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Truck manufacturers are always seeking to influence truck buyers’ purchasing decisions and have historically used several factors to that effect. While some have differentiated their product from their competitors by using engine-related features (these original equipment manufacturers, or OEMs, have typically used fuel efficiency of their engines as a key attribute), others have either used their trucks’ safety features or the comfort and convenience of their design to influence owner-operators and fleet managers to choose their branded trucks.
For the past few decades, these features were the core of product differentiation. But around the mid-2000s, the trucking industry started experiencing a major business model transformation – truck-as-a-service became more prevalent than truck-as-a-product – the business model that had governed product planning for nearly a century. And with that, most truck manufacturers started using total cost of ownership (TCO) as the most effective and important differentiating factor.
Advanced powertrain, chassis, safety and telematics technologies played a major role in reducing fuel costs and downtime. This, in turn, helped increase the safety, durability and reliability of trucks, as well as reduce their TCO. Nonetheless, the focus for truck designers and engineers was still largely on the truck and less on the driver.
Then something started to change around 2010 – driver costs started overtaking fuel cost as the largest component of a heavy-duty truck’s TCO. This was driven by the exacerbation of the qualified truck driver shortage, the graying of the truck driver population and a lack of young people choosing trucking as a profession.
This profound shift coincided with the rising importance of yet another business model transformation. This time, it went from truck-as-a-service to truck-as-a-solution in order to firmly establish drivers as the focal point in the commercial vehicle product planning.
The human factor
The net impact of these changes has become evident with the noticeable rise in financial investments by OEMs in the “inside the cabin” technologies versus “under the hood” technologies.
Industry research shows that the weighted average age of truck drivers in North America is now in the 46-50 years range. This is often the age when people start thinking seriously about health, wellness and well-being.
Truck driving, one can argue, features a disenfranchised workforce, in which drivers typically spend many days and hours away from their families, especially in long-haul trucking. Moreover, it offers little to no bragging rights in terms of a healthy work environment. Drivers spend many hours a day sitting inside a truck cabin, developing poor eating habits and having sub-optimal opportunities for physical exercise.
The collective result of these worrisome working conditions is borne by drivers. Diabetes, heart conditions and musculoskeletal issues are higher among truck drivers than most other professions. All these factors, coupled with the gradual stagnation in truck driver pay that happened over the 1990-2010 period, resulted in a major challenge for the industry. Many truck drivers in their 40s and 50s were leaving the profession, while not enough people in their 20s and 30s were becoming truck drivers.
The first signs of relief were in the form of increased ordering of automatic manual transmissions (AMTs). Who could have imagined that manual transmissions, which featured installation rates north of 90 percent until 2010, would lose market share so dramatically to AMTs over a 9-year period? (To read more about the change in transmission types, see this article.)
To enhance driver retention and entice younger drivers to join the ranks, fleets began choosing technologies that offer reduced barriers to entry, lower physical and mental stress during driving, as well as greater comfort and convenience.
The rising use of fleet telematics, alongside the massive proliferation of AMTs, increased orders for technologies that feature better seating, 360-degree visibility from a truck driver seat, intuitive dashboards and human-machine interface. These are just some of the trends that are permeating the industry.
Truck manufacturers are collaborating with healthcare technology providers, exploring electronics that monitor driver health and wellness parameters, such as blood pressure, pulse rate, heart rate, perspiration and more, to predict impending health issues and offer prescriptive guidance to drivers.
These technologies help increase driver retention and put more focus on enhancing truck cabin design, spurring more human-oriented, ergonomically friendly engineering. This also means that the new cabin designs are directed at a more diverse demographic that includes women drivers, young drivers and drivers of various ethnic backgrounds. This is a great indication of a continued phase in which truck drivers will remain top of mind for truck designers and engineers in the next decade.
The development stage and commercialization of driver-focused innovations is also happening against the backdrop of the rising prominence of autonomous driving. This is raising speculation regarding the purpose of truck drivers in coming years.
Many non-trucking media outlets have started painting scenarios in which trucks will be driven without the need for human involvement. While this is possible, and in fact will happen, it is important to understand that a truck driver does much more than just drive a truck.
A driver signs required paperwork, refuels a truck, conducts vehicle inspections, arranges ad hoc maintenance and service work and, most importantly, manages any and all situations that the operating environment throws at a truck. Hence is it safe to conclude that truck drivers will be in truck cabins for many years to come, and so the question is… will the penetration of autonomous driving in trucking attract younger drivers or keep older drivers in the profession… or both?
While autonomous driving technologies will continue to experience adoption in trucking for the next several years, industry analysts largely believe that these will not replace truck drivers but serve to improve their taxing work environment. These technologies will help ensure that drivers get more rest and have more time to connect with the outside world. Most importantly, the technologies will provide new ways to generate revenue for the fleet and for themselves.
Let us imagine a future in which the truck is being driven autonomously with the driver in the cabin. One of the things the driver can do in such a situation is find more freight to carry along the way (assuming there are no issues with the gross vehicle weight restriction or the volume capacity in the trailer) or find freight for upcoming hauls.
The rise of digital freight brokerage platforms, such as BigRoad Freight, will enable drivers to find loads fast, using their current vehicle location, hours of service availability and the volumetric space available in a trailer at any given point.
A highly symbiotic relationship between autonomous driving and digital freight platforms will become evident in the coming years, helping increase driver pay and thereby enabling fleets to attract younger people to trucking as a profession.
It is still too early to tell if we are entering a golden era for truck drivers. However, the heightened efforts to advance the industry in that direction currently involve a wide array of organizations – from OEMs, to system suppliers, to connected vehicle technology providers, legislators, freight brokers and early-stage companies that deal with computing, IT, healthcare and simulation, among others. This is all a clear indication that commercial vehicle product planning will continue to focus squarely on truck drivers for many years to come.