Truckmakers Woo Customers With Driver-Centric Interior Designs

October 24, 2017 by Carly Schaffner

As trucking companies fight to keep drivers from leaving for other industries, they are looking to semi-tractor manufacturers for an assist with better cab interiors.

With each new truck that manufacturers have brought to the market over the last two years, they are pitching huge improvements to cabs. These include reconfigured dashboards, more spacious designs, greater storage and options to add luxury amenities.

Motor carriers are looking for such upgrades to fight a chronic drought of drivers.

“The way it used to be was that we would go out and buy the trucks, then go find the drivers,” said Max Fuller, executive chairman of US Xpress, which has 7,400 trucks. “Today, we go find the drivers and then we will go buy the trucks.”

Truck manufacturers have noted that shift and are doing all they can 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 driver shortage, and it’s a huge cost for fleets to hire drivers.”

The American Trucking Associations estimates a gap of 174,000 drivers by 2026.

The sleeper cabin in the International LT165

The sleeper cabin in the International LT165 at the North American Commercial Vehicle Show in Atlanta. (Photo: Brian Hadden/Trucks.com)

The driver shortfall is a result of multiple trends starting with booming ecommerce and a growing economy. Freight volume is predicted to increase 2.8 percent this year, according to the ATA. This  growth is expected to hover above 3 percent annually through 2023.

A Dec. 18 federally mandated deadline for drivers to switch to electronic logging devices that will limit the number of driving hours may also turn away a portion of the industry’s talent. Of the 3.5 million truck drivers in the industry, according to the ATA, about 1 million have yet to comply with less than 10 weeks to go.

Moreover, damage in Texas and Florida left in the wake of recent hurricanes Harvey and Irma will probably lure drivers to construction jobs in the affected regions, pitting the two industries against each other in a hiring tug of war.

Over the last 18 months, Navistar turned over its International truck lineup with drivers in mind.

LT designers rearranged switches and controls on both the steering wheel and dash for better ease of use. (Photo: Brian Hadden/Trucks.com)

“We wanted to build a truck that drivers want to drive,” Gilligan said.

Starting with the launch of the LT Series in early 2016 Navistar incorporated feedback from drivers early in the design phase. Comfort and ease of operation were two of the major themes.

LT designers pushed the dash closer to the firewall, reshaped cup holders to improve leg and knee room and reconfigured the location of switches and controls for ease of use. The redesigned LT offers extra space for drivers to store their things while they’re on the road.

“There’s no such thing as too much storage,” Gilligan said.

These changes, as well as vastly improved fuel economy, prompted US Xpress to sign a $200-million deal this month for 1,665 of the brand’s sleepers and day cabs.

The motor carrier also is a major customer of Daimler Trucks North America. In its recent remake of the Freightliner Cascadia, Daimler considered six key elements of the cost of ownership: fuel efficiency, safety, connectivity, uptime, quality and driver experience.

“While each of these elements impacts a driver and driver satisfaction in some way, the focus on driver experience has the most impact,” Mike McHorse, Daimler’s on-highway product marketing manager for Freightliner, told Trucks.com.

“Driver recruiting and retention is a significant annual cost for nearly all major North American fleets,” McHorse said.

To ensure that the truck meets that mission, Daimler solicited insights from key customers in the new Cascadia design process. One result is what the company calls the “driver loft,” an option for the rear of the cab that features 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, chief executive of Nussbaum Transportation, a firm with a 340-truck fleet based in Hudson, Ill. “It’s more livable, more like a motor home rather than the back of a truck.”

The interior of the Freightliner Cascadia at the North American Commercial Vehicle Show in Atlanta.

The driver loft option with two opposing seats and a table in the rear of the Freightliner Cascadia cab. (Photo: Brian Hadden/Trucks.com)

Almost all of Nussbaum’s trucks are Freightliners. In March, he received an early delivery of a unit outfitted with the driver loft feature. He parked it in a garage onsite so his drivers could spend time exploring the upgraded design. “It was extremely well-received,” Nussbaum said. “A common question was, ‘What do I need to do to get one of those?'”

His top-performing over-the-road drivers due for new trucks this year were given the option of having the loft feature. Almost all opted in. Of the 95 new Cascadias he took delivery of in June, 30 have the driver lounge, and he will be including more in his 2018 orders.

Nussbaum sees such incentives as one tool to keep drivers happy. His turnover rate is 30 percent, about one-third of the industry average.

The Cascadia’s interior also has a longer wardrobe closet and space designated for a 26-inch flat screen, a large microwave and a chest-style refrigerator than can accommodate more food and drinks. There are multiple power outlets and dimmable ambient lighting.

The new Cascadia also has driver safety features such as grab handles, a one-piece windshield, one-piece door glass and advanced safety features such as active brake assist, adaptive cruise control and lane departure warning.

“I drive a 2018 Freightliner day cab, and I get in and out of the truck between 20 to 30 times a day,” said Rhonda Hartman, a pickup and delivery driver for Old Dominion Freight Line from Des Moines, Iowa. “Features such as the grip on the step and the safety handle on the truck are important for me because I am in and out of the truck all day long.”

Daimler focused on the driver experience while designing the interior of the new Freightliner Cascadia. (Photo: Brian Hadden/Trucks.com)

Even as they redesign interiors, some brands are pushing deep into luxury features.

Western Star — Daimler’s premium truck brand — offers a wood-grain dash, diamond tuck stitching on the seats and wood cabinets instead of the gray plastic interiors. But it still has the individual gauges that drivers like.

“Western Star is a classic modern truck,” Mike Guarino, Daimler’s on-highway and municipal segment manager for Western Star, told Trucks.com.

“Truckers are no longer a dime a dozen, it’s a driver’s market,” Guarino said. “Fleet owners like the fact that it’s a trucker’s truck, which is also important to the driver.”

The driver environment plays a large role in the comfort, productivity and safety of professional drivers and remains a constant focus for Volvo Trucks, said John Felder, Volvo Trucks North America vocational product marketing manager.

“Our fleet customers understand the importance of the truck's in-cab environment to their drivers and often spec features to help attract and retain top drivers,” Felder said.

The interior of the Western Star 5700

Western Star trucks feature a wood grain dash and individual gauges. (Photo: Brian Hadden/Trucks.com)

More premium features also help support a good work-life balance because a more comfortable driver returns home more rested, feeling better and able to enjoy their time, he said.

But no matter how improved the truck cabs become, it might not be enough to stanch the driver exodus.

“There is no driver shortage,” said Norita Taylor, spokeswoman for the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, which counts more than 150,000 drivers as members. “There is, however, very high turnover due to wage and working conditions.”

Pressure from employers to keep driving despite weather, traffic, driving conditions and fatigue are all factors that lead to a less-than-satisfactory workplace for truckers.

“All the newest equipment can’t make up for” the most important aspects of any job, Taylor said.

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