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January 27, 2017 4:00 PM, EST

Columbia Basin College Trucking Into the Future With $100,000 Truck Driving Simulator

Columbia Basin College
Columbia Basin College

“Loading the virtual world,” Bud Stephens said as he fired up Columbia Basin College’s newest tool to train future truck drivers.

The Washington state college, along with Columbia Distributing’s Kennewick branch, joined to purchase a full-motion truck simulator. The company donated $10,000 to help pay for the $111,000 cost of the machine.

The simulator allows the students to practice with different types of trucks and different types of environments. Stephens, a commercial driver license instructor, demonstrated driving an 18-speed transmission truck on an urban street with heavy traffic.

As he piloted the truck through crowded streets, the seat shifted side to side, moved up and down and mimicked driving a real truck. Traffic moved around him, and, at one point, a car darted across an intersection in front of the truck after the light changed.

“That’s about normal,” Stephens joked.

The experience may not be exactly the same as piloting a 53-foot-long, 14-foot-tall semitruck, but it’s close enough so students have an easier transition to the larger vehicles, he said.

“We can train our students in a variety of trucks that we do not have access to, all the different transmissions, types of trucks. There are 18 different variations,” said Janese Thatcher, the college’s dean for the computer science, engineering and career technical programs. “This is going to be wonderful for our students.”

Students still get behind the wheel of a real truck before graduating, but the machine allows them to practice in situations they may not normally face. Thatcher compared it to a flight simulator.

“We’re very happy to reopen our [commercial driver license] program here and meet the needs of the community,” she said. “Nationally, truck drivers are in huge demand.”

The demand is driven by people retiring from the field, Thatcher said. It is one of the leading jobs in Benton and Franklin counties.

Kent Nelson, a general manager with the distribution company, is one of the people looking to hire drivers. The Portland-based company serves 20,000 retail customers between Washington, Oregon and California.

“There is a lot of demand,” he said. “We partnered with Columbia Basin College because there is a need for our business, and not just [in Kennewick], companywide.”

The college also plans to add recreational vehicles to the simulator.