Kings of the road

Fleets try to give drivers the comforts of home.

Two years ago, CFI managers began a monthly forum with drivers to discuss any issues and decisions affecting their jobs. To date, more than 700 drivers have participated in helping direct the company – particularly with regard to driver retention strategies.

“There are a lot of little things that make a difference,” says Herb Schmidt, president and chief executive officer of the Joplin, Mo.-based truckload carrier. “The way we’ve approached retention is with that in mind.”

One of the “little things” drivers suggested was satellite radio. CFI now equips all of its vehicles with XM Satellite Radio and pays for the subscription. In July, when Con-way acquired CFI, Schmidt became president of the new organization. He immediately extended the same benefit to all Con-Way drivers in the new CFI/Con-Way Truckload organization that operates 2,700 tractors throughout the United States, Mexico and Canada.

“The positive reaction has been a little shocking,” Schmidt says. “I’ve been amazed at the traction we got from that. The rest of our drivers had it, but they take it for granted now. I’d forgotten how big of a package it was.”

CFI/Con-Way Truckload also equips its tractors with a diesel-fired heating system for driver comfort, and Schmidt also is considering adding battery-powered cooling and electrical systems. And if drivers want to install their own power inverters, coffee makers, refrigerators and other in-cab conveniences and amenities, CFI leverages its buying power to sell these items to drivers at cost.

Hours-of-service rules, strict anti-idling regulations and extended time away from home are among the many retention challenges that are driving some fleets to provide more comfort, convenience and entertainment in-cab options to their drivers. Consider that for most of your drivers, their trucks are what they think of as their place of work. An “office” that is comfortable as well as productive is, for many fleets, an important retention tool. (For productivity enhancements, see “Offices on wheels,” November 2007.)

Drivers as customers
With the rise in equipment and fuel costs, purchasing budgets are being stretched thin, so fleets must weigh many factors when making decisions on what to provide drivers. Some executives might view skyrocketing expenses as a valid reason to exercise a “line-item veto” over extra in-cab amenities. But organizations that view drivers as their customers have a different perspective.

When Schneider National adds new equipment to its fleet, it methodically gathers feedback about it from drivers, and for what items to add to future equipment purchases. Based on recent feedback from driver surveys, some of the top-requested items include an engine-off cab cooling solution, improved storage options and added radio features (CD, MP3, satellite, USB and Bluetooth).

Since 2003, Schneider National has maintained low idle time due to its use of engine-off heaters and a driver incentive program for not idling. The Green Bay, Wis.-based truckload carrier currently is testing an in-cab electric cooling solution – not for the sake of idle reduction, but for an investment in driver comfort. Schneider also specs extra insulation in its tractors for better climate control and a quieter ride.

“The driver is our customer for the power unit,” says Steve Duley, vice president of purchasing.

Citing concerns over safety, Duley says Schneider does not buy power inverters for trucks. A power inverter converts DC power from a vehicle’s electric system to the standard “hotel load” 120 volt AC. Inverters allow drivers to operate appliances such as microwaves, coffee machines and refrigerators. But Schneider does make one exception: Drivers with sleep apnea have an inverter in their vehicles to power CPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure) machines, Duley says.

For driver entertainment, the latest radios Schneider purchases for tractors have a USB port so drivers can connect their personal storage devices such as iPods, MP3 players and jump drives.

Many fleets hesitate to spend money on driver entertainment options, believing that drivers can buy their own plug-and-play devices and subscriptions for satellite radio, says Brett Motheral, national sales manager for XM Satellite Radio’s truck division. Yet fleets might reconsider reallocating money spent for retention and recruiting when they realize the high demand among drivers for in-cab entertainment, he says.

Fleets that choose to offer satellite radio to drivers can get a significant price discount. XM Satellite Radio offers fleets volume discounts for hardware and monthly subscriptions, and fleets can manage their accounts online.

Sirius Satellite Radio recently began a new Fleet Partnership Program. For the rate of $6.99 per month – compared to its single subscription rate of $12.95 – fleets can provide drivers with Sirius with the convenience of one invoice and online account management. The program also allows fleets to buy radios at cost from the distributor, says Wendell Adcock, director of truck fleets for Sirius. As an additional benefit, subscribers and their families can listen online to Sirius’ commercial-free music channels, celebrity shows and more for no additional cost.

