August 11, 2016 4:00 PM, EDT
No Gender Gap in Today’s Class 8 Trucks, Tractors
This story appears in the Aug. 8 print edition of Equipment & Maintenance Update, a supplement to Transport Topics.

When it comes to differences in average height, weight and strength of male and female Class 8 truck drivers, those differences challenge truck designers to build a vehicle that can be easily used by both genders. Those physical differences can make it difficult for drivers — male or female — to reach the pedals while seeing over the hood, or to open a hood and be able to add engine oil or clean a windshield without having to climb atop a tire.

In recent years, individual drivers and organizations have urged original equipment manufacturers to change truck components and designs to improve the driving environment for women.

Phil Romba

As more women become Class 8 truck drivers, the call to design and build power units better suited to their physical attributes is being answered by truck makers today, despite what a survey of female drivers showed four years ago.

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Fleets and drivers say the current generation of highway tractors is improved and fits a wide variety of driver physiques regardless of gender. In their views and mine, there is no gender gap in today’s Class 8 trucks and tractors. The concept of vehicle features and designs tailored to female drivers is unnecessary.

In fact, one truckload fleet executive, who asked to remain anonymous, was perplexed by the topic of trucks tailored to women because all his company’s equipment is specified with comforts such as automated transmissions, refrigerators and auxiliary power units, regardless of the driver’s gender. “Women drivers are as good or as bad as men,” he said.

According to the Truck Driver Shortage Analysis 2015 report from American Trucking Associations, the percentage of female drivers has been stuck between 4.5% and 6% since 2000. Despite the stagnated figures, women represent an untapped demographic for future drivers.

Women in Trucking President and CEO Ellen Voie said women accounted for just under 6% of the 3.4 million drivers in 2014. Her organization was among the first voices calling for more consideration of women as trucks are designed. Voie offered data showing the average woman measures 5 feet, 4 inches compared with men at 5 feet, 10 inches. Additionally, women have wider hips and shorter arms, legs and torsos compared with men.

In February 2015, Miami-based Ryder System Inc. announced it would offer fleet customers tractors specified with a package of features tailored to women. More recently, Scott Perry, vice president of global supply management, said work on that program showed today’s tractors are a better fit for female drivers than initially thought.

A 2012 study commissioned by WIT began a discussion at Ryder about the need to “close the gap on vehicle design and the perception of obstacles for women to do their jobs more effectively.” After drilling down into the survey, Perry observed the feedback from women actually was related to older equipment. “We found the vast majority of vehicle issues had already been addressed” by truck makers, he said.

Subsequent meetings with several truck makers allowed Perry’s team to compare old and new models. “We looked at whether models could accommodate a 5-foot-tall woman and someone like me at 6 feet, 5 inches. We were encouraged by what we found,” he said.

The OEMs had identified many of the issues that can make it difficult for women and small men to more easily reach a control, for example, Perry said. He added that improvements were made to models including International ProStar, the Freightliner Cascadia and Volvo products.

Truck makers interviewed shared similar motivations about design. In general, those insights included designing trucks that are safe for drivers and other road users. They also aim to “make driving easier for all truck drivers.”

Mack Trucks’ highway product manager, Stu Russoli, said regardless of how spartan or luxurious the interior of a Mack truck is, “ergonomically, the cabs will have the same layout.” That layout and equipment will offer a wide range of adjustment for seats, steering wheel and other controls to accommodate short and tall, thin and heavy, male and female drivers.

Even though women make up about 6% of truck drivers, truck makers actively plan new and improved products according to a range of driver heights and weights with women on the low end of the design spectrum and men on the high end. Portland, Oregon-based Freightliner Trucks designs vehicles to accommodate 5th-percentile women and 95th-percentile men.

Mary Aufdemberg, director of product marketing for Freightliner, said that means engineers design vehicle systems for use by a 5-foot, 139-pound woman and a 6-foot-3, 308-pound man. Digital mannequins with those measurements are used in computer-aided design systems.

The 5th-percentile woman is used to develop criteria for hood-opening forces, Aufdemberg said. Distances to reach and view controls and instrumentation are validated using the 5th-percentile woman, as well. Designs are further verified with physical mock-ups and actual testing with women and men.

According to Ryder’s Perry, part of Kenworth’s and Peterbilt’s cab-design approach utilizes what has been dubbed a Gumby cab. It’s named after the children’s cartoon character whose body can be contorted and returned to its original shape. With this real-world design technique, a driver sits in the cab-like workspace. Engineers and designers then adjust positions of the steering wheel, seat, controls and gauges to try to perfect the configuration of the driver environment.

Designing trucks may begin when a fleet customer asks for a change in the cab, under the hood or on the chassis. Often, that request originated in a driver meeting.

At Bentonville, Arkansas-based Wal-Mart Stores Inc., driver meetings are regular events. They are part of programs responsible for a driver-turnover rate that hovers between 6% and 7%. Elizabeth Fretheim, senior director of logistics-sustainability, said the world’s largest retailer conducts special sessions with female drivers to ensure equipment choices offer a safe, comfortable environment. “But,” she said, “I’ve not come across anything that women want versus men.”

According to Fretheim, changes to equipment specifications are on the horizon. Specifically, the fleet will begin specifying automated manual transmissions, a change driven more by technology than driver preference or request.

While drivers cannot always influence changes to equipment, they certainly do experience them. Goldie Seymour, a driver for National Carriers Inc. in Irving, Texas, has seen many in her 46-year career. Important changes she has experienced range from women getting their own showers at truck stops to men acknowledging women could drive as well as them.

More recently, she has had to adapt to driving a tractor with an automated manual transmission — something she doesn’t want to relinquish. She drives a Kenworth T680 with an automated manual and says it is less fatiguing. Loaded to 78,000 pounds with a shipment of flour headed to Pueblo, Colorado, Seymour recalled the transition to trucks that are better suited to women began as trucks took on more aerodynamic exteriors.

As for today’s trucks, she called them “unisex because they work for men and women.”

Tomorrow’s drivers will check their mirrors in years to come and may have similar comments about today’s state-of-the-art trucks. According to fleet management consultant Darry Stuart and Perry, improved designs and solutions still are needed for foot pedals, grab handles and in-cab security.

More so than their male counterparts, female drivers are concerned about security when they are in the cab off-duty. According to Stuart, that’s when women — especially fleet drivers — feel particularly vulnerable. “A lot of fleet trucks are keyed alike,” Stuart said. “I haven’t bought a truck in 25 years that wasn’t keyed alike.” He suggested an additional lock inside the cab would make women feel more secure, and it could be as simple as a sliding bolt lock similar to what is used on hotel doors.

Female drivers could have difficulty climbing into and out of a truck. As a result, Stuart would like options to change the height and spacing of cab steps, as well as an option to order different-size grab handles “to allow a smaller person to climb into the cab without struggling.”

Despite the physical differences between men and women, truck builders are manufacturing products designed to accommodate a greater range of drivers, regardless of gender, than they did before. As the driver population of the industry evolves, I’m confident truck designs will adapt to their needs.

Freelance writer Phil Romba has covered trucks and maintenance as a full-time journalist and worked as a public relations manager for Volvo Trucks North America during his 20-year-plus career.