One of my nephews pilots an A-10 “Warthog” for Uncle Sam. It is one of those low-flying jets developed to support troops on the ground. Before he ever executed his first take-off, however, he logged hours and hours on the ground himself — in a flight simulator, where he had the opportunity to experience all the risks combat flying can dish out, yet still get home safe and sound.

When it comes to training jet pilots, the cost-to-benefit analysis for the use of flight simulators is pretty simple arithmetic. Carefully selected pilot candidates, equipment worth millions of dollars, high-risk operating conditions and equally high stakes tip the scale in favor of virtually anything that will mitigate risk and manage cost. Now, like it or not, trucking is becoming more like flying every day. The good news is that driving simulators, which are based upon flight simulator technology, are finally becoming more accessible and more affordable to use.

The Texas Motor Transportation Assn. (TMTA), for example, has been bringing a full-motion truck-driving simulator right to interested companies this year, in a 53-ft. trailer-cum-classroom pulled by a Volvo tractor. According to Kurt Schulte, commercial automotive specialist for ChevronTexaco Global Lubricants (a sponsor of the TMTA simulator tour) the simulator gives drivers the opportunity to experience hundreds of different driving situations off the highway and out of harm's way.

“The simulator allows people to experience adverse and even dangerous driving circumstances without the attendant consequences,” he says. “This makes it a powerful training tool that can help carriers improve driver safety, reduce liability and insurance costs and boost productivity.”

Built by GE Driver Development (formerly I-Sim), the customized Mark II Motion-Based Driver Training Simulator features an actual truck cab with fully operational instrument panel and controls. The cab is nearly surrounded by five computer screens designed to give the driver a view out the windshield and in the mirrors that is persuasively close to the real thing. Just ask Stacy Hobson, general manager of the Ryder Inland [CA] Commercial Business Unit.

“ChevronTexaco asked if we'd like to give the simulator a try, so we invited some of our customers to bring their drivers,” she says. “The computer operator who manages the driving experience can alter vehicle type, load and weight; control the weather; change the environment and change highway conditions to create different driving scenarios. The driver I rode with lost his brakes going down a hill and, with the noise and motion of the cab, it felt pretty real.

“The simulator gives you the opportunity to put lots of drivers through road training in a fairly short time.” Hobson adds. “It also allows you to focus on particular skills, such as backing a trailer or driving in adverse weather conditions.”

According to David Dolan, vp-marketing and business development for GE Driver Development, simulators can not only help fleets improve safety, they can teach drivers how to be better fuel managers as well. “A University of Utah study found that drivers who had two hours of training in our simulator on ways to optimize shifting for fuel economy increased their fuel efficiency by an average of 2.8% during the six months following training,” he notes.

More drivers will soon be out on the road again — the costly and increasing risky road — as the trucking industry recovers from this long recession. So it's good to know that a technology is out there, too, that can help them learn to master their difficult jobs and still get home safe and sound, just like an A-10 pilot I know.