Birthing the future of Indian trucking

The size of a large portion of the country’s fuel bill is in the driver’s hands (or, should we say, at his right foot!).

Autocar Pro News DeskBy Autocar Pro News Desk calendar 14 Aug 2012 Views icon5058 Views Share - Share to Facebook Share to Twitter Share to LinkedIn Share to Whatsapp
Birthing the future of Indian trucking
A truck driver, it can reasonably be argued, does the most important job in any economy. No modern society can function if he doesn’t deliver the goods. In India, which has pretensions of becoming a modern society, the one profession that’s vital to keeping the economy in motion languishes – lamentably – at the bottom of the heap.

The size of a large portion of the country’s fuel bill is in the driver’s hands (or, should we say, at his right foot!). The state of repair of the country’s fleet directly depends on how well he drives. And probably most crucially of all, traffic safety on India’s highways is a function of his skill and his state of health and alertness, because the smallest mistake he makes could have devastating consequences.

Imagine the damage an overloaded truck out of control can wreak. A surgeon may do all he can to save a patient’s life, but even the best of them is not ultimately responsible if the patient dies. However every truck driver, especially every one who transports any one of the 3,000-plus hazardous substances on the UN list, is daily responsible for the safety of many thousands of lives, and not just of those in his immediate surroundings.

And yet, while a surgeon will have many years of specialised training and experience, the shocking truth is that truck drivers in India must have no formal training whatsoever. Why, they don’t even need a complete school education. (The fact is, setting the bar higher than the Std VIII minimum qualification would shut out even those for whom this undesirable career might be a last resort, making the driver shortage situation even graver.)

For sure, the Central Motor Vehicle Rules 1989 laid down a comprehensive syllabus of theoretical and practical instruction for any individual who wants to become a driver, but the driving ‘schools’ that exist are anything but what the CMVR defines as a training institution. These one-room affairs, run by people with the right political connections, exist to fix you a licence rather than to train you to drive — if at all you went to them to learn.

The wages of a driver in India have traditionally been a minuscule factor in the total cost of operation (TCO), and having to make any contribution towards training him is seen as an unnecessary expense. But with the emergence of an increasingly sophisticated new generation of trucks, and consolidation in the transport market with an emphasis on fleets and insistence on in-time deliveries, the need for trained drivers is growing rapidly.

A trained driver delivers manifold benefits not just for the transporter, but for the economy as a whole. For one thing, he can save his company the equivalent of many times his own salary because he’s learnt good driving habits. An educated driver who understands how his vehicle’s systems function is in a position to operate it in the most efficient manner, and thus extract the maximum productivity, and hence income, from it.

Yet the bulk of the transport industry, which has long operated with the lowest-investment-quickest-return mindset, refuses to spend a pie on training existing drivers, even as it stands to save crores in fuel and maintenance costs. At the same time, because of the increasingly dire shortage of drivers, many are now willing to pay handsomely for ‘readymade’ qualified drivers, if only such can be had.

In this land of many contradictions, that’s one that’s emblematic of the transport sector. Here’s another — Indian trucks are the cheapest in the world (an Indian model at the highest end sells for no more than half the price of a low-end European model), but Indian freight is the most expensive (at least 50 percent more than in the US).

Blame that on the enormous waste built into the system owing to a myriad of taxes payable at numerous points at which trucks frequently have to break journey. Has anybody bothered to consider just how much taxpayer-subsidised diesel is burnt up while truckers idle at border checkpoints or in traffic backups at the unaccountably large number of toll plazas that punctuate India’s superhighways?

Democracy, that great and glorious notion, dictates that these impediments will stay for the next decade at least. So what lever does that leave the transport industry to lift its efficiency and lower its costs? An important one — a trained driver.A man who possesses the keys to extracting the maximum economic value from a truck. A man, paradoxically, whose tribe continues to bear the stigma of social untouchability.

The driver in focus

In Europe, training for professional drivers has been a part of every OEM’s portfolio for years, and even companies such as Shell offer fuel-saving coaching programmes. In India, where selling low-tech trucks that can be kept going for years with shade-tree jugaad has been the name of the game for decades, such high-value service offerings have never been considered a strategic priority. But that’s beginning to change.

Ashok Leyland, whose U-truck represents, in our opinion, the more effective transition to a mid-market that’s set to grow at 42 percent (compounded annually) till 2020, foresaw in the early 1990s that if it wanted to grow sales of its new generations of vehicles, and not just in the south of India, it would have to take freshers and turn them into qualified drivers — just familiarising existing drivers would not be sufficient.

