From yesterday's orange crates to today's ergonomic marvels
By Paul Abelson
Where do you spend more time than anywhere else?
If you drive your maximum 70 hours in eight days and add an hour a day in your seat doing paperwork, you’ll spend more than 36 percent of your time in your driver’s seat.
If yours is one of the new swivel types that let you pivot around and recline the back to watch TV, read or otherwise relax, you can legally add up to three hours a day. In practical terms, that will be closer to just one hour, but it will still bring your seat time close to 40 percent.
That’s four out every 10 hours in a year, not just hours in your truck. If you sleep eight hours a night, every night of the year, you’ll spend only 33.3 percent of available hours in bed. See how important your seat is?
With driver retention and worker’s compensation both considered priorities for fleets, seats have become ergonomic marvels, engineered to prevent injury as much as to provide comfort. But it was not always so. Seats have undergone as great a revolution as have engines, transmissions and tires.
Early suspension systems
Today, virtually all drivers’ seats in tractor-trailers are suspended with compressed air to float the driver over bumps and shocks. The seats are located and aligned with pivoting steel frame mechanisms. Even trucks without air systems can have suspension seats, with coil springs taking the place of the air bags.
Believe it or not, the first suspension seats appeared before there were motor trucks as we know them. Buckboards and other horse-drawn wagons carried cargo over dirt roads. To alleviate the roughness of the ride, the bench seat was on top of two leaf springs, one at each end. These springs supported the occupants and minimized jarring. They were needed because very often the “truck” axles were rigidly fixed to the frame.
More sophisticated horse-drawn vehicles, like stage coaches, had what we would consider suspensions today. Axles were hung on springs connected to the frame.
Motor vehicles evolved from these wagons, and so did their seats. Before there were trucks, there were cars, and in the early years, cars and trucks had the same style seats: benches padded with cloth or horsehair and upholstered in cloth or leather. Luxury vehicles had backs integral with the seat, while lesser priced cars and trucks, if there were seat backs at all, had padded back boards attached with wrought iron hardware.
In the late teens and twenties, truck makers built chassis that were delivered to body builders for fitting out and finishing. It was not uncommon to have delivery drivers sitting on orange crates because seats had not yet been installed. Who knew about seat belts and safety standards?
By the 1930s, most trucks had enclosed cabs, keeping the driver and his seat (virtually all drivers were male back then) out of the weather. Post-war development of plastics for civilian use brought us a new material, Naugahyde. This plastic coated fabric has the look and feel of leather, but it wipes clean and stays virtually indestructible for years.
The 1960s brought the earliest air suspensions, using the compressed air from the brake system to improve ride quality, first for tractors and then for trailers. The same principle, the use of compressed air to absorb shock and vibration, was adapted to truck seats to improve comfort. The earliest seats were, well, just seats. They had the same cushions and backs of their rigid frame predecessors.
By the 1970s, owner-operators were demanding more. Fore and aft adjustment came early in seat development, and came along as standard seats were mounted on to air suspension platforms. High back options soon followed, as did upgraded surfaces. If you wanted cloth, velours were available. Real leather was quite expensive even then, but Naugahyde and other synthetics brought the look and feel of leather at reasonable prices. Surface treatments improved appearance, and soon diamond tufts replaced rolled pleats as the desired look.
Later in the decade and into the ’80s, firm foam padding brought proper support.
Since one size does not always fit all, especially not all truck drivers, adjustments were introduced to allow even greater personalization. Today, premium truck seats have adjustable seat tilt. The front and rear of the seat cushion can be raised or lowered, changing the seating angle. For years, optional armrests could be up or down. Now most seat makers offer infinitely adjustable armrest angles, to match adjustable seatback angles. Seat cushion length can be tailored to support your thighs whether they’re short or long. Lumbar support, once non-existent and then in a fixed position, can now be adjusted for height as well as depth and firmness. Side bolsters in the seat and back were originally differentiated with firmer foam than the center sections. Today, premium seats use air to sculpt and tailor the seat profile to each individual driver.
You might think seats have developed about as much as they can, but there’s still more to come. Makers have been competing on suspension design, seeking the ultimate comfort. One company, Comfort Ride, developed a suspension system that is virtually impossible to bottom out, even under the heaviest of drivers. In their top-of-the-line seats, they included small massage motors to keep drivers comfortable. Massage is now available on many premium seats: National Seating incorporated the Back Cycler, a lumbar device designed to improve circulation and promote spinal health.
Seats are all about comfort, but that’s not all there is to the seats available these days. They can enhance safety, incorporating small motors that simulate the feel of driving over rumble strips when sensors detect lane departure or imminent side swipe accidents.
How will seats develop from here? This is certain: Whether the enhancements are for comfort, health or safety, truck seats will become an increasingly important component of the truck of tomorrow.