Share
August 12, 2016 4:00 PM, EDT
Cab Seat Technology Addresses Driver Health Concerns
This story appears in the Aug. 8 print edition of Equipment & Maintenance Update, a supplement to Transport Topics.

Driving a truck for hours on end day after day takes its toll on the body, but the engineers of today’s cab seats are doing more than ever to address driver health and comfort concerns. These seats offer an array of features that soothe body aches and pains, reduce vibration and accommodate the range of body sizes.

Bose Corp.

For example, not only is standard lumbar support available with most seats, there also are optional features that double or triple the support. Seats that can provide heat are common, but some also have ways to help drivers cool down in the heat and draw away moisture.

BEST OF AUGUST E&MU: More stories, columns

But among the main goals for seat and truck manufacturers is reducing vibration. Drivers experience excessive exposure to whole body vibration.

“A number of scientific studies have shown an association between exposure to vehicle-related whole body vibration and the development of health problems,” said Peter Johnson, professor in the Occupational and Environmental Exposure Sciences program in the School of Public Health at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Lower back pain is the most prominent example of the health problems that can occur, Johnson said. He is recognized as an expert on whole body vibration.

“Around 60 years ago, the only protection from whole body vibration was the foam padding used in the seat cushion,” Johnson said. “It was typical for the seat to adjust only in height, and there was no shock-absorbing capability in the seat suspension.”

This changed in the 1960s. “Mechanical suspension seats were introduced followed by air-suspension seats in the late 1970s,” he said. “Both of these seat suspension advancements were thought to incrementally reduce a vehicle operator’s exposure to whole body vibration.”

In recent years, a new option has become available. Bose Corp., based in Framingham, Massachusetts, came out with a truck seat that cancels out much of the vehicle-induced vibrations reaching the driver. The seat uses vibration cancellation algorithms that are similar to those used in their noise-cancellation headphones.

This seat senses the vertical movements of the truck cab and moves the seat up or down to counteract those movements. “The suspension underneath the seat uses a super high-speed actuator,” said James Parison, principal systems engineer at Bose Corp. “It senses the vertical vibrations coming into the floor of the truck and then creates an equal and opposite force to cancel those vibrations in the same way that Bose noise-canceling headsets reject noise.”

Reducing whole body vibration reduces driver fatigue and pain, Parison said. “We’ve also learned that drivers who use our seats feel that they’re safer drivers, that they recover from a long day more quickly and that they expect to have longer careers.”

Brown Integrated Logistics, based in Lithonia, Georgia, and No. 90 on the Transport Topics Top 100 list of the largest U.S. and Canadian for-hire carriers, began installing Bose Ride seats in its trucks in September 2014. “The most common thing we hear from drivers is that they feel less tired,” said Brian Kinsey, CEO of the company. The seats are helping with driver retention, too, Kinsey said.

Dart Safety Lane, a carrier based in Eagan, Minnesota, also uses the Bose Ride seat. The response from drivers has been “overwhelmingly positive,” said Brett Wacker, vice president of maintenance for the Dart Network. The seat “is a contributing factor to our retention success.”

Dart Safety Lane is a unit of Dart Transit Co., which ranks No. 69 on the for-hire TT100.

Most cab seats come with air suspension, which uses a flexible air bellows combined with a mechanical shock underneath the seat to absorb shocks and vibration.

One of the manufacturers of air suspension seats to the trucking industry is Commercial Vehicle Group, or CVG, whose seats are sold under the National and Bostrom brands.

“Our suspension seats are designed to protect drivers from chronic conditions that can be associated with trucking, such as musculoskeletal disorders,” said Daniel Lewis, global aftermarket program manager for CVG, based in New Albany, Ohio. “Improving the posture of the driver is a key element in preventing driver fatigue and reducing conditions caused by whole body vibration.”

Seats from Sears Seating, based in Davenport, Iowa, are engineered to eliminate “most topping and bottoming out of the suspension under extreme conditions,” said Ron Mock, director of the aftermarket division of North America for Sears Seating. Sears seats also have a back frame structure contoured to the natural shape of the spine, Mock said.

