The June 1970 edition of ‘Commercial Motor’ included a fascinating article on the quest for the ‘perfect vehicle’ in terms of cab ergonomics. It shows that the balancing act between capitalising on new technology whilst maintaining an uncluttered dashboard is in fact decades old.The following is a short extract;

“An instrument panel that has small dials and is so placed that excessive movement of the head is needed will rarely be used efficiently. The panel should ideally be located in front of the driver and within a field of vision that does not call for turning the head more than a couple of degrees.

It is also essential that important components on the panel should not be hidden by the steering wheel and its spokes, for example. There is growing interest in the use of buzzers and warning lights as the major items in an instrument panel; a single large warning shows that something is wrong, a smaller light informs the driver of the component that is faulty and then he looks at the gauge to find out just what is wrong.”

It’s easy to dismiss the commentary as laughable but it reflects the status of vehicles at the time. Other questionable suggestions included the manual addition of sound proofing materials to various vulnerable points in the cab and the fitting of a coat hook! That said, the underlying principle of maximising visibility of the area outside the vehicle to the driver remains key. Similarly, ease of access to (and interpretation of) dashboard instrumentation data is the ‘Holy Grail’ for those immersed in the design of the modern HGV cab. Why? The answer to that question lies in a consideration of both safety and operational issues.

Motorways are the safest roads in the UK. They account for a fifth of the road traffic in the UK every year yet are five times safer per mile than the average British road and some eight times safer than an urban A-road. This adds up to drivers being about 10 times more likely to be involved in a serious or fatal collision on a non-motorway road.

Yet there is one group of road users where the figures are skewed in the opposite direction: HGVs (or 'heavy goods vehicles'), where the vehicle weighs 7.5 tonnes or more. This group of road users is involved in 52% of motorway fatalities despite making up less than 10% of the traffic on UK motorways.

Head into urban areas and the statistics are even more concerning. In London, HGVs account for 4% of the traffic but are involved in 55% of cyclists’ deaths in the capital. As with the motorway figures, the fatalities and serious injuries are more likely to be other vehicles, rather than the HGV driver simply due to size, weight and strength of construction. The average cyclist is invisible to the eye of an HGV driver up to 1.9m from the base of the cab and so it’s not surprising that they represent a particularly vulnerable group. In countries with high rates of cycling, lorries are often the single biggest threat to cyclists. In Belgium, 43% of cycling fatalities involve lorries, in Holland 38% and in the UK 33%.

Driver blind spots are the result of an outdated cab design. Reducing these areas reduces the risk to road users. But over the past few decades, there has been little improvement to the amount of direct vision to HGV drivers.

Attempted solutions to address blind spot issues have previously been to increase the size and number of mirrors, however, it is increased direct vision that holds the key to improved road safety. The 'direct vision concept' that Loughborough Design School has recommended would include a slightly curved and elongated nose on the vehicle, a smaller dashboard, expanded glazed areas in the passenger doors and corner of the cab and a slightly lower cab. An improved HGV cab with more direct vision and an increased aerodynamic front provides better safety and reduced costs to the operator.

The modern fleet operator has a wealth of potential additional devices that can be fitted to the cab, but anything that degrades direct vision should be avoided. Navigation screens, reversing camera screen, Bluetooth hands-free kit, mobile phone holder, driver performance feedback panel and job/ task display screen are meant to improve safety, but they also have the potential to clutter the dashboard, directly reduce visibility and detract from safety. As William Todts, senior policy officer of Transport & Environment, remarks: “It simply makes no sense to allow gigantic 40ton mammoths on our roads without making sure the people behind the wheel actually see what's going on.”

The Freight Transport Association (FTA) and Health & Safety Executive (HSE) have also been quick to recognise this scenario and have issued clear guidelines. The HSE states “The driver’s direct vision through the windscreen (area swept by the wipers) should not be obstructed by items such as additional equipment (such as CCTV monitors).” The inference is clear, harsh penalties await fleet operators whose vehicles are involved in fatal accidents where driver error, influenced by careless cab clutter, is a factor. So, how can a fuel operator capitalise on the efficiencies offered by communication and monitoring devices whilst avoiding unnecessary dashboard clutter?

Consolidating multiple devices into a single unit may seem like a pipe dream whereas, in reality, it is not only possible but also a very real solution that many organisations are already adopting. TouchStar’s TS3300 device can be the fulcrum point for all in-cab communication, data capture, vehicle status and safety monitoring activities. The state-of-the-art mobile computer offers operational modules such as GPS navigation, driver routing, job scheduling, proof of delivery etc. alongside safety oriented systems that control reversing cameras, monitor driver behaviour and highlight vehicle status. All of these activities are accessed and controlled by a single device that can be strategically mounted to avoid any interference with driver vision.

The safety arguments are strong enough in themselves to justify the adoption of a single device strategy. However, the argument is further bolstered if operational gains are also taken into consideration. The cost savings are self-evident from the outset as there is only device to purchase and install rather than multiple devices. Long-term cost savings are also achieved through reduced maintainance and support issues based on the same rationale).

Device consolidation is nothing new in the consumer world. Smart phones are now a convenient ‘tool set’ for many life activities, including health monitoring, e-mail & internet access, photography etc. Mobile computers for business use can be viewed in exactly the same way. Having one device that performs multiple tasks is simply more convenient. As with consumer devices, there is little or no loss of functionality with a single unit solution compared to a host of original devices. Taking the TS3300, as used in a fuel oil delivery context as a typical example; operators are able to undertake all of the following functions from the one device:

  • Voice conversations with the driver
  • Automatic collection and transfer of Metered fuel delivery details
  • Job allocation to the driver
  • Proof of delivery (POD) obtained from the client
  • Image capture of health and safety incidents / concerns
  • HGV applicable navigation
  • Pre-journey vehicle safety checks
  • Integration with tachograph devices
  • Vehicle positioning information
  • Driver performance feedback in office and cab
  • Reversing cameras
  • Axle weight display
  • Tank gauge monitor display
  • Tyre pressure monitoring display

Pursuing a single device strategy within the HGV cab is a logical and obvious choice for any fleet operator seeking to optimise safety and operational considerations. It is a strategy that undoubtedly offers gains for the financial ‘bottom line’. A single device strategy also means that fleet operators can maintain an uncluttered dashboard without having to choose between the features that they want drivers to have access to.

Taking away distractions and maximising driver visability not only ensures drivers are alert and in control at all times but potentially saves lives. It’s a powerful combination, and if you’re looking for that critical operational area to improve then this could well be it.