Autonomous trucking may one day help ease the shortage of qualified drivers. But the present remains full of painful challenges for an industry struggling to attract, train and retain a younger generation of operators.
That’s why John Kearney, chief executive of Advanced Training Systems, or ATS, says he’s focused on developing a training simulator that uses hyper-realistic virtual reality. Not only is VR a safer and more effective tool, he said, but it’s also highly attractive to younger job candidates who have grown up in the digital age.
“The simulation is not a replacement for the part of the process you have to eventually master, which is actually driving a truck,” Kearney says. “But there are a number of things you can’t do in a truck that are better in virtual reality.”
When it comes to the realm of driver training, Kearney is a bit of a legend. He founded Roadmaster Drivers School more than 25 years ago, a company he sold in 2015 to Werner Enterprises. From his perch, he’s been a close observer of how training and the profile of prospective drivers have changed over the years.
He’s watched the trucking industry face a shortage of drivers that has only grown more acute amid churn and a difficult recruiting environment. He points to one study by the American Trucking Associations that found the industry would need to train and hire almost 900,000 new operators over the next decade just to maintain the number of truckers on the roads today.
The squeeze is only expected to get worse. There is already a driver shortage, and shipping is projected to undergo explosive growth thanks to the ecommerce boom. That’s bad for trucking companies, but also bad for customers who could eventually pay for higher shipping costs across a wide range of products, Kearney said.
So, about a decade ago, Kearney launched a second company to develop training simulators. His thought was this: Simulator training is commonplace for training airplane pilots – why not truckers? Along the way, he sold ATS, but rejoined the company as chief executive after selling Roadmasters.
Simulators of various kinds of have existed for years, but adapting them for trucking still proved to be a big technical challenge. Particularly over the last five years, ATS’ engineers and designers have been working closely with researchers to develop a virtual reality system with enough fidelity to truly provide the sense of driving a big rig.
The result is the company’s TransMaster simulator. The unit doesn’t use VR goggles, but rather places the trainee in a chair with high-definition video screens in front and on each side that mirror the view a driver would have in a cab. The gear shifter, pedals and steering wheel all replicate the feedback and tension that would come from maneuvering a truck.
“You feel you’re sitting in a real truck,” Kearney said. “It’s much better than just starting with a book. And beginning drivers often have incidents that cost a lot of money. They’re not going to have an accident sitting in a simulator.”
The system also provides options such as adding rain, snow or ice to mimic very specific road conditions that are hard to practice in the real world. “In a real truck, if you’re driving down the road and you experience ice, there’s a good chance you’re going to have an accident,” Kearney said.
“But you need the experience of being on ice because either you learn how to drive on it, or you don’t,” he said. “I can put you in a position to learn exactly what you’re going to learn if you were driving on black ice.”
Having developed the system, ATS finds itself facing competition on several fronts. Companies such as UPS have developed their own, in-house VR training that uses the Vive headset. But that is part of a one-week supplemental course for new hires, rather than a full-blown training system. To that end, startup VR Motion of Oregon has developed a simulator that uses goggles. L3 Technologies also sells a driver-training simulator.
However, one of the biggest challenges is changing the mindset of a trucking industry that can still be quite conservative and traditional, Kearney said.
“It’s been a tough road because it’s a new type of product, and it’s something most of them didn’t grow up utilizing,” he says. “But for people just coming into the industry, particularly young people, they appreciate the experience right away.”
“And the older people take to it fast, once they get into it and try it,” he said. “Our focus is really just getting them to try it.”