Home away from home

by James Menzies

Truck manufacturers have discovered that the way to their fleet customers’ wallets is through driver acceptance, and one result of this new driver-centric approach to truck design is sleeper cabs that are designed for living – not just sleeping.

As the OEMs have refreshed their highway truck product lines, they’ve each emphasized the importance of driver acceptance and have even, in many cases, changed how they refer to the sleeper. It’s no longer just a sleeper or a bunk, it’s a “living environment,” a “loft,” or a “studio apartment.”

Volvo’s new VNL offers better lighting, and a comfortable reclining bed.

The International LoneStar was one of the first highway tractors to take the living area to a new level. When it was first launched in 2008 the LoneStar could be spec’d with hardwood floors and a couch, which gave the sleeper a living room-type feel. But David Majors, vice-president of product development with International, noted the hardwood floors are no longer offered.

“The hardwood floors were very beautiful, but really not that functional,” Majors admits. Lesson learned: in-cab comforts must be both stylish, and functional.

Kenworth introduced the concept of the swivel passenger seat, which effectively extends the living area or office space. Its T680 features a “Driver’s Studio” that includes a passenger seat that rotates 180 degrees. A rotating table allows two people to sit down and enjoy a meal together, or allows the driver to work on a tablet or computer while sitting comfortably in an office-type setup.

With the launch of its new VNL this year, Volvo introduced the concept of a reclining bed, an idea borrowed from Europe. It also introduced an incredibly comfortable new mattress.

The reclining bed allows drivers to position themselves comfortably for reading or watching TV. However, it comes at the expense of a dinette table or workstation setup. For now, drivers have to choose whether they prefer a dinette table or a reclining bed, but Volvo designers are still working on a way to offer the best of both worlds.

Truck makers looking to maximize living area in a tight environment have looked to the airline industry for inspiration. When designing its new Cascadia, Freightliner designers solicited the input of interior design firm Teague, which has worked with Boeing to design first class “cubes.” The new Cascadia can be spec’d with a “loft” sleeper to give it a homier feel. The bunk can be folded up against the back wall like a Murphy bed, and two seats and a table deployed in just seconds, converting the bedroom to a comfortable dining room.

Volvo also looked to the airline industry for inspiration. One example is the previously cumbersome snap-on window covers have been replaced with airplane-style shades that can be easily slid up and down.

It’s lit
Truck designers have also improved the lighting in the sleeper area. Toby Faulkner, director, new Cascadia development, explained to me during a test drive of the new truck that driver feedback directly led to improved interior lighting.

“The other feedback we got, was this feeling that the truck was like a cave and when you turned the lights on they were too bright,” Faulkner explained.

Freightliner addressed this by installing dimmable LED lighting into the ceiling. It provides a more natural light and eliminates some of the harshness drivers complained about.

Mood lighting is also finding its way into new trucks.

“We have aqua blue lighting, which is easier to read for credit cards and documentation at night,” explained Brian Balicki, chief interior designer with Volvo. “And we also have task lighting, which allows you to read a book at night. And throughout the entire rear wall we’ve populated the lighting.”

The switch to LED lighting also means bulbs last much longer.

Storage, storage, everywhere
Ask drivers for input into the design of a sleeper cab, and almost every one of them will ask for more storage. You can never have too much. In fact, when designing the new Cascadia, Freightliner found the top bunk was used for storage more than sleeping. So, it built additional storage bins along the top of the wall. Handy netting and straps secure cargo that’s placed up there.

“We really focused on driver comfort and smart storage; rethinking how we do everything,” explained Faulkner. “How can we make it like a small studio apartment?”

Mack Trucks just introduced its new Anthem highway tractor, and adding more storage was a priority. When considering the design of its living area, Mack designers visited truck stops and offered meal vouchers in exchange for truck tours, to see exactly how drivers were living in their trucks. The result was 27 cubic feet of storage, which the company claims is the industry’s most.

The Anthem has storage bins underneath the bed, along the walls, and virtually any other place you could think to add functional storage.

Power to the people
Truck designers have also made more power outlets available, knowing drivers are increasingly connected and often have numerous devices to charge. Volvo added charging outlets to the upper bunk area of the VN, so whoever sleeps there in a team operation has their own charge ports. It also made climbing into the top bunk safer and easier, with a clever ladder design, which attaches to the lower bunk.

Majors said International, through its Driver First design initiative, is now working on offering a power inverter for drivers who have sleep apnea and require the use of a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine while sleeping.

“We are adding an inverter so they can have the CPAP in the right place,” Majors said.

Getting around
The ease of getting into the sleeper cab and moving around is an important consideration for longhaul drivers. Some sleepers still have a lip, or step, between the cockpit and the living area. Others have a flat floor for easier movement. Headroom can vary as well, and drivers may also want to compare cabinet sizes and placement. Truck mattresses have come a long way, and some extremely comfortable mattresses are available. When you consider the time spent sleeping and the importance of good sleep on the road, choosing a higher-end mattress is a good idea.

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