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No longer upscale

Ten years is not really a long time, but an awful lot has changed in the last decade. Ten years ago, over-the-road drivers were happy if they got a cup holder.

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Ten years is not really a long time, but an awful lot has changed in the last decade. Ten years ago, over-the-road drivers were happy if they got a cup holder. Today they assume jacks for MP3 players, satellite radio systems and swivel seats will be included in their over-the-road trucks.

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“Many items that only 10 year ago would have been considered to be upscale amenities are all but standard today,” Darry Stuart, president and CEO of DWS Fleet Management Services, says of today’s sleepers. “We’ve turned a place to sleep into a place to live, and it makes sense because drivers are spending more time in sleepers as a result of the new hours of service rules.”

Manufacturers are responding to this new reality. Peterbilt, for example, recently began delivering new sleeper interiors for its 63-, 48- and 36-in. detachable sleepers. The larger sleepers will be available in two trim levels, Platinum and Prestige, and the 36-in. unit only in one.

“The new sleepers feature abundant storage, ample lighting and accents that provide operators with the amenities and practical luxury they expect,” says Dan Sobic, Peterbilt’s general manager.

Note that such “expected amenities” include an optional color-matched refrigerator and business center. The latter includes a pull-out work station for writing or using a laptop computer, removable file storage and other convenient storage areas for office supplies.

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International Truck and Engines’s ProStar, another newcomer to the market, is clearly designed with the driver in mind. Debbie Shust, director of marketing for International’s Heavy Vehicle Center, separates optional amenities into three categories: those contributing to improved driver comfort, those influencing the driving experience and those generating pride of ownership.

In the first grouping, she includes many of the items that some years ago drivers only wished for but have now come to expect – large sleepers, good ergonomics, full-time heating and ventilating systems. She particularly points to the importance of seats as items of driver comfort, saying that air suspension seats with lumbar supports are all but considered to be standard, and swivel seats are quickly growing in popularity in sleeper applications. Heated seats account for no more than 15 percent of the company’s sales, so they still are considered to be upscale options.

Seats are very important

Stuart believes that the seats generally provided to drivers have not followed the same curve as other former wish-list amenities.

“We still don’t give our drivers good enough seats, but we’re getting better,” he says. “For example, we’ve gone away from vinyl and moved to leather. Although good seats are available; we’re just not spending the money.”

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On the topic of seats, Vince DiSchino, director of business development at Regional International and Idealease, says, “You need a good seat – one with a high back and air suspension but not necessarily the top of the line. Comfort is necessary, leather is not. When you’re writing specs, consider the purchase of a Wide Ride seat for those drivers who might benefit from a few extra inches in the seat cushion.”

Closely related to seats is the truck’s overall suspension system. Shust explains how ProStar engineers designed its seat’s, cab’s and truck’s suspensions as a single package instead of discrete components. The result, she claims, delivers the industry’s best ride.

Living space is high on every over-the-road driver’s wish list and one that is being delivered on regularly by truck manufacturers. Kenworth, for example, introduced 86-in. and 72-in. sleepers earlier this year.

Jim Wilson, owner of Par4 Transport, ordered a W900L with an 86-inch AeroCab Diamond sleeper. “Our drivers spend many hours in their cabs, hauling meat and deli-type products up and down the West Coast,” Wilson says. “A driver wants to be proud of what he’s driving, and he wants to be comfortable in it. I bought the truck with that in mind and plan to buy another one identical to it. We’ve never lost a driver from our payroll, and our trucks play a big part in that.”

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Options with a payback

Not all upscale items represent a pure expense. Some offer benefits to both drivers and fleets. Many safety options are good examples of such a win-win proposition. Power/heated mirrors are universally appreciated by drivers but also can pay for themselves in increased productivity and decreased accidents. Even power windows offer safety advantages combined with improved productivity. Stuart says, “I’ve been buying electric door locks and windows for more than 10 years.”

How about tire pressure monitoring systems? Drivers love them, and they can pay for themselves in improved fuel economy and reduced tire wear.

VORAD systems don’t come cheap, but Eaton certainly makes a good economic case for them. And what driver wouldn’t like to know that his truck is equipped with such a safety system?

A good economic case, based on both fuel savings and decreased maintenance costs, also can be made for automated mechanical transmissions. Most new drivers appreciate them. Even veteran drivers, who no longer have to prove anything to themselves or anyone else, have a growing appreciation of their easy operation.

“Hotel loads”

Drivers want access to electrical power when they’re using sleepers. The only question is how, not if, fleets will provide it. No matter what decision is made in that regard, DiSchino strongly recommends that all electrical access – AC power, cell phone hookups, MP3 jacks – be supplied by OEMs on the truck assembly line. He points to the complexity of electrical systems in today’s trucks and the damage that could be done by tapping into that system. “Today’s electrical systems are too sophisticated,” he says.

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The real question regarding AC power supply is whether to use inverters or auxiliary power units. International’s Shust says that orders for inverters have grown steadily in recent years, but APUs “have gone crazy,” this, undoubtedly the result of anti-idling regulations.

DiSchino favors the use of inverters for hotel loads but accepts the need for APUs for extended idling. Stuart says, “If I had my way, I would add more batteries and use inverters instead of APUs. We need bigger alternators and more battery capacity.”

The only way a fleet can get the trucks with “the right specs” is to have those specs written by a skilled fleet manager. He needs to be well tuned to his operation. He needs to understand what is implied in the fleet’s maintenance records. He needs to be familiar with driver feedback. He needs to have knowledge of vehicle operational costs.

DiSchino, says, “He’s the one who says, ‘This is what we need, and we don’t have to go above this line.’”

Is the effort all worthwhile? Definitely, Stuart says, “There is a stable segment of drivers, maybe 25 percent, that will put up with some inconvenience, but many of the others will change companies in a heartbeat.”

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So how much does it cost your fleet to find, hire and train a good driver?

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