Home on the Highway
Most truck drivers don’t give truck cabs much thought – which is strange given that’s where many drivers spend up to 11 hours a day behind the wheel, then another 8 to 12 hours resting, relaxing and sleeping.
It’s a testament to how well most truck cabs are designed today that they generally don’t generate much comment – unless something in the cab is wrong, such as a hard-to-reach switch. Or a seat that never seems to give the driver’s lower back any peace. Or a step that’s just a little too high to reach comfortably when climbing in and out of the cab.
Those are the things that stand out in drivers’ minds when they think about the small spaces where they drive, work and live.
But consider for a moment the extreme demands placed upon the engineers who design these confined living and working spaces – and the many different functions a truck cab has and all things required for it to be an effective, comfortable and productive workplace and rest station.
Design engineers must juggle often conflicting criteria that architects never would face, such as exterior visibility, ergonomic demands, entry and exit, crashworthiness, engine noise, road vibration, climate control and weight restrictions – all designed into components that may be used in a multitude of differing vehicle models and applications and must be able to endure a million miles or more of use and abuse. It’s a daunting task, to say the least. On top of all that, cab design is not static; changing vehicle requirements, fashion trends and technological advancements further complicate designers’ jobs.
American sleeper compartments have been known to inspire awe in drivers around the world, who often must make do on a narrow shelf crammed behind the driver and passenger seats. But some manufacturers think the age of the grand suite sleeper may be coming to an end – due mostly to the changing demands of the industry they serve.
“Routes are getting shorter than they used to be, but there’s still a segment out there that’s going to go out for three or four weeks at a time,” says Landon Sproull, chief engineer for Peterbilt. Those are the fleets that are going to place more value on a bigger sleeper box. “But with these shorter routes where you’ve got drivers at home – if not every night, every other night – we’re seeing a trend toward shorter sleeper boxes.”
But no matter how tall or small the back of the cab gets in the coming years, trucks are first and foremost machines designed to deliver the goods that society needs day in and day out. And the ability to do that job starts up front with a safe, comfortable driver’s station.
While ergonomics play a role in almost every aspect of vehicle configuration – from the placement of the oil dipstick to the angle of the fill cap on the fuel tank – the driver’s station is ground zero for high-intensity design.
“Ergonomics is challenging because you’re trying to cover a wide range of customer base,” says Brian Balicki, senior industrial designer for Volvo Trucks North America. “Keep in mind that a driver today could be a 4-foot 8-inch mother or a 6-foot 7-inch former wrestler. So it’s sometimes hard to accommodate the physicality of the customer.”