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Truck simulators come of age

BARRIE, Ont. - Simulators should have been part of commercial driver training long ago. After all, the US and Canadian military has been using them to train truck drivers for decades....

BARRIE, Ont. – Simulators should have been part of commercial driver training long ago. After all, the US and Canadian military has been using them to train truck drivers for decades.

But the cost to the private sector was prohibitive. Early simulators ran upwards of $500,000, and they weren’t that great – the graphics were lackluster and the applications were limited.

Until recently, Bison Transport of Winnipeg was the only Canadian carrier to incorporate simulators in its driver training program. This January, it was joined by Challenger Motor Freight, who installed a FAAC full-motion simulator in a Freightliner cab at its Cambridge, Ont. facility. So far, working the machine up to 16 hours a day, Challenger has cycled half its drivers through sim training.

Things are changing quickly in the world of simulator technology. Prices have come down and the software and hardware has greatly improved in the last few years.

“Simulators have been around for a long time, but nobody wanted to take the first step,” says Alan Masters, director of business development for DriveWise Canada. “Now they’re affordable and available to medium and small companies, as well.”

DriveWise will lease or sell you a TransSim VS III driving simulator for about $170,000. Or, if you like, bring one directly to your workplace for on-site training to groups of 10 or more drivers for $250 or less each.

Three wrap-around plasma screens include realistic truck mirrors and a 210 degree field of vision. The air-ride seat, customized dash and shift stick provide the verisimilitude of a real truck cab. A client can choose from 140 transmissions, 240 engines and 33 rear gear ratios.

The package comes with hundreds of scenarios and variables. Payloads and landscapes can be adjusted, too, so you could be pulling a half-full tanker with a 13 speed Mack powered by a 500 horse Cat through the mountains on black ice, or driving a Kenworth with a Cummins engine and Super 10 transmission along an urban freeway in heavy fog. Although not a full-motion simulator (for that you have to spend a little more and get the Mark III model), I found the VSIII incredibly genuine.

The graphics were clear and crisp, and the motion-sensitive steering wheel jarred in my hands as I ran over a curb. Another time, it felt like the trailer was pushing me when I lost control of a fully loaded Peterbilt around a tight curve.

Sagar Shetye, director of simulation and instruction for DriveWise, ran me through several training modules. At times, he grabbed control of an on-screen Dodge Viper at his “rabbit station” and gave me fits by cutting me off or attempting to drive into me.

“If a student is doing well, I can throw more things at him or her,” says Shetye. “I can make it snow suddenly, or create a tire or brake failure. Many drivers have problems backing up, so I designed a backing program for Warren Gibson of Alliston, Ont. showing drivers how to use a pivot point.”

The geography varies from mountains to industrial suburbs and is based on the landscape around Salt Lake City, Utah., which is no surprise since the program was developed in that city by MPRI Ship Analytics, a division of L3 Communications, itself a consolidation of Lockheed-Martin and GE I-Sim technology.

Portability is a nice feature to this model. The VSIII fits inside a 10 foot U-haul trailer and takes only about half an hour to assemble and disassemble.

DriveWise opened its doors in Barrie, Ont. 18 months ago providing defensive driving programs and simulator training for police and emergency services personnel. Recently it has broadened its mandate to include professional truck drivers, offering a blended program that includes simulator training and classroom instruction. Masters clearly thinks simulator training should be part of every carrier’s training repertoire.

“Safety is the number one reason. We have figures that show a 30% reduction in accident and incident rates with drivers that had simulator training,” he says.

“The second reason is fuel economy,” says Masters. “The average driver that takes this course improves his shifting by an average of 2.8%. That’s a saving of tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars a year when applied to a fleet of drivers.”

Bob Halfyard, safety and compliance manager for Challenger Motor Freight, is also enthusiastic about the new tool.

“Has it kept us from getting in accidents? I think yes. A couple of our guys hit the engine brakes on a slippery road and had no idea what was happening to them. If you can save getting in one or two accidents you’ve pretty well paid for the machine.”

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