Virtual truck training

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I try to relate what we‘re doing with truck driver training to the philosophy of the Navy SEALs: make the training tougher than the real operations are. That way, when a tire blows out or there‘s ice on the road, the driver reacts instinctively, without any time wasted on panic or worry.” -Randy Peterson, simulator facilitator, Dart Transit Co.


Though it‘s been rolling around the industry for over three years now, Dart Transit Co.‘s mobile training simulator still gets people‘s attention. The full-motion simulator is built into a 53-foot trailer that acts as both a classroom and as an exhibit for educating the public about the dangers drivers face on the highways - and the skills needed to overcome them.


Of course, the big draw is the simulator itself - a full-size cab mounted on a full-motion base, with video screens in front of the simulator and in the side view mirrors giving drivers behind the wheel about as realistic experience as you can get.


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[As real as driving a truck can get -- without getting out on the highway.]


“It‘s not a full-motion simulator, such as what airline pilots work with,” Randy Peterson, simulator facilitator for Dart told me. “We‘d need 14 feet of vertical clearance and a 20-foot circumference to use one of those. But it accomplishes the same goal very well.”


Developed by GE Capital I-SIM, the cab is built on a platform containing an actuator motor that creates realistic motions and vibrations to mimic the “feel” of a truck on the road. It certainly proved convincing to a number of drivers and regular folks that tried it out at the Great American Trucking Show last week.


[The video below shows the simulator in action - and the challenges Randy Peterson can throw at the person behind the wheel with just a keystroke or two.]




The realistic nature of the cab is what‘s important, Peterson told me. With the flick of a switch, he can set it up with a manual or automatic transmission, throw in different kinds of trailers and load weights, even change truck types - dual or single rear axle tractors, dump trucks, etc. All in all, he‘s got 52 different vehicle configurations programmed into the system. It‘s a real truck cab, too - using the same gauges, seats, and windshield design professional drivers encounter every day.


Positioned behind a big bank of computer screens, Peterson has at his fingertips a wide range of what he calls “performance experiences” - some 42 in all - including driving conditions that provide high driver stress; scenarios based on actual accidents; how to handle hot brakes, tire blowouts and road hazards; high, moderate and low speed controlled recovery techniques and safe driving maneuvers with liquid truckloads while engaged in traffic.


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[Peterson at the controls of Dart's truck driver training simulator.]


The carrier stresses, however, that the simulator is NOT intended for entry-level driver training. Instead, it offers the unique ability the recreate hazardous situations that could not be trained for in any other environment. “Our goal is to work with our owner operators, other carriers, and private fleets to make all drivers safer,” Peterson told me. “We take this unit on the road and can go anywhere in the lower 48 states and even into Canada if a company up there wanted to use it for training.”


Dart, of course, charges a fee for the use of its mobile training trailer, for it wasn‘t cheap to built it. The entire unit cost around $1.5 million - some $600,000 for the trailer and classroom potion, another $450,000 for the simulator alone. The carrier uses training modules provided by Tread-1 in the classroom portion of the trailer to educate drivers on specific skill sets before putting them into the simulator to put into practice what they‘ve learned.


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[A few last instructions are given before the training session begins.]


“It takes them an hour to get through a training module - and it‘s very unforgiving,” Peterson explained. “Because if you fail the test at the end, you have to start over. It won‘t let you proceed to the next stage - the simulator - until you master the written materials.”


The simulator is, of course, where it all comes together - putting a driver‘s lifetime of experience on the road, combined with the skill training they‘ve just received, to the ultimate test.


“One of the reasons airline pilots are so good at what they do is they get an enormous amount of simulator training - recreating any number of hazardous situations over and over again until they react almost instinctively,” Peterson told me. “That‘s exactly what we‘re trying to do here.”


For example, if a steer tire blows out, the natural reaction of most people - including commercial truck drivers - is to hit the brakes. Wrong! “You actually have to accelerate a little bit, to get the vehicle under control, to know which tire is blown, before laying off the throttle and letting the vehicle slow on its own,” Peterson explained. “Hit the brakes after a tire failure and you‘ll jackknife or roll over.”


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[The simulator and classroom are housed in a totally mobile 53-foot trailer.]


If the tractor brakes fail, how do you stop the vehicle? “Most drivers say shift down in the gears - that will slow the vehicle, but won‘t stop it,” Peterson said. “You need to use the trailer brakes to stop.”


Though both are very simple scenarios, the main reason you train drivers over and over and over on them is that they have only fractions of seconds in which to react. “You have this extremely small window in which to take action - hesitate, take a second to think about what you need to do, and it‘s too late,” he stressed. “The simulator helps makes those reactions instinctive, so the driver performs them almost automatically.”


Dart, a family-owned and operated business since 1934, is no stranger to doing things a little differently in order to boost not just profits but safety as well. For four out of the last eight years, one of its contractors has won the Truckload Carriers Association‘s “Owner-Operator of the Year” award - given out in part based on safe driving records. Dart also regularly hands out million-mile safety awards among its corps of drivers.


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Yet even though its the 14th largest truckload carrier in America, with Dart‘s Intermodal division the 3rd largest intermodal asset based carrier in the U.S., the carrier doesn‘t hesitate to offer up its simulator for use by rival companies - highway safety is just too critical for that. Dart stresses that when a fleet leases its “Safety Advantage” simulator for safety training, it comes to them based on their schedule - with Peterson usually at the helm - with the training tailored to that fleet‘s specific driving environment.


“I‘ve been a truck driver for 38 years - 4.7 million miles without an accident and only five tickets,” Peterson said. “I started with Dart 13 years ago, first in dispatch and then in the safety department. But I really love this job - I really didn‘t care for the office environment. This job allows me to drive and to help improve driver skills all over the country. You can‘t ask for more.”

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