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Simulated experience

CALEDONIA, Ont. - When you consider all a new driver has thrown at them upon entering the trucking industry, learning proper shifting techniques far away from an actual transmission might not be a bad...

CALEDONIA, Ont. – When you consider all a new driver has thrown at them upon entering the trucking industry, learning proper shifting techniques far away from an actual transmission might not be a bad idea.

Throw in safety concerns for other road users and its hard to argue against the use of driving simulators.

They should be part of the trucking industry now.

The LINK flight trainer has been around for over 60 years, and ground simulators have been used by the Canadian and U.S. military for decades.

It seemed like a simple matter of time before this valuable training tool trickled down to over-the-road transport.

But with the exception of a generic model at Toronto’s Lester B. Pearson Airport, full-mission truck driving simulators are non-existent in this country.

The sad fact is that no one in Canada’s trucking industry can afford one of these machines.

Even the big fleets balk at the price.

A full mock-up truck simulator can cost from $200,000 to $2 million. As well, Canada has had a few brief flirtations with simulator-development programs in the past 10 years (in Alberta with Digitrans and the Doron system in Manitoba and Quebec). All ended as failures.

On the whole, North American trucking culture has been slow to embrace this expensive new technology.

By comparison, Western Europe appears to be kilometres ahead.

Governments and trucking groups are actively involved in a training culture that includes the sophisticated equipment, much of it supplied by industry leader THALES of France, formerly Thomson Simulations. (Ironically, some of Thomson’s performance benchmarks were developed in Canada by the CTA, using measurements from the National Truck Rode).

France leads the way with 12 simulators in its AFT-IFTIM training academy, while Spain and Holland have two each.

Sweden has developed its own simulator, and training initiatives are under way in Norway, Germany and other countries.

But the pendulum may be swinging to this side of the Atlantic.

Institutions like Carnegie-Mellon University are doing simulator research, and major players are getting involved in what they believe to be a burgeoning marketplace.

GE Capital raised eyebrows six months ago when it purchased the rights to the ISIM simulator, one of the original developers of virtual driving.

This summer, Lockheed Martin Information Systems announced a deal with the Singapore military for 16 truck simulators and the sale of one of their Millennium models to transport giant Werner Enterprises of Omaha, Nebraska. And FAAC, of Ann Arbor, Mich., has made breakthroughs with the New York City Transit Authority, on the oil fields and at municipal airports.

John McFann of Allied Worldwide in Ft. Worth, Ind. (formerly North American Van Lines) received what was arguably North America’s prototype truck simulator in 1992, and couldn’t be happier.

Built by FAAC, the trailer-mounted unit has had thousands of drivers at its controls and has undergone several upgrades.

McFann also has the data to support the hefty investment.

The unit is used primarily for remedial training for those drivers who have had accidents or complaints.

One summer, McFann split up his class of 150 students. 75 were given access to the simulator, while the other half took the course without virtual training.

Overall, he recorded a 65 per cent reduction in accidents among those drivers who took the course.

But the drivers who were given simulator training achieved a further 14 to 40 per cent reduction. “It’s hard to put your finger on what accident you prevented today,” says McFann.

“But something positive is going on here.”

Moreover, he thinks that this technology can lead to higher levels of driver retention.

“That’s a significant amount when it costs $6,000-$8,000 to recruit and train a new driver.”

Other studies seem to echo McFann’s findings.

A New York City bus driver training study from 1999 compared drivers with and without simulator training.

The virtual group retained 15-30 per cent more of its recruits per session. Astoundingly, left side accidents were cut in half when compared with the control group, and right side accidents went to zero.

Graham Stokes of Guiding Lights Technologies in Richmond Hill, Ont. sees other advantages.

“We’re looking at up to a 50 per cent reduction in training time, a 25 per cent reduction in wear on the truck, two per cent savings in fuel, and what is the real cost of an accident?” he asks.

Stokes admits frustration at trying to sell simulators to Canadian truck fleets and driving institutions.

“It doesn’t show up as a positive factor on the ledger,” he says. “In Europe they’re starting to get big into legislation. In Canada there is no incentive for any driving school to supply good drivers.”

The modern full mission, moveable platform, 180-degree simulator is a pretty nifty device.

Some models control up to 100 on-screen vehicles and use real mirrors.

In some cases, the instructor can sit next to you and pilot another vehicle.

The simulator generates a world wherein drivers get to practice crash avoidance techniques – and their reactions can be evaluated and compared.

But Louis-Paul Tardif, of Ottawa-based Tardif and Assoc. is quick to point out that simulators don’t impress accountants.

“You’ve got to show a carrier an economic benefit. Why would a company want to spend $120 an hour in simulator time when you can use a company truck for $15-17 an hour?” he asks.

“Most driving schools are only offering 150 hours, in many cases 110 hours of training time. It doesn’t make sense for them to use a simulator.”

Tardif thinks that simulators do have a place in prescreening prospective employees.

“The driver shortage issue is large in this country. Middle-sized fleets in Canada can’t grow because they can’t find the drivers,” he says.

“So it’s important to be able to pre-select your recruits and not waste your money training the bad ones.”

Scale is a significant factor. While the technology might be too expensive for the small operator with five or six trucks, European petroleum giant Amoco is able to cut three hours off its yearly 10-hour evaluation sessions by using simulators.

This adds up to significant savings when you’re dealing with a fleet of 12,000 drivers.

Similarly, driving schools can save money by upping the ratio of students to instructors and lowering the total hours spent on the road.

“A driving simulator is a very serious investment for a transport company,” says John Brock, a Washington D.C. transportation consultant. “And the (simulator) manufacturers haven’t made the case yet.”

But Tardif thinks the industry has to change the way it thinks about simulators.

“When people hear the world ‘simulator,’ right away they think of something huge. The only way to go is with part-task devices. The problem is that most of those machines haven’t been built yet,” he says. As a further complication, Tardif suggests Microsoft Windows might be a dead end. “Unix is a more robust system that won’t crash as often.”

Kim Richardson has been using a part-task Eaton Yale shifting simulator at his driving school in Caledonia, Ont. since 1995.

The $75,000 unit, a precursor to the ISIM simulator, costs a fraction of the virtual models. Richardson’s training program includes five hours of shifter time, which he believes is valuable.

“We get a better driver,” he says. “At least they know how to shift before they get on the road.”

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