Simulators, VR systems enhance driver training

In-cab driving simulators and VR systems are helping to focus training efforts and open conversations with trainees

virtual reality driving simulator
Vickie deVos, CEO and president of iMVR, says her eye-tracking simulator can anchor important discussions with driver trainees. (Photo: John G. Smith)

BEAMSVILLE, Ont. – The developers at iMVR Canada live in a world that straddles the virtual and reality. Their work spaces overlook actual tractor-trailers pulling through a local truck stop; the trucks on their computer screens travel no further than a hard drive.

There is a clear connection between the two worlds, though.

The business is now selling a driver training system that places trainees in the midst of a computer-animated truck yard or city. Those who sit at a desk-mounted steering wheel can roll through the environment seen in a set of virtual reality (VR) goggles. Two stand-mounted sensors and a handheld remote make it possible to walk around a virtual tractor-trailer to complete a circle check. Want to look at the fifth wheel? Just crouch.

The animation to show specific components is to be completed this summer.

The system’s underlying eye-tracking technology can even show instructors where the trainees are looking during every turn, and at every stop during an inspection.

“This is not to replace a simulator. Keep your simulators,” iMVR Canada president and CEO Vickie deVos says, referring to the systems that combine screens and truck-like cabs. “This is to create conversations.” What was the trainee looking at when they made a turn? Were they truly aware of their surroundings? Did they see the stop sign? Are they truly looking at individual components during a circle check rather than simply memorizing a list of things they should examine?

Customized software could create exact replicas of specific yards or other operating environments. The first indication of that is the virtual environment’s billboard promoting the Trucking Human Resources Sector Council (THRSC) – Atlantic.

That group will be spearheading a two-year research project exploring the potential of VR technology in trucking, leveraging a recently announced $690,000 grant from the federal government.

The council hopes to track 150 drivers who use the iMVR systems. It already has two of the five units available anywhere in Canada, but has largely used them to anchor presentations for high school students.

“It’s really changed their perception,” says THRSC – Atlantic executive director Kelly Henderson, referring to the way iMVR can showcase some of the skills that truck drivers require. “It’ll be interesting to see what comes out [of the research].”

Bison Transport uses in-cab driving simulators as part of a broader training strategy that’s delivering results. (Photo: Bison Transport)

The value of in-cab simulators

Simulators have already found a place in selected driver training programs, of course. Bison Transport introduced its first simulator in 2002, and bought a full-motion unit in 2003.

“When we announced in 2001 and 2002 we were getting this, investing in simulator technology, I had a lot of drivers coming into my office and saying ‘That’s a pretty expensive Atari game,’” says Garth Pitzel, director –  safety and driver development. It’s why the fleet wanted an early win to ensure that employees realized it was a true learning tool.

The buy-in came when the simulator was used to train drivers in progressive shifting techniques. A 3% increase in fuel economy followed. “That got us some instant credibility,” Pitzel says.

The training quickly expanded to focus on issues like managing space and speed, focusing on a seven-second following distance, and the decision driving techniques to improve on-road safety. Maneuvering through yards and truck stops followed, as did backing.

“When we started our program I said it was an important thing we could get to start to deliver training to the specific needs and requirements of an individual driver,” Pitzel says. The specific areas of focus emerged through a safety scoring system that identifies a driver’s level of risk.

Trainers can also use the simulators for an assessment run, focusing on weaknesses and repeating challenging situations over and over again.

The technical training tools don’t come cheap. A full cab-like simulator can cost as much as a Class 8 tractor and sleeper. But it’s part of a broader training strategy that’s realizing a true return on investment. Bison’s accident costs, insurance costs, and cargo claims are up just 10% over 13 years – the equivalent of or 0.39 cents per mile. Even the general cost of living rose 25% during that time.

Simulators are anchored in a proven approach to adult learning, Pitzel adds. Tell them, show them, get them to do something.

One example that proved the system’s worth came when an owner-operator asked if the simulator could show what it would be like if a steer tire blew out. It had never happened to him before. His trainer focused on the need to stay off the brake, and other techniques to keep everything under control.

Six weeks later he called Pitzel to share the story that the same situation happened on the road. The owner-operator told him that the instructor’s voice was all he heard in his head.

New trainees are also using the simulator to try backing techniques for the first time, and slashing days off the practice time that was traditionally required in the yard.

Without the simulator, some new trainees would have trouble backing into the side of a barn let alone a barn door, Pitzel says. Now they drop it right into the hole at a loading dock.

“It’s because you are only concentrating on backing. You get the skill. You get how [the truck] articulates. Then when you’re in the yard you have the confidence,” Pitzel says.

The fleet clearly has confidence in the systems. It will complete about 4,200 simulator training courses this year.

truck driving simulator
Bison has used simulators to focus on issues like managing space and speed, focusing on a seven-second following distance. (Photo: Bison Transport)

The limits of simulators

As valuable as simulators have become, there are limits to the technology, says Yvette Lagrois, president of the Ontario Truck Training Academy.

“The computer itself gives me no useable data off it, so I still need to use zeros and ones – with a real live person,” she says, referring to the way instructors need to monitor a trainee’s every turn. It’s the only way to know if everything is caught, and nothing is missed.

Still, she sees a need for the equipment. Her school has units stationed in Oshawa and Mississauga, Ont.

“What is a simulator? It’s a truck with no wheels. In light of our litigious nature and society, I don’t understand why schools don’t have them. But I understand from a cost – ‘Holy crap, man, it’s one hell of an expense.”

Her systems cost about $130,000 each. The system upgrades that come every five years will cost as much as $60,000.

The greatest return on the investment could be the way simulators can be used to pre-screen driver trainees, she says, noting that an hour of simulator time can identify how well a candidate will absorb lessons.

“Can they hear us? Can they follow tasks?” she asks, referring to the insights. “Shifting is Number 1, but more importantly we’re looking for their ability to follow instructions in the environment. We’re looking for teachability.”

If they don’t absorb lessons after 10 hours at the screen, it may be time to consider another career path.

An added benefit is the way that younger trainees are attracted to the technology. It’s one of the things that can make trucking seem cool, Lagrois says.

“A simulator isn’t necessarily going to get you an excellent CVOR [safety rating],” she adds, “but I would say it’s still one of the secret ingredients.”


John G. Smith is the editorial director of Newcom Media's trucking and supply chain publications -- including Today's Trucking,, TruckTech, Transport Routier, Inside Logistics, Solid Waste & Recycling, and Road Today. The award-winning journalist has covered the trucking industry since 1995.

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