Industries employing commercial drivers are still grappling with the results of a U.S. Department of Transportation finding last October that in 2019, fatalities for occupants of large trucks reached their highest number since 1988 — despite overall traffic fatalities dropping for the third year in a row. In February, more than a dozen semi-tractor-trailers were involved in a 133-car pileup in Fort Worth, Texas, drawing attention to the issue.
Providers of virtual reality training, a growing industry, are stepping in to try to improve driver outcomes. Advanced Training Systems and VR Motion are two companies that have emerged in recent years to provide VR training for commercial drivers.
Employees have shown strong interest in VR training, with commercial drivers among those demonstrating the greatest interest in the learning tool.
Because VR scenarios can realistically mimic the sudden onset of unsafe conditions, they are among the most useful training methods for drivers, studies show. Simulated reality also seems to stick better in the minds of trainees; Stanford University and Technical University Denmark found that VR learning methods increased learning effectiveness by 76%.
"When you have heavy traffic, freezing rain, and icy roads, there are things you can’t do, at least not safely," John Kearney, CEO of VR training company Advanced Training Systems, wrote in a blog post on the company’s website in response to the accident in Fort Worth. "You can’t drive at normal distances from the vehicle in front of you, you can’t drive at normal freeway speeds, and you can’t slam on your brakes."
ATS works with delivery and freight-moving companies, government agencies and nonprofits, Kearney said. The company produces simulators that train students to shift, use passive-resistance and force-feedback steering, back up, and perform other actions common for large trucks. It also tests students on their reactions to potential hazards, such as an animal jumping out in front of the truck or an icy road.
With a VR system, you can train and retrain a situation until it’s in the trainee’s memory, Kearney told HR Dive. "We can't do that in a real track ... you can't keep recreating [a scenario] without spending a fortune." In addition, training on a real track takes a tremendous amount of time. "Simulators reduce the training time significantly," he said.
Recently, high schools have begun introducing truck driving programs to help students prepare to earn a commercial driver’s license. "It’s a huge new field," Kearney said. "If the school system can train the student while they're in high school, then we don't have a huge cost to the student and they can get out of high school and start driving."
UPS is among the companies that have trained drivers using VR technology. And Amazon, CVS and Kohl’s have hired drivers trained through high school programs outfitted with ATS equipment.
Broadly, training as a focus for VR has grown significantly in recent years. The VR industry is beginning to tilt more in the direction of enterprise use, which 73% of VR companies reported working on, rather than consumer use, which fewer than half of those companies said they were working on, according to a 2019-2020 XR Industry Insight report. VR, along with other immersive learning platforms, are "poised for dramatic growth," JFFLabs said in a January 2020 report.