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Ever since they first formed that impossible-to-ignore bulge in population statistics, the baby boom generation has been a driving force in making and breaking trends. The trucking industry is feeling their pain now, as aging drivers find getting around to be a bit trickier than it once was, at the same time that carrier recruitment efforts are targeting retirees to fill their emptying drivers’ seats.
According to Jonathan Cagan, Ph.D., professor of mechanical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, to overcome the challenges aging drivers face, you must first understand what they deal with day to day. That’s exactly what Cagan and his mechanical engineering students are doing.
In collaboration with Carnegie Mellon’s business school and school of design and supported by International Truck and Engine Corporation’s Truck Development and Technology Center in Fort Wayne, Ind., he and his students are examining a number of ways to make life on the road more comfortable.
These are very bright young folks, but they can’t come up with answers out of thin air. So before the students begin coming up with concepts and designs, they spend significant time at truck stops. They conduct interviews with drivers and sometimes hitch a ride to gain a better understanding of the pain — both physical and figurative — that truckers endure. “They identify a need, start to understand that need and then move to specifications to design the product,” Cagan says. The class projects focus on lifestyle products that will improve the driving environment.
To develop appropriate and effective amenities, Cagan stresses how important it is to go directly to the source. “Drivers are the ones who spend time in the truck. They should help determine how to make the environment better,” he says.
Cognizant of the often-cramped quarters of a typical cab, Cagan and his students are attempting to make the living area more home-like. With more retired couples taking second careers as drivers, the cab truly does become a home away from home. “The inside of a long-haul cab is spartan,” Cagan says. “We needed to think about how to make it more comfortable.”
The cab height often poses another challenge for drivers with arthritic knees and lower back issues. That jaunty jump onto the asphalt that once came so easily can cause a wince of pain in later years. “We are looking at ways to change the span drivers need to get into the truck. We looked at how to make it more natural for a driver to get in,” Cagan says. “We’ve integrated a staircase that you can easily move out of the way.”
Cagan’s class is also looking at what is involved in the process of fueling a big rig. This can present a comfort problem because of the time involved, particularly for someone with arthritis. “It’s hard to stand there and hold down the handle for half an hour. We’re looking at a more ergonomic solution,” he says.
The students have launched 13 projects altogether, each motivated by the aging issue. Cagan notes that the designs have universal applications and are capable of increasing ease and comfort for all age groups.
Although several of these projects have become prototypes, they must undergo intensive testing before patent applications can be submitted. Still, Cagan says, “It’s exciting to see how our work impacts the trucking industry.”