TORONTO, Ont. – Much has been made about the new low-emission engines and the increased purchase price and decreased efficiencies that came with them.
In what would appear to be an effort to compensate for some of the inefficiencies brought forth with the new generation of heavy-duty truck engines, truck makers have been increasingly conscious of driver comfort and productivity when designing new truck cabs. The attention to detail that has gone into the development of the latest generation of heavy-duty trucks is unprecedented.
Truck cabs have been transformed into luxury condos on wheels, with flatscreen TVs, satellite radios, advanced GPS navigation systems and an automotive look and feel.
“We aimed for more of an automotive type of experience and that includes the colours we use and the lighting,” when developing the ProStar, Jodi Presswood, ProStar program manager with International said.
Another trend borrowed from the automotive industry is the placement of commonly-used controls on the steering wheel. Many new trucks now allow the driver to adjust the radio volume, cruise control, engine brake and other functions while keeping both hands planted on the steering wheel.
One of the challenges facing truck makers is that the driver demographic is constantly evolving. When developing its new Cascadia, Freightliner engineers found that today’s driver typically weighs 17% more than in 1983.
“With studies showing that about 73% of drivers are on the larger side these days, it is clear that older interior sizes just don’t address the realities now,” said Michael Delaney, senior vice-president of marketing for Freightliner. As a result, truck cabs are getting bigger. The Cascadia’s cab is 20% larger than that of the Century Class, and bigger seats improve comfort levels for larger drivers.
“Drivers now have significantly more door space, belly room and distance between the seats,” Delaney explained. “These changes were long overdue, and ones that drivers clearly wanted.”
International also considered driver size when developing the ProStar.
Lenora Hardee, manager of human factors and ergonomics, body systems engineering with International, said the manufacturer has been measuring truck drivers since 1999.
“We go to customer sites and take a physical measurement of drivers,” she explained. “We build databases and use this information to figure out how to lay out the cab to fit the driver.”
“There was a real focus on making sure drivers and their things would fit in the cab,” added Presswood.
But it’s not simply a matter of increasing the cab size. While there’s no denying today’s truck driver is generally larger than 20 years ago, there’s also a widening driver pool to consider which includes more smaller drivers as well.
“Drivers today are different because they’re bigger, but they’re also a more diverse group,” said Hardee. “We have more drivers of various nationalities and ethnicities that are smaller, and more women. There’s been an increase in the spectrum of sizes.”
Jerry Warmkessel, marketing product manager, highway products with Mack, said “For many years, our whole industry designed to the 95 percentile person” meaning the cab was designed to comfortably accommodate 95% of the population. “We needed to change the design criteria. We now design to the 98 or 99 percentile person.”
Mack’s Pinnacle now boasts a wraparound dash that makes controls easily reachable by small and large drivers alike. And the brake and throttle pedals have been suspended so they’re on the same plane. The steering wheel is also infinitely adjustable – another feature that helps accommodate drivers of all sizes.
“The driver no longer has to lean forward to turn off the blower motor on the AC or to adjust the radio or reach switches,” explained Warmkessel. “When you’re driving for 10 hours a day, always having to lean forward and back as opposed to reaching out with your hand – it was a big fatigue factor.”
Cab noise has also been addressed in the latest truck offerings. TJ Reed, product manager for Western Star Trucks, said premium insulation packages now serve two purposes: keeping the cab temperature consistent and reducing road and engine noise.
“The more things you can do to mitigate road noise, the more alert the driver is going to be,” Reed explained.
Driver fatigue has always been an issue for long-distance drivers. Some trucks can now even be spec’d with seats that provide a gentle massage while driving down the highway.
Another general improvement you’ll find in new trucks is the improved use of space. Truck makers are finding more places to create storage areas – behind seats and in other nooks and crannies that used to serve no real purpose.
“There’s more of a trend towards team drivers due to the Hours-of-Service requirements, so you want a situation with plenty of storage that’s a good use of the space that you have,” explained Reed.
When designing the Pinnacle, Mack hosted a number of customer clinics and the resounding message from drivers was “You can never have too much storage.”
Mack responded by incorporating more overhead storage areas, larger cup holders and even a hook on the back wall of day cabs to hang a trash bag.
“We went to truck stops and everyone had a plastic bag hanging on the parking brake knob as a trash receptacle, why not accommodate that plastic bag right there in the middle of the truck?” pointed out Warmkessel.
Likewise, the new Freightliner Cascadia has a discreet button on the passenger side of the cab that, when pressed, reveals a small hook for a trash big. It’s the little details that make living out of a truck a lot more bearable than in the past.
Ed Saxman of Volvo Trucks North America says truck makers have taken a big-picture approach to improving driver comfort.
“It isn’t just one thing or object like a seat,” he pointed out. “It’s the whole experience of the whole truck – the execution of the whole design.”
More than ever, drivers are being involved in the design process and their recommendations are not being ignored. International, for instance, provided drivers with styrofoam steering wheels and asked them to place sticky notes where they’d like to see various controls placed.
“The attention being paid to comfort and productivity overall – whether independent owner, company driver or fleet manager – is at an all-time high,” agreed Delaney. “The bottom line for a truck maker today is that whether selling to a fleet of one or a fleet of 1,000, you’d better focus on the specific needs of the person behind the wheel.”