To do that, it decided to establish a comprehensive training course based on the syllabus specified by the CMVR. This would require an investment in facilities that not a single driving school in the country could claim to have; in fact, most all continue to operate to this day in violation of the CMVR requirement. The location chosen was Namakkal, which apart from being a major truck hub for south India is also an educational town that usually accounts for the top three rankers in the state school board examinations year after year.

Spread over 25 acres including a scientifically designed driving range laid out over 15 acres, the institute started with a three-month basic course in heavy transport vehicle driving. Apart from lessons in driving theory, traffic education, and vehicle maintenance, trainees are also schooled in public relations and soft skills, and must take an additional course in first aid that earns them a certificate from St John Ambulance Chennai.

And whereas the CMVR requires that “actual driving hours … shall not be less than 15 hours”, trainees at Ashok Leyland Namakkal are given 55 hours of steering practice. (When I registered with a local driving school in Pune earlier this year to obtain a heavy-vehicle driving licence, all I got was six lessons totalling an hour altogether. I visited ALN, therefore, to get a proper grounding, not to write this article!)

An important part of the training is hands-on practice in fuel-saving techniques, which are the subject of a separate two-day course for professional drivers, and exhaustive instruction in defensive driving and emergency procedures that actually constitute the three-day mandatory course on safe transport of hazardous goods, which means the trainees graduate with licences endorsed for such high-risk transportation.

The course includes a week of night driving practice and an adventure in hill driving in the form of an excursion to Kolli Hills some 50 km away. The drive up to (and down from) this cluster of picturesque hilltop towns involves negotiating 70 hairpin bends on a densely wooded road that in most places is no more than 1½ trucks wide. “In 30 hours, we teach them skills they won’t acquire in 30 years on the road,” senior trainer S SundaraRajan told me. Understanding how a truck is engineered, and how the key powertrain and chassis aggregates work, is vital for a harmonious interaction with the vehicle that extends its service life. For this there are cut-sections of a couple of Ashok Leyland’s most popular engine models of yesteryear, and a motor-driven powertrain complete with a cutaway H-series engine driving a cutaway Meritor rear axle through a fully functional ZF gearbox.

Practical exposure to the “vehicle mechanism” is supported by a manual (in Tamil) that deals with fuel injection and firing order, lubrication of the engine and layout of the air brake system. At the beginning of each day the trainees must run the trucks or buses they will use that day through a list of visual checks and a cabin drill, all elements of a good preventive maintenance routine.

The principle, according to senior trainer R Jayaprakash, is: “Take good care of your vehicle and it won’t break down on you. But if it should, it will break down where help is near and won’t leave you stranded.” The first vehicle care tip that’s taught to every new trainee is to start the engine with the gearstick in neutral and the clutch depressed. (This reduces the load on the starter motor, which doesn’t have to drive the mainshaft gears in the transmission, and prevents damage that might result if the vehicle is in gear and the clutch is engaged.)

In addition to the correct operation of the clutch (when stationary, release the clutch without accelerating) and the brake (the force on the pedal should be reduced progressively as the vehicle slows), vehicle-preserving driving disciplines taught at ALN also include “pressure point” engagement of gears (apply light force at the select point so that the synchroniser mechanism is able to “grab” the speed gear with the minimum of wear.)

With no more than 45 minutes of continuous driving practice, or 1½ hours in total, per day after which physical and mental fatigue start to induce mistakes, the course is structured so that each trainee has enough time to develop his own “feel” for the vehicle and the precise effort needed to operate its major foot controls, the ABC (accelerator, brake, clutch), and hand controls, the GSH (gearshift, steering, and handbrake), for the best effect.

When they graduate and get behind the wheel as professionals, the more adept among them will already have picked up a sensitivity to anomalies in the feedback from these controls, and thus be able to quickly tune themselves to the truck they are driving. By thus being able to ‘monitor’ the ‘health’ of the vehicle, they can provide crucial input for predictive maintenance strategies, which promise significantly higher uptime.

A course for every need

The course that was intended to be the mainstay at ALN has proved to be anything but, and the institute has had to depend on a variety of shorter-duration and “mandatory” courses for its sustenance. In the early years it only admitted one batch every three months, but nowadays, to introduce a bit of flexibility, it allows staggered entry. According to chief trainer E N Surendran, it has never seen more than 22 three-month trainees at any one time, and even that number was the total of three batches!

The fee of Rs 16,000 is subsidised by at least Rs 10,000, and the only trainees it has been able to attract to date are self-motivated individuals who are willing to put up that amount by themselves. Over the years, the institute has also trained seven ladies. But the local NamakkalTaluk Lorry Owners Association continues to refuse to send recruits (hired as cleaners) to ALN despite an offer to drop the fee by three-quarters.

