In light of the convoys of trucks on German motorways it is difficult to imagine, but over the next decade the haulage industry faces a problem that could undermine its very driving force: a shortage of drivers.
There are currently more than 800,000 professional drivers in Germany alone, but over 300,000 of them will be retiring during the next 15 years. The globe-trotting dream portrayed in German TV series “Auf Achse” (On The Road) is over, this occupational group has a very poor image in the public eye, and the industry is finding it very difficult to attract young people to what is an increasingly demanding job. There is no sign of even nearly enough new recruits to take the place of the retiring drivers.
As the market-leading commercial-vehicle manufacturer, Daimler feels it has a responsibility to respond proactively to these alarming developments. “With the TopFit Truck project, Mercedes-Benz Trucks is therefore making drivers the focus of its research and development work to counter the lack of drivers by boosting the job’s appeal,” explains Siegfried Rothe, Manager of Condition Enhancement. The researcher is the project initiator and has been closely looking at the options for improving working and living conditions for the people behind the wheel since 2006: “The truck is the only vehicle that, as well as being a means of transport, is additionally a workplace, a living room and a bedroom.”
One of the first aspects the researchers looked at was sleeping in the truck as driver rest and recuperation generally makes for safer driving. Studies conducted in collaboration with the Sleep Medicine Centre at the University of Regensburg revealed that the test subjects sleeping in the cab under real conditions had a very different “sleep architecture”. For instance, the noise pollution at motorway rest areas resulted in significantly reduced daytime fitness, making drivers susceptible to attention deficits and the dreaded microsleep. The accident risk therefore increases. In addition to this, further test drives revealed that even in-house professional “eco” trainers were no longer able to fulfil their full potential for driving economically if they had been deprived of sleep. If the driver is not rested, vehicle wear and, above all, fuel consumption increase.
But impaired sleep is not the only problem for drivers. The monotony of driving for hour after hour places strain on the human body and adversely affects the brain’s performance. Stimulation and relief can help here. Vitalising measures looked at by Rothe and his project team in sophisticated tests and studies included power naps, aromatherapy, massage to activate muscles and joints, and various auditory stimuli to boost the brain’s performance.
Technical implementation in the TopFit Truck and the new Actros
In 2009 the customer researchers started to implement the technical innovations developed based on the results of their studies in an Actros tractor unit. One of the features integrated in the vehicle was an electrically adjustable massage seat that could be moved into the correct position for a power nap. Also on board was a system for dispersing relaxing or refreshing fragrances as well as a music computer programmed with special tracks selected by musicologists to calm or vitalise the driver, depending on the situation. Plus there was a screen for displaying a programme of fitness exercises tailored precisely to the conditions in the cab, which could be performed using the provided cable pulls during driver breaks. The vehicle’s integrated medical technology for physiological measurements such as electroencephalography (EEG), electrocardiogram (ECG) or electrooculography (EOG) additionally allowed all the measures to be tested and evaluated objectively in terms of their effectiveness and driver acceptance. No other commercial vehicle manufacturer has yet been able to measure these aspects in real time during driving, breaks or sleep and then evaluate and interpret the results. The TopFit Truck technology platform made the new options for improving the driver’s situation testable and tangible.
At the same time, the research results were used as a basis for designing and producing the New Actros which was launched in 2011. The latest-generation long-distance-transport tractor units now feature a wider bed, vastly improved noise insulation to minimise noise pollution when overnighting at motorway rest areas and optimised fresh-air management – all as standard. All driver’s seats can now be inclined in the power-nap position, while options include a pneumatically operated massage seat.
Looking to the future – TopFit Truck Next
Siegfried Rothe and his project team are currently working on further innovations and technical features with two new Actros tractor units. One of the vehicles is used to first check new ideas for their practicability. This vehicle currently incorporates a test installation for an intelligent heating concept. “We are hoping to achieve further fuel savings by employing electrically controlled heating of the rear and side walls around the sleeping area in conjunction with a heatable mattress. That’s because, in contrast to the auxiliary heater, this heating system does not draw fuel from the diesel tank,” says Rothe. Heating of the bed not only allows the cab heating to be turned down, it also performs a medical therapy function. Drivers can ease their muscle strain and adhesion by spending 20 minutes relaxing on the bed surface, which is heated to 45 degrees. The body is ideally prepared for subsequent fitness exercises and benefits from pain relief similar to that provided by mud therapy. The main ailments in this occupational group concern the muscular and skeletal apparatus. This is why the researchers focus on means of effectively maintaining health in these areas. Furthermore, the heating system can be set at up to 60 degrees to effectively kill off ever-present house dust mites and is thus of benefit to allergy sufferers as well as in terms of general hygiene. To test new features of this kind extensively, the Actros 1851 can also be parked in the climatic chamber for longer periods or be put through its paces by test drivers without bringing the project to a halt. In the meantime, the team can continue its work and research on the second tractor unit.
This Actros 1845 is the actual new technology platform and therefore the successor to the original TopFit Truck. Like its predecessor, it is used to visualise tried-and-tested technologies and demonstrate them at shows, workshops and other events as well as during target-group survey sessions. The vehicle has two computers, one of which is used to acquire all the data from test drivers. EEG, ECG and EOG recordings are possible by means of an electrode cap. At the same time, three installed cameras record the traffic situation ahead of the truck and the driver’s condition. A comparison with the driving data (brakes, accelerator and steering) is also possible. The second computer contains the sophisticated fitness programme and the supporting music selection. The developers are currently adding to the technical features in the truck bit by bit by incorporating further modified functions from the original TopFit Truck. These include the fragrancing system and the fully electronic massage seat. In the new TopFit Truck, the power nap is of course already possible with manual seat adjustment, and all the equipment needed for the fitness programme is likewise included in the cab. In addition to this, the potential use of a so-called vibratode has already been realised. This cylindrical device for biomechanical stimulation can be used to boost the effects of active muscle relaxation exercises on the one hand. On the other, it can be inserted into the bed’s special mattress or clipped into a holding device on the rear of the seat so that, when it vibrates, it offers targeted massage for passive relief of various parts of the anatomy.
Rothe and his project team are also currently working on an extension of the fitness programme and on a future lighting concept designed to supplement the functional aspect with biological and psychological aspects of light therapy.
Source: Mercedes-Benz Trucks