WITH APOLOGIES TO Mick Jagger, you can always get what you want, driver—and what you need, too.
From small details to big spaces, when it comes to in-cab specs and amenities, owner-operators may differ on what’s really important, but the “why” is universal: They just want to be able to work—and live—as efficiently and comfortably as possible. The good news: Truck makers are taking driver requests, and they’re taking them very seriously.
Look no further than the new trucks from International: the flagship LT, introduced last summer, and the RH regional series, unveiled just last month. Both were designed around “DriverFirst” principles, explains Bill Distel, International’s director of product marketing for on-highway trucks.
Distel, previously chief product specialist on the heavy platform, now works between engineering, sales, dealers and customers “to get the voice of the customer into engineering’s hands.”
“We spent a lot of time and effort talking with customers, talking with drivers about what they want,” he says. “We want to make sure we offer the driver a very comfortable, ergonomic vehicle, as well as offering the fleet and the owner-operator a very good product at a very reasonable price.”
In a series of clinics, International brought in over 400 drivers, fleet owners, and service managers. The design team then implemented suggestions and brought back the results for further evaluation. Rinse and repeat.
“A lot of what they really pushed us on was the placement of everything that they use every day: from how we set up the cluster in front of them with the gauges they need, all the way down to the switches we put on the steering wheel,” Distel says. “It might seem small, but it’s really for the drivers that we put the air horn back on the lanyard. They’d rather just reach and grab the lanyard right by the A-pillar. And that makes the little kids happy when the driver can toot that air horn.”
Other touches: International moved the air-brake knobs out of the way, and put the radio “in the right spot.” Designers also improved the flow and direction of the air-conditioning and defrost vents. And the new display offers up to 15 customizable digital gauges.
The A-cluster gauges and the switches on the B-panel even get a new font to improve readability, as well as better backlighting.
More storage—shelves, cubbyholes, pockets, cup holders—in and around the dash have been added as a result of driver requests.
Distel also cited the “huge improvements” in cab suspensions, giving the sleeper more stability while on the highway—especially important for driving teams.
As for creature comforts, the industry has moved well beyond the days when a decent mattress and storage doors that would stay shut were the most truckers could hope for in a sleeper. Recent improvements range from additional USB ports for charging electronics, to an automatic air conditioning system for the sleeper, to sufficient “clean power” to support medical devices—to say nothing of big screen TVs, microwaves, refrigerators, and even video game consoles.
Market leader Daimler Trucks North America also has put truckers in the driver’s seat during product development. Owner-op Jeff Clark was part of the design team that worked on Freightliner’s new Cascadia. He likens the many small in-cab changes to the way truck makers optimize the shape of the vehicle for improved aerodynamics and fuel efficiency. “A tenth of a mile per gallon here, a tenth there, but just a little bit here and a little bit there—it adds up.”
And when he ticks off the improvements, he starts behind the wheel. “What stands out is the visibility. It’s better than it has ever been—unless maybe you go back to the old cabovers … which I do,” Clark says. “We can get more information now because of the electronic screens in the dash. I like the way you can bump your cruise control up a mile-an-hour or two off the steering wheel—it makes life a lot easier when you’re coming up on a guy at 65 and he’s going 63.
“Back when I started we didn’t even have cup holders, and now we have three—and they’re out of the way of the switches,” he continues. “There are more power ports than there used to be—I can even charge my phone off the CB. I didn’t even have a cell phone or a laptop when I started driving; now you have to have those and you need to power them up.”
Clark also points to the importance of additional compartments and cubbyholes. “My safety stuff—my steel-toed boots, ear protection, safety glasses, vest, hard hat—all go in one compartment, so it’s easy to stay organized.”
But when a driver’s not at the wheel, what he needs is room. “The idea that you can get up out of the driver’s seat and walk back to the sleeper without tripping over stuff is phenomenal,” Clark says.
Also “phenomenal” is the new Cascadia’s “Driver Loft,” a Murphy-style full-size bed that converts to a dual seat dinette in a matter of seconds.
“I never thought I’d use it, but because it flips so easily I use it all the time. I’ll put the bed up and go right to the conversion first thing in the morning,” he says. “I’m trying to be good and eat with a fork, so I can sit at the table, look at my laptop, or whatever. It’s a pain to try to eat in the driver’s seat.”
Also new is an expanded microwave cabinet, a swing-arm mounted TV bracket, and a much improved LED sleeper lighting system.
“And with the battery-powered APU, it’s just so comfortable. You preheat or precool the bunk, close the curtain, set the temperature, and go to sleep,” Clark says. “It doesn’t change throughout the night. In the old days, you’d wake up at 2 o’clock in the morning either sweating or freezing—not anymore.”
