Dave Werdan has been driving big rigs since 2004. At first, he was hired to do power-only moves as a company driver, but he would soon have enough income to start his own venture. As an owner-operator, Werdan invested in his first 18-wheeler, an Intrepid Eagle truck, along with various trailer types, including flatbeds and tankers.
There was nothing like being on the open road.
Logging thousands of miles from the East to the West Coast, and with authority to move into Mexico and Canada, Werdan was able to gain experience in an industry that had always fascinated him. Industry lessons like driving in severe weather, maneuvering through road hazards and meeting delivery requirements never fazed him.
The spacious blue skies, amber waves of grain and purple mountain majesties above the plains of North America made it all worth it.
Except there’s this: It wasn’t real. Werdan’s experience took place in a computer simulation game, a hobby that began in more rudimentary form when he was 11 years old — long before he became an actual driver.
“I don’t like saying ‘real life,’” he said.
Truck simulation gamers
Every day, over 30,000 people play trucking simulation games on Steam, a platform gamers also use to buy and sell video games.
The company that attracts the most attention in the space is SCS Software, a video game development company based in Prague. SCS has been developing video games since the 1990s and has gained a niche in trucking simulations.
In an interview with FreightWaves, Werdan, now 28 and a senior beta tester for SCS Software, explained how the company earned its reputation and how the simulations have evolved over time.
“SCS Software made a variety of different games, but where they ended up seeing the most profit was in their trucking titles because nobody else has actually made a trucking game that played to the quality that they have,” said Werdan. “The older titles are way more entertaining than they are factual; these two that they made are the first you could actually brand as simulators, compared to the Grand Theft Auto style from before.”
The two games to which he is referring are Euro Truck Simulator 2 and American Truck Simulator, which have sold over 12 million copies combined.
Driver concerns and shortages
SCS is not Werdan’s main source of income. When he was old enough, he became a company driver — yes, an actual one — for one of the largest U.S. carriers.
With over 40,000 drivers leaving the market last year, exacerbating a shortage of drivers nationwide, according to the American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI) report on top trucking issues of 2020, it is difficult to comprehend nearly the same number of people spending hours each day doing the same job for entertainment. Werdan gave a simple reason for his own fascination.
“The game eliminates the unpleasant parts of the job,” he said.
Those include the very struggles the ATRI report found to be critical issues for the industry in 2020. Detention at customer facilities, hours-of-service management, truck parking and insurance costs were among the top 10 issues for carriers. In contrast, gamers face no surprises from the shipper like loading, unloading or wait time. Parking is always available and overhead costs like insurance stay the same for all users. Reckless drivers immediately lose funds and are not able to move on to different levels, motivating gamers to do their best.
Another factor listed in the ATRI report was limitations on driving schools, as many were shut down due to the pandemic. Interestingly, schools have begun using the same simulator technology that is used in the games.
Advanced Training Systems (ATS), a company that engineers training technology, has helped companies transition to simulation training in recent years. On the company’s website, it explains that this type of training puts less stress on the student and allows one coach to oversee multiple students at a time. Companies save money without using fuel on the roads and can train more drivers faster.
ATS simulators are also attracting high school students to the industry.
In an interview with FreightWaves in 2020, John Kearney, the founder and CEO of ATS, explained how his company was working with high school vocational education programs to introduce the industry as a way for the nearly 2 million students who bypass college each year to enter the workforce.
“[This is] the new generation of drivers we so badly need,” Kearney said.
Autonomous driving technology
Werdan described another group of gamers who would not be fortunate enough to transition into the industry the way he did.
“A lot of truck simulation gamers are disabled,” he said.
That raises the question, if this technology can be used in real life, could people with disabilities, and other gamers who prefer the simulation, drive trucks from the safety of their own homes?
While these simulators are not actively driving trucks, the same technology has started showing up in other industries.
In 2020, Huawei, a leading Chinese technology company, announced a new 5G smart mining technology that was implemented at Molybdenum Co. Ltd. Full integration was finished in August and let employees remotely operate unmanned vehicles and machinery. With a few monitors and a pair of joysticks, employees found the smart technology to be safer, and it created a more efficient workflow at various job sites.
Bell Equipment, a South African material-handling manufacturer, has created this same technology as well. Its Articulated Dump Trucks (ADTs) can be operated off-site and offer more than efficiency of autonomous operation.
“Autonomous applications are industry-specific and require surveying and guidance by an industry expert. We want our customers to be able to choose a guidance solution that they are most comfortable with and that can be fitted to all the machines in the work cycle. Keeping the guidance system independent of the OEM gives customers the flexibility to run a mixed fleet and benefit from the efficiency and productivity that provides,” said Nick Kyriacos, Bell Equipment ADT product marketing manager, in an interview with International Mining.
This equipment also allows for a standard cab that can be interchangeable as well.
“Once their ADTs have finished a contract on an autonomous site, the sensory and control system could easily be removed and the truck either fitted with a new system for another site or be used in a manual operation,” explained Kyriacos.
Will gamers make the switch?
With simulation technology becoming more accessible for training and functional within certain industries, would gamers make the switch and enter the driver workforce like Werdan?
He believes that at-home accessibility might attract those with disabilities, but at the end of the day, he loves being on the road.
“There are some people that would want it that way; it would be amazing to get off at a truck stop and be in your home,” said Werdan. “Personally, I would want to be out here.”
This rings true for many drivers. In recent surveys, 34% of drivers listed regulations making it harder to drive more as the part of the job they disliked the most. The second largest group, at 22%, just felt unappreciated. Other sources have suggested that autonomous driving could make the driving experience more enjoyable.
At the end of the day, the drivers love to drive. The interest in trucking simulation games comes from that same place, and incorporating simulation technology could alleviate issues surrounding recruitment and retention.