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Simulating Success

DALLAS, Texas - Since his days in the US Army, Ron Tarr has taken a deep interest in getting the most out of trainees. His interest delves beyond delivering training routines and structured instructio...


FUTURE OF TRAINING?: The ATA explored whether simulators, like this one tested by Truck News editor James Menzies, are a viable training option.

FUTURE OF TRAINING?: The ATA explored whether simulators, like this one tested by Truck News editor James Menzies, are a viable training option.


DALLAS, Texas – Since his days in the US Army, Ron Tarr has taken a deep interest in getting the most out of trainees. His interest delves beyond delivering training routines and structured instructions, and into if the desired results are achieved through the training delivered.

As the director for the Advanced Performance Technology Institute for Simulation and Training at the University of Central Florida, Tarr has shifted his training interest to the trucking industry. Simulator training has emerged as a fairly new resource for fleets to train and re-train their drivers. But how effective is it and is it worth the price tag?

At the American Trucking Associations management conference and exhibition in Dallas on Oct. 30, Tarr was part of a session designed to discuss industry research and adapting available technology.

The American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI) has recently engaged in a study to determine the effects simulators have on driver training.

“Simulators offer a lot of scenarios that can be duplicated that are difficult to do in real-world situations, like inclimate weather and equipment failures,” said Sandra Shackelford, research assistant with the institute. “The study’s goal is to understand simulators as a training tool for drivers, and improving safety and efficiency. A lot of carriers are already using simulators and there’s a lot of anecdotal evidence, but there’s a need for a broader study.”

The hypothesis of the study is: drivers who used simulators would be safer drivers and more fuel-efficient.

“We also hypothesized that the effects would be greater initially and be less over time, although there would still be benefits,” added Shackelford.

The research will last for two years for each driver participating in the study. Data for the study will also be collected from a control group of participants who will not use simulators, as a way to gauge progress of the drivers who use the simulator training.

The study will involve TL, LTL, specialized, private and tank carriers. The study will also use drivers from varying geographical regions.

“The focus will be on space and speed management, as well as safety,” explained Shackelford. “Each simulator training will be broken down into parts that will simulate equipment failures, weather elements, construction zones, geographical regions.”

Despite a relative lack of concrete data proclaiming simulators as an effective training tool, Tarr still believes they are the future of training. His goal is not to sell simulators, but rather to make carriers better consumers by understanding what it is they are trying to achieve with simulator training.

“You can buy a big expensive piece of equipment, then if you’re not sure how to use it in six months you’re hanging your laundry on it,” he mused. “You have to learn how to adapt your training programs around it.”

Through his faculty at the University of Central Florida, Tarr is attempting to gather real-world information on simulators to pass on to the trucking community. But so far, like the ATRI, most data has been anecdotal.

“The problem is people who believe in them buy them and don’t feel the need to do studies; and the people who don’t believe in them don’t buy them and don’t want to do studies,” he explained. “It’s my belief any formal training you take with proper recording, you’ll see results because you have a much more focused approach.”

But from what he has seen so far, Tarr is excited about the simulator process. Simulators provide an opportunity for proactive feedback and correction, before an accident occurs. According to Tarr, the effective use of simulators will depend on how they are integrated into current training regimes.

“Our focus is always driven by performance,” he stated. “Hardly ever do we suggest anything but a blend of technology. Lectures need to be performance-based to integrate the simulator technology.”

With a two-pronged approach to training, practical and simulators, the biggest and best simulator might not always be the best approach. There are five levels of fidelity in the simulator world, ranging from desktop simulators to full tractor-trailer setups.

Each level is a function of cost and capability and prices range from $2,500 to $500,000. Tarr noted that the $100,000 to $150,000 (level four) is probably the most popular range. But depending on a fleet’s needs popularity might not be what you’re looking for.

“You need to understand your needs before you start spending money. If you have a large company and can afford it, it’s great, but you can use the smaller ones for remedial training,” Tarr explained. “Start tracking performance of drivers now, so you can identify the soft spots. So when you are ready to purchase a simulator you have an idea what you’ll need. Sometimes you won’t need the biggest and the best.”

Perhaps one of the more positive features of simulator training is the ability to make mistakes in high-risk situations without dire consequences.

“It’s the interactivity and the ability to allow them to make a mistake and bring them back and show them,” Tarr noted. “Then giving them a chance to try it again. You train the individual to know when they’re making a mistake and get them to fix it before it happens.”

Simulators however are not for everybody, as about five to 10% of people will not take to the visions on the screen. These participants are susceptible to simulator sickness, which is similar to motion sickness and occurs due to sensory overload.

“Simulator sickness is when your eyes tell you that you’re moving but your body says you’re not,” explained Tarr. “I recommend 20 minutes as a maximum for one simulator session.”

As an added bonus to improving training methods, simulators should especially appeal to the next generation of truck drivers – the generation weaned on the Internet, iPods, instant messaging and MySpace.

“The 25-year-olds are much more turned on by the technology and it can make a useful retention and recruitment tool,” concluded Tarr. “We’ll need to eat this elephant as a community, not as individuals.”


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