Giving Truck Drivers A Cool Experience

For a community whose services are seldom acknowledged, truck drivers now find themselves making the news thanks to Nitin Gadkari’s recent diktat that truck cabins need to be air-conditioned from 2025. 

The Minister of Road Transport and Highways has been batting for drivers’ comfort levels for a while now given that they work in extreme heat as is the case with India’s harsh summers. This has found support from other stakeholders in the automotive ecosystem even while there are the occasional murmurs of dissent.

When this writer toured some trucking hubs some years ago, the shortage of drivers was a key topic of discussion. There was clearly a stigma attached to the profession coupled with its harsh working conditions, long working hours etc. Many fleet operators said young drivers preferred to drive trucks fitted with air-conditioned cabins.

This was not only for the obvious comfort they offered but also a rise in stature which would make these drivers more eligible in the marriage market. However, operators were wary of higher acquisition costs and what this could imply for the end-customer.

‘India’s growing trucking industry is facing the challenge of attracting and retaining skilled truck drivers. This decision will benefit the health and safety of drivers as the long hours of truck driving will become more comfortable,” said a Tata Motors spokesperson. Tata trucks have AC cabins as an option right now and this could now encompass the entire range following Gadkari’s announcement. 

“We have also pioneered new age technologies like ADAS and collision mitigation systems in trucks to make roads safer. While there is a marginal increment in costs, the overall benefits for customers and drivers are significantly higher,” added the spokesperson.

AC Cabin in trucks

Daimler India Commercial Vehicles (DICV), maker of the Bharat Benz brand, says it will not only provide a comfortable working environment for drivers but also enhance road safety by reducing fatigue. The company will also strive to reduce the incidence of hearing loss among drivers who are exposed to long hours in hot cabins. Fleet productivity will also get a positive fillip with AC, it adds. 

Satyakam Arya, Managing Director & CEO, DICV, says BharatBenz trucks have had AC cabins for the last decade even though a blower was deemed adequate. “We have seen greater penetration of our air-conditioned trucks since customers have understood the positive effects and embraced this change.”

According to Arya, with emission regulations grabbing the spotlight in the last few years, equal (if not more) rigour is needed in having regulations on safety. “Crash safety norms for truck cabins in India are greatly lacking with even ECE R29-02 still not mandated. This norm addresses crash safety up to the lower point of the windshield in a truck cabin. Europe is already at ECE R29-03 which covers the entire cabin for crash safety. Back home, BharatBenz heavy-duty truck cabins comply with ECE R29-03 norms too “even if the regulation did not demand it,” he adds.

Current Status

Nearly 55% of trucks sold in India have a cowl while customers build the cabin as per their convenience and safety standards are compromised with. DICV says the AC mandate will finally eliminate the cowl truck cabins. “Over 60% of BharatBenz truck sales include AC options which shows that Indian fleet owners are aware of the need to provide more comfort and safety, irrespective of regulations,” adds Arya.

There is also a growing demand for AC cabins in small/light commercial vehicles for the same reasons of comfort and convenience. Tata Motors offers these as an option in Intra, Yodha, Ultra, Signa and Prima while Ashok Leyland has this in certain models/variants of AVTR, tipper and haulage trucks. 

Tata Motors sees a “definite trend” towards more comfortable, feature-rich and AC-equipped vehicles in the small commercial vehicle and pick-up category too. “The tremendous success and growing demand of our Intra range of vehicles in a short period of time exemplify this,” says the spokesperson.

Design, Assembly Challenges 

AC Cabin in trucks

According to a leading industry expert, major OEMs make AC cabins for select export markets where cost is not a criterion. “In India, customers avoid procuring a truck with OE-fitted cabs. They want to build the cabin according to their plans. From the assembly point of view, there is no issue managing the TAKT time. It all depends upon how the system is designed,” he adds. 

The challenge is to develop an HVAC system suitable for all models but this is easier said than done in terms of making customised HVAC units along with ducts and vents for every model. According to another veteran, the instrument panel must be changed to provide for the duct.

Likewise, the cooling system will change as an additional heat load must be managed. The condenser of the HVAC unit will be placed in front of the radiator calling for rework. In some cases, the engine hp will have to be tweaked as the HVAC unit consumes power. These will change the radiator’s capacity and affect the fuel economy, says the industry veteran. 

In addition, a lot of work is needed for the cabin’s interiors, insulation etc which will require a relook at the body structure in order to comply with crash norms. Since all OEMs have multiple cabs, this exercise will turn out to be both time-consuming and expensive, he adds

Nitin Gadkari has set the ball rolling and it is sweet music to truck drivers’ ears. They have constantly been the target of abuse from fellow road users and ruthless policemen looking to make a fast buck. By the end of the day, they deserve a lot more dignity considering that they have a critical role to play in the economy. 

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