A third seat manufacturer is Gra-Mag in London, Ohio. The company’s over-center suspension feature is “the key to our seat system,” said Rick Schafer, president of Gra-Mag. “Drivers of all sizes can receive similar performance in ride comfort due to the fact that the suspension slides with the drivers but keeps them centered over the suspension. This approach helps mitigate considerable vibration in the seat.”

The major truck makers recognize the importance of seats to drivers and the fleets that purchase the trucks.

“In-cab comfort for drivers is a key consideration for Mack, and we’re always investigating ways to improve it,” said Stu Russoli, highway product manager for Mack Trucks, based in Greensboro, North Carolina, and a subsidiary of Volvo Trucks North America, noting the company offers seat model options from brands such as Bostrom, Sears and National.

One of the features offered by Peterbilt Motors Co., a subsidiary of Paccar Inc., is choosing a looser or stiffer ride. “This helps the seat accommodate different body weights and personal preferences for comfort,” said Anthony Gansle, on-highway marketing manager for Peterbilt, based in Denton, Texas.

“Drivers who need to get in and out of the cab frequently can use a switch to quickly lower the seat,” Gansle said. “This makes it easier to get in and out of the truck. Once back in, re-engaging the switch brings the seat back to its previous driving position. It’s a feature that many drivers appreciate.”

Peterbilt seats, he added, can include integrated rollover protection through RollTek. “The RollTek option adds air bags into the bolsters of the seat. If the truck rolls over, the air bags deploy to protect the driver’s body from being smashed against the door. Our seat suppliers work with RollTek to integrate the air bags into the seats.”

Kenworth Truck Co., another Paccar subsidiary, offers seats with a suspension system that reduces forward and backward motion, said Kurt Swihart, marketing director at Kenworth, based in Kirkland, Washington. “This lack of ‘sway’ helps drivers relax in the seat and not have to tense their torso muscles to try to counteract the seat and cab movement.”

The adjustable shock allows drivers to fine-tune the cushioning characteristics to their preference of firm or soft, Swihart said. “The adjustment features fit a wider range of different size drivers, from a 5-foot female driver to a 6-foot 4-inch male driver.”

The seats available from International Trucks, a subsidiary of Navistar Inc., also offer features that target the range of driver size with adjustable side bolsters. “The adjustable side bolsters are balloons in the sides of the seat back and cushion,” said Sudha Veerapaneni, supply manager of seats and occupant restraint systems at International, based in Lisle, Illinois. “You can make the sides bigger or smaller so that the seat cradles you more or cradles you less,” she said.

Seat comfort is subjective, Veerapaneni said. “Some people will never use lumbar support because they hate the way it pushes against their back, while other people will have it on all of the time.”

Meanwhile, Bose Ride seats are available as an aftermarket installation and as an option with new cabs from Freightliner Trucks, a subsidiary of Daimler Trucks North America.

Volvo Trucks also offers Bose Ride seats. “Volvo Trucks offers a wide variety of seat options designed to meet the different needs of our customers,” said Jason Spence, product and marketing manager for longhaul at VTNA, based in Greensboro, North Carolina. “Some of these choices, including the Bose Ride seat, offer improved comfort and reduced fatigue to the driver.”

“We offer our proprietary seat with air suspension or Bose Ride,” said Mike McHorse, manager of on-highway product marketing for Freightliner Trucks, a division of Daimler Trucks North America, based in Portland, Oregon.

“The Bose Ride was just introduced in 2015 as a factory-installed option,” he said, noting Freightliner’s proprietary seat offers three different levels — basic, premium and elite in adjustment options.

Johnson, the vibration expert, referred to research that shows how much money can be saved with a well-designed seat. “Most trucking companies aren’t acknowledging and accounting for the health costs associated with the sorts of injuries that can result from whole body vibration,” he said.

“When a truck driver has a musculoskeletal disorder that requires time off from work, the average cost of the worker’s compensation claim is $30,000,” Johnson said.

“In addition to the health cost, there is lost productivity and the cost of training a replacement for the injured driver,” Johnson said, noting there’s also a cost to the driver in terms of finances, length of career and quality of life.