As trucking companies fight to keep drivers from leaving for other industries, they are looking to tractor-trailer manufacturers for help with better cabin interiors.
With every new truck that manufacturers have brought to the market in the past couple of years, they are making huge improvements to the cabs. These include reconfigured instrument panels, more spacious designs, more storage space, and options to add luxury amenities.
Motor carriers are seeking such improvements to combat chronic driver drought.
“We used to buy the trucks and then get the drivers,” said Max Fuller, executive chairman of US Xpress, which has 7,400 trucks. “Today, we are going to look for the drivers and then we will go and buy the trucks.”
Truck manufacturers have noticed this change and are doing everything possible to help their customers keep drivers on the road.
“Drivers will leave if they don’t like the truck,” Steve Gilligan, vice president of product marketing at Navistar International Corp, told Trucks.com. “There is a shortage of drivers, and it’s a huge cost for fleets to hire drivers. “
The American Trucking Associations believes that a 174,000 driver gap by 2026.
The shortage of drivers is the result of several trends, starting with booming e-commerce and a growing economy. Freight volume is expected to increase 2.8% this year, according to the ATA. This growth is expected to exceed 3% per year until 2023.
A federally mandated deadline of Dec. 18 for drivers to switch to electronic logging devices that will limit the number of driving hours may also deter some of the industry’s talent. Of the industry’s 3.5 million truckers, according to the ATA, about 1 million still have to comply within 10 weeks.
Additionally, damage to Texas and Florida from recent Hurricanes Harvey and Irma will likely lure drivers into construction jobs in affected areas, pitting the two industries into a tug-of-war over hiring.
Over the past 18 months, Navistar has renewed its line of international trucks with drivers in mind.
“We wanted to build a truck that the drivers want to drive,” said Gilligan.
Starting with the LT Series launch in early 2016, Navistar incorporated driver feedback early in the design phase. Comfort and ease of use were two of the major themes.
LT designers moved the dashboard closer to the firewall, redesigned the cup holders to improve leg and knee room, and reconfigured the location of switches and controls for ease of use. The redesigned LT gives drivers extra room to stow their belongings while they’re on the road.
“There isn’t too much storage,” said Gilligan.
These changes, along with significantly improved fuel economy, prompted US Xpress to sign a $ 200 million deal this month for 1,665 of the brand’s sleeping cars and day cabins.
The road hauler is also a major customer of Daimler Trucks North America. In its recent remake of the Freightliner Cascadia, Daimler took into account six key elements of cost of ownership: fuel efficiency, safety, connectivity, uptime, quality and operator experience.
“While each of these has an impact on the driver and their satisfaction in one way or another, the focus on the driver experience has the most impact,” Trucks.com told Trucks.com Mike McHorse, Daimler Road Product Marketing Director for Freightliner.
“Recruiting and retaining drivers is a significant annual cost for almost all of North America’s major fleets,” said McHorse.
To ensure the truck meets this mission, Daimler sought input from key customers in Cascadia’s new design process. One of the results is what the company calls the “driver’s loft,” an option for the rear of the cabin that includes two opposing seats and a table that can easily be folded down to accommodate a full-size Murphy style bed. .
“The design of the loft is well thought out,” said Brent Nussbaum, general manager of Nussbaum Transportation, a company with a fleet of 340 trucks based in Hudson, Illinois. “It’s more livable, more like an RV rather than the back of a truck.
Almost all of Nussbaum’s trucks are Freightliners. In March, he received an early delivery of a unit equipped with the driver’s loft function. He parked it in an on-site garage so his drivers could spend time exploring the improved design. “It was extremely well received,” Nussbaum said. “A common question was, ‘What do I need to do to get one? “”
Its most successful truck drivers who had to buy new trucks this year were given the option of having the loft function. Almost all of them accepted. Of the 95 new Cascadias it took delivery in June, 30 have the driver’s lounge, and it will include more in its 2018 orders.
Nussbaum sees these incentives as a tool to keep drivers happy. Its turnover rate is 30 percent, or about a third of the industry average.
The interior of the Cascadia also has a longer closet and space for a 26-inch flat screen, large microwave, and safe-type refrigerator that can accommodate more food and drinks. There are multiple outlets and dimmable ambient lighting.
The new Cascadia also comes with driver safety features such as grab handles, one-piece windshield, one-piece door glass and advanced safety features such as active brake assist, cruise control adaptive and lane departure warning.
“I drive a 2018 Freightliner day cab, and get on and off the truck between 20 and 30 times a day,” said Rhonda Hartman, pickup and delivery driver for Old Dominion Freight Line of Des Moines, Iowa. “Features like the step grip and the truck safety handle are important to me as I am in and out of the truck all day. “
Even as they redesign interiors, some brands are digging deep into luxury features.
Western Star – Daimler’s premium truck brand – features a wood-grain dashboard, diamond stitching on the wooden seats and cabinetry instead of the gray plastic interiors. But it still has the individual gauges that drivers love.
“Western Star is a classic modern truck,” Mike Guarino, Daimler Road and Municipal Segment Manager for Western Star, told Trucks.com.
“Truckers aren’t a dime a dozen anymore, it’s a driver’s market,” Guarino said. “Fleet owners love that it’s a truck driver’s truck, which is important to the driver as well.
The driver’s environment plays an important role in the comfort, productivity and safety of professional drivers and remains a constant priority for Volvo Trucks, said John Felder, Director of Professional Product Marketing for Volvo Trucks North America.
“Our fleet customers understand the importance of the truck cabin environment to their drivers and the features often specified to help attract and retain the best drivers,” said Felder.
More premium features also contribute to a good work-life balance, as a more comfortable driver comes home more rested, feels better and can enjoy their time, he said.
But no matter how much the truck cabs improve, that might not be enough to stem the driver exodus.
“There is no shortage of drivers,” said Norita Taylor, spokesperson for the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, which has more than 150,000 drivers among its members. “However, there is a very high turnover due to wages and working conditions. “
Pressure from employers to continue driving despite weather, traffic, driving conditions and fatigue are all factors that lead to a less than satisfactory work environment for truckers.
“Not all the latest equipment can compensate for” the most important aspects of any job, Taylor said.
Read more: Truck driver crisis could send wages skyward