OEM amenities
Truck manufacturers are offering new options for fleets that want to add driver entertainment and comfort technology – specifically, new electrification and engine-off climate control systems – straight from the production line.

All major truck manufacturers now offer the option of a satellite antenna and radio (XM or Sirius) along with their standard AM/FM and CD player and sound system. But it doesn’t stop there.

The premium radios from Freightliner include an input jack for iPods or plug-and-play satellite radios. Freightliners also come with two power outlets on the dash rated at 10 amps each for powering additional accessories, says Maria McCullough, product public relations manager for Freightliner LLC.

The stereo system in new Volvo models is fine-tuned to electronically match each type of cab and the position of the driver. Sound coming through the speaker on the left side of the truck has a slight delay compared to sound coming from the passenger-side speakers. The sound coming from all speakers is timed to reach the driver at the same moment, creating more bass reflex, says Frank Bio, product manager for Volvo Trucks North America.

At the bottom-right side of the Volvo dash, a universal input for drivers is available to connect devices such as MP3s or iPods to the stereo system. Volvo also is working on a soon-to-be released radio that includes Bluetooth technology to provide drivers with a hands-free system for cell phone calls. Using a microphone mounted in the cab and the radio as the communication device, sound comes out of the speakers, and drivers speak into the microphone.

The optional Kenworth GPS Navigation System has an integrated MP3 player, which enables drivers to upload and play their favorite music through Kenworth’s sound system, says Jeff Sass, Kenworth marketing director. The MP3 player includes 10 gigabytes of memory available specifically for music. Song files are uploaded via the USB port integrated in the glove box.

Mack Trucks introduced an optional 7-inch in-dash Navion R5000 system for its new truck models. The R5000 can replace up to six separate systems for camera display, navigation, vehicle system monitor, trip computer, tire pressure monitor and entertainment.

“We are the only truck manufacturer that has an opening in the dash large enough to accommodate that,” says Jerry Warmkessel, marketing and product manager of highway products for Mack Trucks.

Truck makers’ latest models generally feature a workstation cab design to accommodate drivers that use laptops and various other work and entertainment systems. The workstation cab design with a seat and table in the sleeper unit has become the most common choice among fleets, say truck OEMs.

The Freightliner sleeper has a right-hand cabinet and TV shelf with a built-in antenna and power source, and it also has an optional mid-level refrigerator. The left-hand cabinet comes standard with a workstation drawer and writing surface for laptops, with an optional additional shelf for appliances.

“We provide the space and power for the drivers to customize their work environment,” McCullough says.

Climate control and more
In new truck models, OEMs are offering several options for fleets to provide drivers with engine-off heating, cooling and electrification systems.

Peterbilt’s new ComfortClass system is designed to operate a full 10 hours using a system of four dedicated batteries recharged with a 185-amp alternator. The ComfortClass includes a fuel-fired heater, a dedicated cooling and cold-storage unit, 12-volt outlets and a 2,000-watt inverter for hotel loads in the sleeper. If shore power is available at a truck stop or other location, drivers can plug in to provide power for all system functions, as well as any hotel loads and battery-charging needs.

Currently, Peterbilt does not offer the components of ComfortClass separately or as a tiered package, but is considering it based on customer demand, says Kevin Baney, assistant chief engineer for Peterbilt.

A similar system, Kenworth Clean Power, is available as a factory-installed option for the Kenworth T660 with 72-inch AeroCab sleeper. The system uses a dedicated set of batteries to power a thermal storage cooler. The system also has the capability of providing engine-off cooling and heating, plus 120-volt power for hotel loads.

Volvo offers customers several options for driver climate control and electrification. Twenty percent of its production orders this year were spec’d with shore power kits, Bio says. The company also offers a 120-volt inverter and isolated battery set, which customers order in about 5 percent of vehicles.

