Virtual reality in trucking

Why would you want to give your drivers driving lessons on a simulator when they could just ride with an instructor in one of your rigs? The answer lies in another question. Would you want your driver to crash his truck so that he could know how to avoid doing so next time?
“Our heritage is flight training,” says John Sullivan, manager of driver training systems at Lockheed Martin Information Systems. “A simulator gives you the ability to do all the difficult maneuvers you want the pilot to learn. You can’t do them in a real plane because it is just too risky.”

But in a simulator, you can perform full emergency procedures, Sullivan says. Obviously, this would not be a good idea in a real rig, even on a closed course. The safety of a simulator and the fact that you’re not even burning diesel mean the driver can practice the maneuver over and over, if necessary.

Dennis Blessinger, market manager at GE Driver Development, describes how simulation training enables a driver to react to a panic situation after that practice. “The driver will do the right thing without even needing to think it through. The body just does it – we’re actually burning new neural pathways.” So one goal of simulation training is to create an appropriate reaction to a panic situation, replacing paniced confusion with learned reflex.

What are some extreme training situations for truckers? “Tire blowouts, partial or full brake failures and unbalanced loads are three of the best examples of emergencies truckers actually encounter,” Sullivan notes. “Not many instructors would want to guide a driver through a blowout in a real truck.” Not only can the simulator expose the driver to appropriate decision making after brake failure – “He needs to learn it’s better to take that runaway ramp,” Sullivan says – it can teach him to recognize the signs of developing brake fade.

Other, slightly more benign situations a simulator can expose a driver to include suddenly confronting traffic cones partially blocking the lane to warn him away from a vehicle pulled partway off the road.

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Simulator training also “brings out professional behaviors, and that elevates a driver’s feeling about himself,” Sullivan says. Simulator training is also an efficient way to wash out drivers who just can’t handle difficult situations calmly or to test driver applicants.

GE Driver Development offers training courses for truck drivers incorporating simulator training at six facilities around the country. The company is conducting a validation study and believes it will be able soon to “measure a reduction in accidents” after training, according to Blessinger. The GE Driver Development program, somewhat like the Smith System, teaches drivers to maintain a comfort zone and how to react when that zone disappears.

Simulator training isn’t just for new drivers. Experts say that experienced drivers often become complacent after 5 to 7 years. Exposing a driver to simulator training after five years may be excellent preventive medicine.

Sullivan reports that the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration is preparing a report evaluating the benefits of simulator technology. While economics works against wide adoption of simulator training for truck drivers today, a government endorsement that might come as soon as next fall could change the situation. This could create a trucking industry whose drivers are simulator trained and qualified just as airline pilots are now.