Leuphana researchers develop training program for truck drivers

Software aims at better preparing truck drivers for difficult situations in road traffic

Researchers from Leuphana University of Lüneburg have developed a simulation training that aims to better prepare truckers for risky situations in road traffic. The prototype has been tested by professional drivers. The German Association for Technical Inspection (TÜV) will use the training program in the future.

Maik Kolbe is relaxingly driving his 18-ton truck along a dead straight road. On the horizon, the mountains are becoming blurred in the bluish haze; in front of them, there are a few meadows and trees - that's it. The scenery is shining golden-yellow in the evening sun. A romantic atmosphere as depicted in picture books.

There is not much traffic today, and Kolbe has the whole road almost to himself. In the rear mirrow, he can see a red car approaching him at high speed. The car passes him, swings back to the right and brakes hard. Kolbe must jam on his brakes to avoid a car crash. "You bloody idiot!" he yells at the car driver. But then he smiles to himself.

Contrary to what you may have assumed, the 31-year-old professional truck driver is not driving along a country road but is sitting in a darkened room on the fourth floor of a building at Leuphana University of Lüneburg. The steering wheel he is holding to is part of a driving simulator—the road hog only exists on the large flat screen right in front of Kolbe's nose.

The man sitting behind Maik Kolbe is Thomas Rheker, an information scientist, who is clearly focusing his eyes on the small LCD monitor. It was him who came up with the idea of the red car passing the truck. Now he is studying exactly how the test pilot reacts to this dangerous situation. On his screen, Rheker can view the most important driving data regarding the virtual truck: speed, steer angle and brake pressure. "We record everything and will analyze the collected data in more detail later," he explains. "This way we can see which situations have been very critical and might need to be practiced once again."

Thomas Rheker is working on a project that has been initiated by the Lüneburg Professor Dr. Rainer Höger. The traffic psychologist at Leuphana University and his team are developing a simulation training program that is tailored specifically to the needs of professional truck drivers, because the requirements for this professional group are extremely high. In the first half of 2011 alone, German truck drivers drove nearly 15 billion kilometers. In addition, German forwarding companies had to struggle with cheaper competitors from abroad. This is why they try to use their trucks to the fullest extent. For the drivers this means that they are often under enormous time pressure.

The consequences of this have become clearly evident. One out of eight accidents causing personal injury involves a truck, according to the German Traffic Security Council. And the situation on German roads will definitely not get less stressful. According to the Shell Group, freight traffic is likely to increase by once again one half until 2030. "This is why we have developed an EDP program to train professional drivers in managing both routine and high-risk driving situations," explains Swantje Robelski, a project team member.

The PhD candidate and her colleagues drove from one Autobahn restaurant to the next one in the greater Lüneburg region. "We have interviewed truck drivers to find out which dangerous situations they are likely to face very often," she explains. "They often mentioned complex traffic scenarios involving several participants—for example, if the driver of a car coming from the opposite direction wants to turn left in front of the truck, nearly fails to see a pedestrian crossing the street and therefore has to brake suddenly."

Some of these situations have been built into the route to be driven today by the test pilot Maik Kolbe. "I somehow lack the feeling of how wide the truck is and how close it is to the roadside," he says. "Otherwise it feels pretty realistic. It's definitely completely different from sitting at the computer back at home." He is relaxed again after his near-crash. Actually the route is quite dreary, he says. But that is exactly what makes it so dangerous, because you get more and more easily distracted and you begin to lose concentration. "On our simulation routes, just nothing happens for quite a while," Thomas Rheker confirms. "But then it comes thick and fast."

The driving simulation program is part of the Innovation Incubator, a program to promote business in the former governmental district of Lüneburg that is unique within Europe. The main objective of this program is to create and maintain jobs in sustainable fields of business as well as to strengthen the research and development potential of business enterprises, in particular, of small and medium-sized enterprises in the region. The following companies have been gained as partners for the project: the regional ADAC Fahrsicherheitszentrum in Embsen and Süderelbe AG.

Studies show that "dry practice" using a driver training simulator can improve a test person's reactions under real-world traffic conditions, Swantje Robelski explains. Low cost is, without any doubt, one of the advantages of driving simulation, for if a trucker driving on a driving simulator makes a mistake, this does not put the expensive truck at risk. Since the simulator can generate an endless number of risky situations, the amount of time needed to undergo such training is comparably low—and hence the costs incurred by the forwarding agents who must pay their drivers.

Maik Kolbe has been working as a professional driver since 2003. Sometimes he really suffers from the stress and also from the behavior of the "civilians", as he calls the car drivers. He has recently changed employer and will soon have to drive even bigger trucks than he already did in the past. "In order to drive safely, you need to have a lot of driving experience," he says. "A simulator can be very helpful for this", so Kolbe,  "or, alternatively, a real-life driving safety training."

Contact person:
Swantje Robelski
Driving Simulation Center Development Team
Innovation Incubator
Leuphana University of Lüneburg
Phone: 04131/677-7846
Email: swantje.robelski@inkubator.leuphana.de