Volvo recently added an auxiliary power unit as an option for in-cab heating and air conditioning. The APU was designed to work separately or in tandem with shore power. Volvo also offers the Cummins Comfort Guard genset and the Dometic in-cab heating and air conditioning unit. The company expects to install about 2,000 gensets this year from the factory, Bio says. Last year, customers ordered about 1,000 gensets, he says.

Mack Trucks offers the Idle Free Hybrid system that was designed and patented by Robert Jordan, an owner-operator turned inventor. The system uses a bank of absorbed glass mat (AGM) batteries and an inverter to provide stored electrical power for heating, air conditioning and amenities such as TV or microwave.

The system is recharged by one of several sources: the alternator, 120-volt shore power or a trailer reefer unit. Mack’s complete climate control package includes a Webasto diesel-fired heater and a Dometic HVAC unit. With the engine off, the Idle Free Hybrid system with the Dometic unit can keep the in-cab temperature at 78 degrees in 100-degree ambient temperature for up to 10 hours, Warmkessel says.

International Trucks offers a factory-installed APU as part of the International No Idle Solution product line on the 2007 International 9900i. The product offers 120-volt AC power and 50-amp 12-volt battery charging, and provides 10,000 BTUs an hour of air conditioning or heat. Drivers control the climate via a thermostat panel in the sleeper.

International also offers an integrated Coolant Heater System cab and engine heater with an engine preheat option for cold starting; the system is integrated into the truck’s cooling and heating system. Finally, the truck maker offers an automatic transfer switch to use 120/240-volt AC shore power when available.

Freightliner Trucks offers the Bergstrom No Idle Thermal Environment (NITE) as a factory-installed option. The NITE option, mounted under the bed, is a 12-volt DC system that provides fuel-fired heating and air conditioning for the sleeper while the truck’s engine is off. NITE comes standard with four 12-volt deep-cycle batteries to operate the system.

Plugging in
Among the comfort alternatives that are not offered by truck manufacturers, at least one – IdleAire – combines heating, cooling, electricity and entertainment options such as TV, phone and Internet.

“We split the cost of IdleAire (with drivers),” says Brett Terchila, vice president of fleet operations for Celadon. The company gives recommended fuel routings to drivers, and for the most part, IdleAire is located at the stops. Drivers use their Comdata fuel card, and their portion of the cost is subtracted automatically from their paycheck or settlement.

“We believe drivers are more responsible if they are invested in it,” Terchila says.

CFI, however, doesn’t offer any reimbursement for IdleAire. The main drawback of “off-board” solutions such as shore power and IdleAire is limited availability, Schmidt says. Even locations that have these services have a limited number of spots, which often causes drivers to compete to get to the spots early in the evening. “What we are looking at is a more long-term solution – an in-cab heating and cooling solution that they can use anywhere,” Schmidt says.

Shore power without the external climate control functionality of IdleAire could alleviate some of the infrastructure challenges, says Jeff Kim, chief operating officer of SurePower. The company currently has five sites in its commercial network in Washington along Interstates 5 and 90 going east from Seattle, and U.S. 97 in southern Oregon. The company offers 120-volt shore power as well as cable and wireless Internet for $1 per hour.

Numerous aftermarket and third-party solutions are available for installation to provide cab and sleeper comfort without engine idling. For information on many of the leading offerings, see CCJ’s “Ending Engine Idling” Special Report at

In the final analysis, refrigerators, satellite radios, climate control systems and other driver amenities alone don’t solve a fleet’s retention challenge, Terchila admits.

“What matters is how you treat people,” Terchila says. “That’s the retention factor. We operate with the mentality that we work for drivers, and we back that up.”

Stop their slouching
Posture training, seat adjustments improve comfort, cut injuries

Since drivers spend most of their time in their seats, one seemingly obvious way to improve driver comfort is to buy the best possible seats. Not so fast.

The characteristics and features of mid- to high-end truck seats from the major vendors – including National Seating, Bostrom Seating and Sears Seating – are fairly consistent. According to Drew Bossen, a physical therapist and executive vice president of Atlas Ergonomics, the root cause of driver discomfort isn’t the seat: It’s that drivers do not understand how to stabilize their posture properly.

Prolonged periods of high intra-discal pressure can cause cumulative tissue breakdown and degenerative changes in the spinal discs. These forces, coupled with natural vibration from highway travel, can cause advanced degenerative changes such as disc bulge and disc herniation, Bossen says.

