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Truck comforts seen as powerful recruiting tool

Posted: March 20, 2019 by John G. Smith

The view from the driver’s seat in the Kenworth W990.

ATLANTA, Ga. – Some fleets look at a truck’s creature comforts as an added cost, but it might be time to see such spec’s as an investment in driver recruiting and retention.

Driver IQ reports that driver turnover within large U.S. fleets reached 88% in 2017. Small fleets weren’t far behind at about 80%. And the American Trucking Associations predicts the U.S. will be short 75,000 drivers this year alone.

It has led Jeff Harris, vice-president of USA Truck, to a key conclusion: “Driver recruitment and retention, you have to put a ton of money into it.”

Like any investment, though, some options will offer a greater return than others.

Optional truck spec’s

During a panel discussion at the annual meeting of the Technology and Maintenance Council (TMC), Harris said the choice of creature comforts should be governed by applications, whether the truck will be used in over-the-road linehaul, slip seat, local, dedicated, or team service.

“A lot of drivers like the space where there’s not a bunk on top of them,” Harris offered as an example. But eliminating the bunk may not be an option if the truck will be used by team drivers.

“You have to go line item by line item,” he said. Some will be standard features with no upcharge, while others will come at a premium price or need to be sourced in the aftermarket with related installation charges.

There are broader performance issues at play, too. Is an option going to affect battery life or fuel economy? Perhaps an auxiliary power unit will require a different alternator. Extreme weather insulation might reduce the demands on HVAC systems. Carpeted floors are tougher to maintain, but they offer a more comfortable setting for drivers.

Meanwhile, “infotainment” offerings can range from flatscreen TVs to satellite radio, or even settings that allow drivers to load more apps onto in-truck tablets.

Another option is a wifi hub that will offer drivers internet access, but Harris offered a warning. “You’re the one that’s going to be paying for that data,” he said.

Comfort-related options can deliver value at the time of resale.

A financial return for truck features

Jamin Swazo, Kenworth’s on-highway market manager, admitted it can be difficult to quantify the residual value on many truck features.

“Most of the stuff we talk about doesn’t show up on a truck paper site,” he said. Such ads for used equipment still tend to focus on engines, transmissions, axles, and cab condition.

But some comfort-related options do support a truck’s residual value. Automated transmissions, for example, can now command a premium price in the used truck market.

It isn’t the only option that can support the driving experience itself. Steering wheel controls can offer quick access to the radio, cruise control and phone, while essential controls should be within reach, he said. Swivelling seats and moveable tables can create a more livable space in the sleeper.

The trick is finding a balance. If you spec’d everything a driver wanted, a truck would be more motorhome than work vehicle, Swazo said.

“All of us OEMs are working within a confined space,” he added. “You’re fitting their home down into a sleeper … there’s only so much space.”

TVs offer a way for drivers to “disconnect” after a long day on the road.

Turn on, tune in to TV

Lance Platt, CEO of Epicvue, suggested there are many benefits to offering satellite TV service in a sleeper. It can relieve boredom, combat stress, offer connective experiences, educate, inform, and provide a form of “distraction therapy”.

“There’s an element that helps us just wind down for the day,” Platt said. Even hospitals have found that they can use programming to distract patients from health challenges.

“It’s a tough job to be out there on the road – and what a great way to disconnect.”

Reward drivers with reward trucks

Trucks loaded with driver-friendly spec’s and a unique look can also serve as “reward trucks” for those who meet standards for fuel efficiency, safety, and maintenance practices alike.

But it essentially involves establishing a two-tiered fleet, said Tim Norton, on-highway marketing manager at Daimler Western Star.

“You’d still have your money-maker trucks,” he stressed. But some units would be set apart by factors such as styling, even if they’re tougher to quantify in terms of a return on investment.

It’s even possible to offer the illusion of a boxier, long and tall look in an aerodynamic package, Norton said. “LED lights are an example of something that not only works in terms of maintenance and safety, but really looks good at night.”

Cab and sleeper interiors, meanwhile, can be set apart with premium materials such as wood trim or chrome bezels.

Don’t forget the tech, either. Features such as adaptive cruise control or Bluetooth radio both offer a level of comfort as well as safety, he said. And systems which offer a sense of connectivity with dispatchers will make a difference of their own.

“One of the top reasons why a driver would leave a fleet is communication with dispatch, communication with home base, leaving left out in the dark,” he said.

“Your trucks are all rolling billboards for your business,” Norton added. “Having an attractive, stylish truck that’s well maintained and clean really projects your business image.”

Picture a seat that reads your mind

Smarter seats could lead to further comforts in the future.

“We’re looking at how to incorporate sensor technology into the cockpit of the vehicle,” explained Kate Muldoon, product marketing manager at Faurecia – one of the largest automotive suppliers in the world.

Those readings could control everything from cab temperatures to the ventilation in a seat, or even trigger a dynamic massage. Broader physiological data capturing things like heart rates could lead to countermeasures that mitigate motion sickness, stress, discomfort, or drowsiness.

Engineers are closer to offering such features in light-duty vehicles because they face less of the road noise that is still common in a heavy-duty truck, she said. But the tools are coming.

“Does anyone have the perfect answer when it comes to spec’ing your cab and interior components? I haven’t figured it out,” Harris said.

Drivers can offer much of the guidance, though, as can other fleets.

“What are your peers doing to attract and retain drivers?” he asked.


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