QUIET BUT POWERFUL
Ironically, modern trucks have become so quiet—between the soundproofing and the lower-revving engines—that “many drivers don’t think they’re pulling.”
“This truck has 1,760 lbs.-ft. of torque. Those old engines, the ‘shiny 290s,’ revved to 2,000 rpm, but you don’t get over 1,400 with these,”Clark says. “You don’t get the sensation of pulling because you don’t get the engine noise. You don’t get the draft. You don’t get the noise to the outside—who knew that could be a problem?”
For Kenworth, focusing on the driver is nothing new: The brand’s T680 was dubbed “The Driver’s Truck” when it debuted five years ago.
The T680 features the “Driver’s Studio” with a range of premium features that combine to create a comfortable living environment. For eating meals, there’s the 180-deg. swivel passenger seat and rotating table to accommodate two people, a drawer-style refrigerator, and a convenient space ideal for a microwave.
Kenworth’s premium audio package features a 320-watt amp, 10-in. subwoofer and eight speakers, and there’s a swivel TV mount for up to a 28-in. flat screen TV. The Driver’s Studio offers a full-size wardrobe space for hanging clothes, multiple storage drawers, and a large storage space under the lower bunk. And when it’s time to get some restful sleep, there’s the 8-in.-thick, luxury pocket coil mattress, as well as the latest in sleeper heater and cooling systems, explains Kurt Swihart, Kenworth marketing director.
“We don’t think you’ll find a more comfortable sleeper on the market,” says Swihart. “It’s a home-run for those who spend extensive time on the road.”
The T680 is also loaded with driver technology features. “The Kenworth Nav+ HD system with virtual gauges features a high-resolution 7-in. color screen for navigation, audio control—including satellite radio—along with Internet access,” Swihart notes.
Gregg Davis, an owner-op leased to Mercer Transportation, ordered all the bells and whistles when he purchased his 2016 Kenworth, but he went with the Kenworth W900 because it provides “more luxury, more space, more room” for traveling with his two-year-old canine companion.
“When we’re out here on the road for six to eight weeks, you’ve got to have a lifestyle—better relaxation,” he says. “I ordered it with everything. I’ve got the built-in navigation, I’ve got a couch, and I’ve got a microwave. I have a flatscreen and satellite TV and Xbox.”
But he’s found that even the Studio Sleeper isn’t enough: “I’m getting ready to buy another one—and I’m going even bigger.”
The working environment of the Volvo VNR, a regional haul tractor that premiered last month in Montreal, was designed to allow drivers to work more comfortably, productively and safely on the road.
“Every innovation of the new Volvo VNR has been filtered through the driver’s eyes,” says Brian Balicki, Volvo Trucks North America chief designer. “We channeled the input of nearly 2,000 drivers and brought those thoughts and preferences to life through the VNR.”
All that research found its way into the new Volvo VNR driving experience and in “countless details” meant to make drivers’ lives easier, like the Position Perfect three-motion steering wheel that allows for more optimal vertical positioning to help reduce arm, neck and shoulder fatigue. New seats offer more adjustments to fit more drivers’ shapes and preferences and bring comfort amenities like heating and cooling.
The VNR is also tailored to a driver’s connected lifestyle, incorporating an infotainment system equipped with Apple CarPlay, offering high-end audio with WiFi, Bluetooth, navigation, apps, and an exterior camera. Drivers will also benefit from a new instrument cluster and large, color driver information display in the dash, which works with steering wheel-mounted controls to provide key operating parameters and access to trip information, performance data, and a wide range of vehicle diagnostics.
Take a seat
The OEMs aren’t the only industry supplier focused on the needs of the driver. Minimizer, which made its name with replacement truck fenders, has since expanded the product line to include everything that goes “in, on, and around the truck”—and truckers help decide what the company rolls out next.
Whether it’s floor mats to keep the cab clean, or a tool caddy to help keep the truck running, Minimizer relies on focus groups and suggestions.
But, as Minimizer’s Jason Rhoads explains, “the number one asset” in any truck is the driver—and success for both fleets and owner-operators means taking care of him or her.
So Minimizer turned to drivers to find out exactly what makes a good seat—arguably the most important feature for a driver’s on-the-job comfort. The result is the Long Haul Series of premium seats, introduced last summer as part of Minimizer’s “Respect the Driver” industry awareness push. The company also has a couple of new in-cab products coming out in the near future to capitalize on the success of the seat.
“Aftermarket products in the trucking industry have been thought of as, ‘what’s less expensive?’ and we’re trying to change that mentality—and we’re doing it,” Rhoads says. “If you’re buying our seat, you know that what’s standard isn’t necessarily what’s best.”
