In a recent Fleet Equipment fleet survey, we found that 75% of fleet managers are spec’ing in-cab amenities and creature comforts as part of a driver retention program. That should come as no surprise, as the latest driver shortage numbers from the American Trucking Associations are still concerning, with 83% turnover for larger fleets and 79% for smaller fleets.
With that being the case, more and more fleets are making their equipment spec’ing decisions with the driver in mind to make sure inexperienced drivers can handle the offerings or, more frequently, to keep existing drivers in the seats with enticing rewards.
“Fleets tells us that competition for good qualified drivers has gone up as more older drivers reach retirement age,” said Kurt Swihart, Kenworth’s marketing director. “They report that it’s not uncommon for their best drivers to get many offers to start driving for other companies. That’s why many fleets are looking at different ways to make their trucks more enticing [to drive]. Plus, they can attract new talent to fill demand from new freight lanes or to replace retiring drivers.”
“I met with a major fleet recently, that mentioned they see a seasoned driver now as someone who’s had 90 days of experience,” shared Jim Nachtman, product marketing manager for on-highway trucks with International Trucks. “That really paints the picture of how fresh a lot of today’s drivers are.”
With this becoming a bigger priority industry-wide, we took a look at the various offerings from the heavy-duty truck OEMs for driver comfort.
Daimler Trucks North America (DTNA)’s Freightliner New Cascadia, which will be available later this year, prioritized improved driver satisfaction. When announcing the new truck, Richard Howard, DTNA’s senior vice president of sales and marketing, said: “Now more than ever, driver satisfaction, safety and comfort are essential to our customers’ success. Giving drivers a vehicle they are proud to operate—one with the latest safety features, productivity enhancements and creature comforts—was a priority.”
Features introduced to the New Cascadia with drivers in mind include:
- A new front suspension that provides a smoother ride and improved roll stiffness, and the steering gear is now located further forward to help improve steering precision and ultimately lead to less driver fatigue;
- Switches and steering wheel controls which allow drivers to work without leaning and stretching;
- Lower interior sound when driving;
- Availability of a driver’s loft, which features a dinette table/work table and opposing seating with seat belts. These can be folded down flat quickly to allow for a murphy-style bed to swing down. The driver’s loft also comes standard with aircraft-inspired LED ambient lighting and dimmer switch so drivers can personalize their light levels.
International’s new LT series, introduced in November, focused on drivers a focus as part of the company’s DriverFirst philosophy.
“When we started the development of the LT series, we started with driver clinics,” Nachtman began. “We brought in about 500 drivers, showed them our prototype, and got their feedback on how they liked the vehicle from a driving standpoint, from a storage standpoint, etc. From their responses we were able to figure out areas to improve, and the hallmark of that activity is the LT series.”
Nachtman said that one thing that was made clear from talking to drivers was that they wanted more connectivity and power outlets. The LT series features a standard auxiliary port and a high-amperage USB port, with the option for additional ports.
“The HVAC system is another area of focus,” he continued. “For example, we have best-in-class defrost performance—in a short period of time the windows are fully clear of frost and you’re able to get out on the road and start earning revenue.”
International also focused on the noise level in the LT’s cab. “With our LT series and the RH series (when that comes out), we’ve gone to a new door that’s two times stiffer than the previous door, and there’s more compression on the gasket, which gives you a better ceiling,” Nachtman said. “That gives you two major advantages: it keeps the cab very quiet and eliminates any draftiness.”
“During the development of the Kenworth T680, Kenworth tasked its engineers to design a new generation of trucks that would build on the successes of our previous models in terms of comfort, style, productivity and aerodynamics,” Kenworth’s Swihart said. “We also wanted the designs to offer a comfortable working and living environment to a wide range of drivers—tall or short, men or women, young or young-at-heart. We wanted the trucks to draw from them the sort of reaction fleets would want to hear: ‘There goes a truck I want to drive.’”
Swihart pointed to a few specific standout features:
- Seats: The GT700 series of seats on Kenworth’s T680 and T880 boast a height/weight independent suspension system designed to be set to each driver’s specific needs, Swihart noted, as well as the ability to fine-tune the dampening characteristics to be firm or soft.
- Power management: Kenworth has added cab temperature monitoring to its auto start and stop capability; the company has also added the Eberspächer Airtronic D4 fuel-fired bunk heater.
- LED lighting: Kenworth’s trucks come with all-LED lighting, which includes dome lamps, reading lamps, sleeper lighting and an integrated lamp in the door pad that illuminates the steps and the ground below when the door is open. According to Swihart, these lights are made available to create a safe and comfortable living and working space, and because they are easier on the driver’s eyes.
