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Comfortable Cabs Mean Happier Drivers, More Productivity

MISSISSAUGA, Ont. - It's no secret that spec'ing trucks with driver comfort in mind can go a long way to maintaining a stable and satisfied workforce.




MISSISSAUGA, Ont. – It’s no secret that spec’ing trucks with driver comfort in mind can go a long way to maintaining a stable and satisfied workforce.

“The initial computer-aided design process begins by placing a representation of the driver in a comfortable seating posture, and then designing the surroundings around the driver,” Hundley says, pointing out the “surroundings” include items such as controls reach, visibility, vehicle entry/exit, seat adjustability, climate, steering driveability, ride vibration, and interior noise.

But how can driver comfort be balanced with the need to keep costs in line?

“The key is spec’ing smartly to marry vehicle productivity with creature comforts while taking into consideration resale value where appropriate,” said Steve Gilligan, general marketing manager for Kenworth Truck Company.

And, fortunately, many of the variables that make the driver more comfortable also create a safer environment to work in, both in the truck and on the road, added Todd Acker, marketing segment manager for on-highway markets with Peterbilt Motor Company.

“When a driver is more comfortable and confident in his equipment, he will be more relaxed which will not only be better in terms of his health, but will carry out in how he performs on the road as well,” said Acker.

Here are some of the important elements to consider:

“Drivers like to be able to take a quick look to check the gauges,” said Mike LeGresley of Nova Enterprises, a Freightliner dealer based in Truro, N.S. “Manufacturers are putting a lot of enhanced features into the cabs, like the wrap-around dash for example, and so we make sure to point this information out to the customers so they can make an informed decision based on their preferences.”

Peterbilt typically works to the 95th percentile for male and female stature when designing the dash and cab features, said Acker, so that instruments can be reached by just about anyone.

“We use computer-aided tools so that we can design around our performance requirements prior to actually producing parts. We can make minor tweaks on parts and skip many steps of the process by doing it all on the computer,” said Acker.

Sometimes those quality enhancements are going to be seen by the customer and other times they may be seen from a production standpoint, he added.

Another cab factor to consider is the noise level. Even though the romantic vision of being a truck driver is having the pounding roar of the diesel engine under you, most drivers say too much noise for long periods of time is very fatiguing, said Gilligan.

Peterbilt has a team of engineers that specialize in everything from optics to sound. Optional insulation packages are available which help lessen the amount of noise coming through the floor, dash and firewall and will ultimately make the driver more comfortable.

Visibility is another variable that if designed appropriately, can reduce driver fatigue and stress. There are a number of things to consider when looking at the visibility from the driver’s seat.

Windshield size, door window size and placement and positioning of mirrors should all be assessed when spec’ing for driver comfort.

“Peeper windows in the bottom of the passenger door, increasing the glass area of the door windows and on some designs sleeper windows can all contribute to better visibility,” said Gilligan.

Additional glass in the sleeper area can create a more pleasant living environment, added Gilligan. Roof windows offer more natural light, which reduces electrical usage in the cab while still maintaining privacy.

“A driver sits at the wheel for hours and hours straight,” said LeGresley, who is also on the Board of Directors for the Nova Scotia Trucking Safety Association, “so seat manufacturers are doing a lot of work on their products.”

According to Gilligan, the feel of the seat is often a personal preference so the more the driver can adjust things like seat travel, angle and lumbar support, the better.

Hasan Mohammed, vice-president of Seats Canada, agrees. He says seat design has come a long way since the narrow brown vinyl seats that used to be installed in trucks.

Seats Canada has a four-way lumbar support system so the driver can adjust the support up and down or in and out in order to get the most comfortable support, said Mohammed.

“Many drivers say ‘I have a bad back so I need a good seat’ but I always wonder why they wouldn’t get a good seat before they got a bad back,” said Mohammed.

Seat design and technology is always changing, said Mohammed.

“We are doing some new things like using a trampoline type of material instead of a wooden board as a seat base so that vibrations are absorbed more effectively. We are also using a two-density foam for the seats where the bottom layer is a harder foam for support and the top layer is a softer foam for comfort. And we have also introduced a model with a vibrator and massage option which helps a driver with circulation and comfort,” said Mohammed.

When people talk about correct ergonomics, generally they’re referring to proper posture and back support.

But comfort is something that is completely individual so encapsulating everybody’s preferences with one term like ergonomics doesn’t make sense, Mohammed said.

“Everybody’s body is individually shaped and no two people generally agree on what is comfortable,” added Mohammed.

Other options for drivers include portable, external seat cushions, such as the Ortho-Cushion.

“We are trying to target anybody and everybody who sits all day,” said Peter Stefanu, co-owner of Ortho-Cushion.

The Ortho-Cushion is designed using an electronic chair with 140 sensors as a way to measure all the pressure points of a customer seated in the chair. The measurements are then tweaked and the cushion is hand-formed so it will assist drivers in sitting correctly and reduce fatigue.

When it comes to the future of cab comforts, Acker says he can foresee an integration of other creature comforts into the structure of the cab.

“I think the next rush will be accelerating technology growth inside the cab,” said Acker. “So the driver could watch television and get information from their broker about where their next load will be all on one module.”

As a result, said Acker, the next manufacturing stage will be adopting the different types of technology and displays to support this integration.

“With further shore power usage, we would like to figure out a way to integrate appliances like microwaves, entertainment systems and the like into the cab design as opposed to drivers hanging them on the walls of the interior or sitting them on the bed,” said Acker.

Saving space and creating multi-purpose features in the cab are things that drivers are looking for, added Acker.

Truck designers, however, must also be careful that additional features don’t amount to driver distraction.

“During the near term of truck ergonomics, there will be an increased focus on driver distractions and how to manage the volume of information, warnings and communication devices that are finding their way into the driver environment,” says Volvo’s Hundley.

One thing that Hundley and his counterparts can count on in planning their designs is input from the people whose working lives they are trying to improve.

The trucking industry is one where the end users are very willing to voice opinions, said Acker, which works to the manufacturers’ advantage because it gives them an opportunity to follow the drivers’ lifestyles and figure out what they’re looking for in design and options.

Manufacturers also recommend fleets involve their drivers in spec’ing cabs and sleepers.

It’s always a smart approach to make them feel like valued employees and their on-road experience could prove vital to the spec’ing process.

For more information abouttruck cab seats, contact Seats Canada at 1-905-238-5843 or for details about Ortho-Cushion, call 1-416-602-0005.


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