Going on the theory that a driver might not know what he or she is missing, Rhoads offers several pointers for evaluating a truck seat and choosing a replacement:
- While all seats on the market offer height adjustments, not all of them have a memory function associated with them.
- Fore-and-aft seat slide adjustment feature allows drivers of different sizes to properly position the seat.
- Seat pan tilt adjustment allows the driver to make sure that his or her knees are a bit higher than the hips, so the thighs are supported without pressure.
- Seat depth is also important; a seat fits the driver properly when two or three fingers can be placed between the back of the knees and the front of the seat.
- Height-adjustable armrests let the driver position armrests at a height that is most comfortable, so the elbows rest easily on the armrest.
- A good seat let’s the driver inflate or deflate a lumbar support feature to best support the driver’s back in its natural double S shape.
- Swivel and recline features make the driver’s seat seem like an integral part of the sleep furniture.
- A cool air/heat ventilation system circulates air around the driver, keeping the driver cool or warm as needed.
- Finally, studies have found that seats with better ergonomics are generally firmer and have a narrower seat to hold and cradle the driver’s body. While cushier seats may seem more comfortable at first, a seat that holds the driver more firmly actually is more comfortable over the long haul.
Power up! Inverter tips
For many owner-operators, buying a used truck means the opportunity to customize and add new comforts to make the truck truly ‘yours.’ And with an ever-growing list of appliances and electronics that are essential for life on the road, power inverters are high on the aftermarket must-have list.
“But the challenge is picking the right inverter for your operation,” says Mitul Chandrani, senior marketing manager for Xantrex business at Schneider Electric. “And then figuring out the best way for installation.”
Installing inverters isn’t a daunting task, “but it does require a bit of research and some decision-making—retrofitting a truck with an aftermarket inverter is a relatively straightforward task,” he adds.
First comes the decision about buying an inverter and what type and size. Inverters come in a vast array, including some inexpensive models you can buy at truck stops and plug into the vehicle’s cigarette lighter.
Chandrani doesn’t advise going that route. “Drivers get more frustrations that way, which may negate any savings you’ll realize from buying on price rather than quality,” he says. “The size and brand of inverter should be based on such considerations as what and how much is going to be plugged into it, surge capacity, if the inverter is UL-certified, if it has a low voltage disconnect, and has added features—such as the ability to recharge a completely dead battery if plugged into shorepower.”
Next comes the decision on where in the truck cabin to mount it. Chandrani recommends mounting it under the sleeper bed, behind a protection bracket to prevent tools, chains and other gear from beating it up.
That’s not the only option, but several considerations enter into play here. “You really want to make sure it’s not in a compartment that’s going to get a lot of moisture,” Chandrani says. “You don’t want it real close to an outside access door.”
While inverters do their work of converting DC battery power to appliance-friendly AC power largely unseen, they do need to breathe. “Even though top quality inverters, like Xantrex, have a very wide operating temperature range, you don’t want it in a place where it’s going to get a blanket or luggage thrown on top of it,” Chandrani explains. “You want some air space so it can pull in some cool air to cool off circuits.”
One other no-no on location: Never put an inverter/charger in an engine compartment, battery bay or any location containing fuel or flammable or corrosive vapors. Inverter/chargers are an ignition source and are incompatible with combustible fumes. If the only close location is in the battery bay, Chandrani advises, get bigger cables and move the inverter further away.
How convenient it is to plug in appliances and other devices into the inverter may also determine where and how the inverter is mounted. Ideally, Chandrani says, inverters should be installed within 10 ft. of the battery bank; moving farther away may require larger DC cables to compensate for a drop in voltage over a longer distance. “In most cabs, it’s a matter of having a sealed-access path from the floor of the sleeper, and then the cables can go right to the batteries below,” Chandrani says.
Some models of inverters have a ground-fault interrupter receptacle on the front of the unit, so appliances can be plugged directly into them. Wiring kits are also available to connect the inverter to receptacles installed in convenient places in the sleeper cab.
Depending on the complexity of cable routing and connections, an owner-operator or service tech can often complete the installation in an hour or two. “But if all those considerations sound a bit overwhelming for the individual to handle an installation, that’s okay,” says Chandrani. “Avoid self-installations unless you are skilled and knowledgeable about the requirements for performing these specific types of installations and have studied the operation/install guide. Self-installation in and of itself doesn’t void a warranty, but an installation done incorrectly leaves telltale signs that could leave the owner without warranty protection should a problem arise.”
Using a service center is an acceptable alternative, “so long as the staff is knowledgeable and competent in installing complex electronics,” Chandrani says, “and has some experience with the specific make and design of inverter being installed.”