- Entertainment: Kenworth offers a pre-wire option and wall-mounted TV installation package so drivers can have the entertainment options they want, such as EpicVue satellite.
“We’ve seen two creature comforts increase in popularity with customers recently: the Mack mDrive automated manual transmission [AMT], and our stereo equipped with XM satellite radio and Bluetooth connectivity,” said Stu Russoli, Mack’s highway product manager.
While it’s not primarily a creature comfort item, the mDrive provides better ergonomics for the driver and also helps reduce fatigue, Russoli said.
“When someone asks about comfort, the first thing people typically think about is cushioning for the seats and mattresses and that kind of thing,” Russoli said. “While that’s important, Mack is looking beyond simple cushioning to understand what features will help reduce driver fatigued at the end of the day. That’s why we made them standard in our Mack Pinnacle and Granite models.
With no clutching or traditional shifting, a driver’s knees and shoulders aren’t worn out at the day’s end. It also enables drivers to concentrate on the road and the jobsite. Together, these help drivers to be less fatigued—both mentally and physically—at the end of the day, which is true comfort.
“Customers also have become more selective when it comes to seats,” Russoli added. “The trend has been toward spec’ing more feature-laden seats, which is understandable since the driver needs to live with the seats day in and day out. When it comes to sleepers specifically, it’s really just keeping up with shore power vs. auxiliary power units, inverters and so on. Mattress selection is key, and the sleeper with the most storage is always a plus.”
One example of a Peterbilt truck emphasizing driver comfort is its 58-in. sleeper, which was released in the summer of 2015. The sleeper includes a full-length door to help facilitate loading personal gear from outside the truck. Additionally, full-length, integrated sleeper extenders minimize trailer gap and improve aerodynamic efficiency. Other features include a television mount, refrigerator and microwave shelf.
Safety is also paramount. A safe driver is a productive driver. Peterbilt offers the Bendix Wingman Advanced collision avoidance system as a factory-installed option and offering the RollTek protection system integrated with Atlas II driver seats as an option for Models 579 and 567.
“Volvo trucks are designed for the driver, in particular for three driver requirements: driving, working (e.g. paper work), and resting,” said Wade Long, director of product marketing for Volvo Trucks North America. “The most prevalent driver comfort is the automated manual transmission (AMT), which reduce driver fatigue and improve safety by reducing distraction. AMTs are being ordered at industry-high levels and the Volvo I-Shift is requested in 85% of the vehicles we build.”
Other driver-focused features that Long highlighted include:
- Wide based seats with back cycler provide a comfortable seat, wider support for the legs and thighs and adds a continuous pulsating pressure on the drivers back that improves their circulation, like standing up once in a while.
- Automatic climate controls allow the driver to set a temperature that the system will maintain.
- Active safety systems such as collision avoidance systems, which can help drivers avoid an accident and reduce stress.
- Dinette and workstations are ordered to provide adequate working space in the cab when the driver needs to complete paper work.
- Parking heaters that provide heat to the cab very efficiently for overnight stays in the cab.
- Inverters that provide power for hotel loads, i.e., laptops, cell phone, tablets, a coffee maker and TV.
- Parking coolers that provide A/C climate controls for the vehicle with the engine off.
- Shore power which allows driver to plug the truck in when parked for hotel loads.
Long also mentioned that, while it’s not a driver-specific feature, the new GHG 2017 engines are quieter than previous engines, which can help reduce driver fatigue.
Western Star has styled its 5700XE as a “reward truck” for drivers—while assuring fleets that they won’t lose out on fuel economy. The development of the 5700XE, which debuted in 2015, was spurred in part by focus group interviews the company held with customers in the hopes of making a truck geared toward fleets hoping to reward loyal drivers. It sports a polished stainless steel grill surround and bumper, as well as a sun visor that provides adequate sun shade.
The 5700XE also features a steering wheel with radio, bluetooth, marker interrupt and cruise control functions built into it. The truck’s right-hand stalk (on the steering column) provides fingertip control of the engine brake and gear selection. This allows the driver to remain focused on the road while maintaining maximum control of the truck. From a safety standpoint, the 5700XE offers collision mitigation, lane departure warnings and roll stability control, in addition to a quiet cab and Detroit’s DT12 automated manual transmission, all of which help minimize driver fatigue.
Western Star also offers the Phantom 2 Graphics package as a factory-installed option. The Phantom 2 Graphics package (seen above) is an extension of the original graphics package and is available in several different colors and textures including matte, carbon fiber, and brushed aluminum. The components can be spec’d as separate pieces for the hood, intake, side, fenders, and visor, or as one complete package. It’s one more feature Western Star offers so that drivers can stand out at a truck stop and boost their pride in the fleet they drive for.