn’t overly worry him because he felt like he’d done it before—and he had, in a simulator.”

Osterberg says the simulator experience helped that driver to better control his emotions when confronted with the winter-driving situation in real life. At the same time, it also provided a boost in self-confidence since he’d mastered the skills necessary to operate in such conditions safely.

“I say that helps retention because many drivers leave the industry due to what we call ‘terminal anxiety’ over such extreme driving situations,” he notes. “We’ve found that we maintain far better retention among drivers that receive regular simulator training versus those that don’t.”


Yet truck driver simulators don’t come cheap. Full-motion simulation systems can cost as much as $100,000 a pop, so fleets must continue to work out how the technology can save money, thus providing a solid return-on-investment (ROI) calculation to justify such high-dollar investments.

For example, Justin Morgan with the Center for Truck & Bus Safety at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI), headed up a research group that analyzed the possible cost benefits associated with simulator training for new or rookie drivers. He explains that one of his group’s major findings is that the student drivers they tracked performed roughly the same during the truck-based portion of their commercial driver’s license exam regardless of whether they’d trained in an actual truck or in a simulator.

Osterberg notes that Schneider’s use of simulators since 2005 helped reduce the carrier’s crash rates by 32% when compared to the use of what he calls traditional training methods alone, methods that relied exclusively on classroom work and in-cab instruction. From a training perspective, though, he says Schneider also calculated that simulators helped achieve training objectives faster and at a lower cost. “The ability to use repetition is the key,” he points out. “We can practice things over and over and over in a simulator at a much faster pace than in an actual truck.”

Based on seven years of experience, Schneider believes that one hour of simulator time can replace four hours worth of behind-the-wheel (BTW) training. In-truck training consumes an average of 2.5 gals. of diesel per hour, Schneider says. The result is a $40/hr. savings (with diesel costing $4/gal.) in fuel cost alone when using a simulator vs. in-cab training.

“There’s also the wear-and-tear we’re saving on transmissions, engines, wheels, and everything else on a real truck, all while providing a way to increase time spent learning to shift, maneuver in poor weather situations, etc.,” Osterberg notes. “It’s a win-win-win for us.”

Mike Reardon, director of business development for Virage Simulation, which builds truck driving simulators for schools and fleets alike, adds that they can be operated at less than 15¢/hr., which is far cheaper than using actual trucks.

“It would seem [to be] a no brainer to use these tools given the high cost of fuel,” he says. “More importantly, when you can evaluate, benchmark, and basically measure anything about driving, you can align training for addressing a fleet’s operational challenges.”

VTTI’s Morgan says his team’s review of simulator-based training demonstrates that the systems provide “the opportunity to train drivers in a potentially lower cost and safer environment than traditional BTW training methods” and holds promise for increasing the efficiency and quality of commercial motor vehicle (CMV) driver training for both novice and experienced drivers.

“Simulation-based training for CMV drivers has some potential benefits, such as the ability to quickly and easily record driver performance metrics, which are typically much greater in truck simulators as compared to real trucks,” explains Morgan. “This allows instructors to have quantifiable measures of driver performance while reducing the demand on the instructor to provide in-process feedback and to observe driver performance.”

Again, he notes, there are cost savings in terms of reduced wear and maintenance, especially as simulators allow drivers to make mistakes during the training process (e.g., proper vehicle set-up for a right turn) without damaging property or equipment, and in highly controlled environments that reduce training time and increase trainee throughput.


VTTI did note, however, that simulatorbased training isn’t for everyone. In fact, a disadvantage is a phenomena cluster of symptoms loosely known as “simulator sickness.” This is mainly an outgrowth of motion sickness; the human eye tells the brain one thing (you are moving) while the body says something entirely different (you are not moving).

Jim Naatz, vice president-sales for L-3 MPRI, which makes the TranSim V truck driving simulator, says that as younger drivers continue to enter the industry, such “sickness” incidents should disappear. “Kids today are wellversed in video game technology, and simulator systems replicate the sensations received in gaming,” he explains. “The younger generation is much more used to how this technology functions and affects their senses. This is how many kids learn now—through a video interface.”

Naatz believes the elimination of what he calls the “white knuckle” approach—that is figuring out how to shift gears and maneuver large combination vehicles on actual equipment—is among the biggest benefits entry-level drivers gain from simulators. “You can put them through a whole host of scenarios—from navigating bad weather and congested urban roads to learning the best shifting techniques to maximizing fuel economy—without actually putting them in a dangerous situation,” he says.

VTTI’s research with entry-level drivers hit upon this same theme, Morgan reports. “When asked about the greatest differences between simulated and BTW driving, the majority of participants identified the safety of a truck simulator compared to BTW training,” he notes.


Morgan also points out that student drivers in VTTI’s study reported that it generally proved easier to learn how to shift in a simulator versus a real truck. VTTI’s follow-up questioning revealed that many participants believed the reactions of the simulated vehicle were actually very similar to those of a real truck, primarily in terms of the accuracy of the interaction between engine speed and shifting/gear selection (especially while ascending and descending steep grades) with others revolving around in-cab vibrations, monitoring engine speed, handling tire blowouts, and mirror use.

Morgan stresses that some participants indicated the simulator mirrors were more effective than mirrors in a real truck. Those driver trainees suggested that simulator mirrors should be adjustable to reflect a different visual fieldof- view and should include blind spots similar to those of a real truck.

One of the most important challenges identified by the study is the inability to train drivers for scenarios that depend on subtle “kinematic cues” from a truck. The drivers involved in the research believe that the lack of realistic physical stimulations restricted a trainee’s ability to recognize subtle driving cues such as impending skids, or learning the implications in shifting while towing heavy loads. That being said, though, Morgan reports that the lack of consequences in simulator training (i.e., accidents) allowed drivers to train for rare, hazardous, or otherwise dangerous scenarios such as steer tire axle blowouts and skids.

Finally, the ability to review and play back driver actions was noted by participants in VTTI’s study as one of the critical components in simulator truck training. Although many participants stated they were highly aware of being monitored within the truck simulator, they told VTTI’s researchers that the ability to pause and replay driving behavior and performance in the simulator had a positive impact in that it provided an opportunity to review a mistake.

Schneider’s Osterberg stresses that simulators cannot replace real trucks or human instructors in the driver-training process, however. “You need an integrated model for training that includes simulators, real trucks and instructors—especially instructors—as you need that human element to provide subjective feedback so critical to sharpen driving skills,” he explains. “You need all three in the driver training kit bag to be effective.”

About the Author

Sean Kilcarr | Editor in Chief

Sean reports and comments on trends affecting the many different strata of the trucking industry -- light and medium duty fleets up through over-the-road truckload, less-than-truckload, and private fleet operations Also be sure to visit Sean's blog Trucks at Work where he offers analysis on a variety of different topics inside the trucking industry.

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