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Automation has its limits


Is automation levelling the playing field between drivers when it comes to performance? The notion that advanced engines and automated drivetrains can nullify a driver’s lack of experience or poor driving habits seems to be gaining some traction in safety and operations departments.

My experience shows that this simply is not true. Sure, you will bump up the average mileage when switching from a stick to an automated transmission, but when you compare a driver’s performance to the fleet average on equipment with identical specifications, you will still have drivers performing well above or below that average and at every point in between.

This speaks directly to the level of skill and experience within the driver pool as well as the amount of time and money that is being invested in educating and training drivers.

Has the adoption of automated transmissions and other in-cab technologies affected how drivers are valued? I think it has, and not for the better. There is no doubt that technology is shifting standards and expectations within the trucking industry, but my fear is that we are moving towards an increasing dependence on monitoring a driver’s performance rather than enhancing it. The latest technology should not cage a driver’s ambition and cap their performance, it should help them tap into their full potential and enhance their productivity.

Let’s take the truck with an automated transmission, limit its speed via the onboard software, and then add two cameras, one facing forward and one facing the driver. Let’s not forget the truck is equipped with satellite tracking and an electronic log.

At this point, if you are an experienced driver, ask yourself a few questions: How many hours of training time have I received on this piece of equipment? Have I received training instilling me with confidence that my performance and safety will be enhanced? All of my actions are now being monitored, when and how is that information to be used? Do I trust my employer? Have any concerns over privacy been addressed? What is my employer’s goal in adopting this technology?

I’ve been an advocate of adopting new technology, but not at any cost. There are some real advantages and disadvantages to the truck I’ve described above.

Automated transmissions are a real boon to the driver. They’re far more fuel-efficient (in the summer months I consistently post between 8 and 9.5 US mpg) and as far as improving driver safety goes, they are simply excellent. The ability to avoid hazards is greatly enhanced when all you have to do is steer and brake while the transmission rapidly downshifts for you while applying the engine brake at the same time. Add disc brakes along with stability control and the reduction in stopping distance combined with rollover prevention is impressive.

Speed limiters have resulted in a lack of training when it comes to defensive driving and improving fuel efficiency. This is ironic, since most companies instituted the use of speed limiters to save money. The attitude seems to be that since we have speed limiters installed, the fuel efficiency factor is being fulfilled. But what’s happening is that inexperienced and poorly trained drivers are simply running at the governed speed in every imaginable situation.

The result is packs of trucks running down the road at the same speed jockeying for position. So I’m not at all surprised at the number of multi-vehicle truck accidents that have occurred over the past couple of winters throughout North America as a result.

I can understand in today’s litigious society the need for trucks to be equipped with forward-facing cameras, but that’s where I draw the line. Driver-facing cameras don’t do anything to prevent fatigue. Driver fatigue stems from many factors and that is a topic that deserves its own column. I’ve been privy to discussions between people that feel driver-facing cameras are the only way to clamp down on cell phone use and distracted driving. I disagree with this position and feel it is a cop-out on taking the time to build strong trust-based relationships between drivers and management.

That brings me back to my opening statement about how drivers are valued and their relationship between the safety/human resource/training department. Drivers on a whole are feeling as though they are operating under a microscope these days. This may not be the intention of a company’s management team but it is often the perception that drivers operate under. This needs to change. We need more bottom-up involvement across our industry. There needs to be a far greater focus on how the latest technological tools at a driver’s disposal can enhance the driving experience rather than be seen as a burden. This is the challenge safety and HR departments face in the immediate future if they hope to resolve issues of recruitment, retention, and productivity. Most drivers I have talked to are all in. All we need is an invitation.

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Al Goodhall has been a professional long-haul driver since 1998. He shares his experiences via his ‘Over the Road’ blog at http://truckingacrosscanada.blogspot.com. You can also follow him on Twitter at @Al_Goodhall.


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