“This complicated process is a primary source of back and neck pain,” he says. “The key is stabilizing the seated posture into an upright neutral position, avoiding flexed rounded postures associated with driving.”

Atlas Ergonomics has developed a program called the Seat Marking System. Drivers that participate in the fleet-sponsored program receive training on using an equation that quantifies their seat adjustments – such as the angle, height, distance from pedal, lumbar settings and the steering column – based on their physical characteristics.

“This equation, from truck to truck, is consistent,” Bossen says. “It creates a very consistent blueprint. You can dial in your settings to reproduce a stabilized posture.”

In 2005, Schneider National was the first fleet to partner with Atlas to develop a sustainable system for drivers to maintain correct seated posture. Schneider believed, and had ample data to prove, that better posture would ease driver discomfort and lead to reduced injuries and turnover.

An initial study revealed that 85 percent of drivers reported discomfort. More than 50 percent reported the “Big Three” – low back, neck and shoulder pain. Half of the drivers reported that discomfort affected their fatigue level, productivity and job satisfaction.

After Schneider’s implementation of Atlas’ Seat Marking System in the spring of 2005, driver discomfort fell from 85 percent to 20 percent. Specific complaints for the “Big Three” declined by more than 70 percent. Furthermore, the survey showed:

  • 65 percent of drivers reported a moderate to high impact on job satisfaction and productivity;
  • 70 percent reported a moderate to high impact on reducing fatigue; and
  • 84 percent reported a moderate to high impact on their ability to drive safely.

To date, Atlas has worked with fleets that range from thousands of trucks to less than 100, Bossen says. One year ago, Interstate Distributor Co., a large truckload fleet based in Tacoma, Wash., began to implement Atlas’ technology. As of June 30, about 50 percent of Interstate’s 3,000 drivers had implemented the Atlas program. Surveys of participating drivers indicated a 45 percent drop in individuals experiencing high or extreme levels of discomfort.

“Driver participation in the program is voluntary, and frankly it started out slower than we expected,” says Tammy Warn, vice president of risk management for Interstate. “However, as our drivers used the technology and felt the difference, interest in the service increased significantly.”

Comfort out of the cab
Some fleets try to make facilities more driver-friendly

Fleet owners wanting to provide a comfortable environment for drivers are wise to focus first on the truck, since that’s where a driver spends most of his time. But some fleets also are making significant investments in their infrastructure to provide drivers with a home away from home.

Celadon has eight full-service facilities that have showers, dormitories, cable TV in driver lounges, and PC terminals with Internet access and hookups for laptops. At its Indianapolis headquarters, Celadon also has a large arcade room. If a driver wishes to leave the premises during his off-duty time to watch a movie or go shopping, Celadon provides a free shuttle service. The company uses guards and surveillance video at each facility.

“Security and safety is a big issue these days,” says Brett Terchila, vice president of fleet operations for Celadon. “Today, more than anything, drivers get a sense of ‘If I’m on this yard, I am safe.'”

Celadon recently launched a program called Highway to Health. At its Indianapolis facility, any driver can see a nurse practitioner or doctor on site for medical attention, such as common aches or pains. The company also provides free health-risk assessments and diet and exercise plans.

“It doesn’t cost them anything,” Terchila says. “It is a convenience to help keep them on the road and healthy.”

One advantage of CFI’s acquisition by Con-Way is that the company is adding more locations and facilities for drivers to park throughout its 340 terminals, says Herb Schmidt, president and chief executive officer of the Joplin, Mo.-based truckload carrier. Many drivers would prefer to park and rest at a secure company facility rather than a truck stop, he says.

“We are rolling that footprint out,” Schmidt says. “That is part of our integration plan for next year – to know which of the 340 terminals we can use for bulk fueling, a safe place to sleep, and for preloaded trailers to drop and pick.”

Similarly, the physical footprint of Schneider National facilities plays an important role in driver retention, says Steve Duley, vice president of purchasing. Schneider’s operating centers – located at major through points – all offer plug-in heaters and AC units that drivers place in their truck windows while resting.