Even so, the number of batches per year has grown, from eight in 2010–11 to 13 in 2011–12. In the mean time, to make the course even more attractive to youngsters and their parents, the company is planning to take on rent an entire building under construction a few hundred metres away from its campus and use it as a hostel. (At the moment trainees have to arrange for their own accommodation.)

By far the largest number of trainees come for the three-day basic course on safe transportation of hazardous goods, which the government of Tamil Nadu has made mandatory for first-time drivers of such transports, and the one-day refresher courses they have to attend every year thereafter. In addition, 672 motor vehicle inspectors from Tamil Nadu and Karnataka have taken government-stipulated qualifying courses at ALN; 107 of them from the neighbouring state had to undergo 15 days of training before they joined their department.

The five-day refresher course for professional drivers has the full endorsement of a large corporation like ONGC, which sends drivers of its firefighting vehicles from all over India for training to ALN in batches of five as part of a programme, started around three years ago, that will involve the (re)training of 56 batches in all.

ONGC’s training coordinator Swaminathan, who was visiting to review the progress of his drivers-in-training, told me he had yet to see an institute of this calibre anywhere else. Three senior drivers from the batch said they’d learnt the right methods for the first time in their lives, and all five were fired with a determination that their driving – indeed, their whole approach to their jobs – would no longer be the same.

ALN’s senior trainers M R Selvam and ChristuDass have conducted numerous at-site sessions on fuel saving techniques for state transport undertakings in Maharashtra and Goa, but the only STU that actually sends its drivers in significant numbers to the Namakkal campus is the Karnataka State Road Transport Corporation (KSRTC), together with subsidiaries NWKRTC and NEKRTC — and BMTC, the Bangalore city bus corporation for whom ALN trained 1,900 drivers in one year in 2008.

It can’t be a coincidence that Karnataka’s are the most efficiently run STUs in the country, and the only ones that are profitable.

Training for private customers primarily involves product familiarisation on new vehicles, though ALN also trained 11 trainers of VRL, Ashok Leyland’s largest customer and India’s largest fleetowner, seven years ago.

But as newer truck generations have entered the VRL fleet, Selvam has invariably been called to accompany the vehicles on their routes and help the drivers extract the best mileage and shorten the “turnaround” (journey) time, which are then promptly set as a companywide benchmark!

Salem-headquartered scheduled-service coach operator KPN, which had 574 of its drivers trained at ALN at the end of 2007 and the beginning of 2008, reported a dramatic improvement in fuel efficiency and reduction in accidents shortly thereafter. But the engagement didn’t end there; Selvam, Jayaprakash, and Dass continue to visit the company and sit in on drivers’ performance review meetings to give them tips on how to improve.

For GMR, senior instructor S SundaraRajan personally trained 60 drivers from Hyderabad International Airport and 105 from Delhi International Airport in defensive driving techniques to prepare them to operate the brand-new Rosenbauer Panther 6×6 high-mobility crash fire tenders that GMR was the first to introduce in the country in 2008.

Six new training institutes coming up

Now that Ashok Leyland is setting up new training institutes in partnership with five other states, ALN is in the process of birthing, as it were, six new campuses that will be in operation by the end of this financial year. As the mother institute (and, indeed, the model specified in the government scheme under which these institutes were approved), it is responsible for building up the human resources at the new ‘daughter’ institutes.

Replicating itself is a near impossibility, but the fact that ALN has birthed 830 fully fledged truck drivers in the last 17 years means the driver training faculties it’s hard at work turning out will be sure to follow in its own illustrious footsteps.

When time and fuel are money

The two-day training in fuel-saving techniques is possibly the most popular non-mandated course at ALN. It’s much in demand with private bus operators in the region, who report dramatic improvements in the mileage of their vehicles in the weeks immediately after their drivers have done the course. Senior trainer ChristuDass (in picture), for whom fuel-saving training is a passion, reported that drivers from MTC Coimbatore frequently touched 7 km/l, with an average of 5.8, after having trained with him last year. (By contrast, private city buses in Coimbatore report 4.5 km/l, he said.)

It is difficult to get a driver with sometimes 30 years of experience or more, a man who in all likelihood has been forced by his employer to attend the course against his will, to acknowledge that he needs to improve. But the fact is hammered home irrefutably when he — inevitably — fares worse on his first assessment run around the kilometre-long outer track at ALN than the instructor who accompanies him.

The amount of fuel he burns is registered graphically down to the last millilitre on a slender measuring apparatus that stretches from the floor to the roof of the cabin. Designed by Surendran four years after the institute was started, the device consists of a transparent plastic tube, a stainless steel measuring column, a couple of bypass valves, a pump and a pull-switch. Diesel is pumped into the tube up till the zero marking before the engine is switched on, and the actual amount of fuel consumed can be clearly read off the column. For a private bus operator, covering the route faster might be a higher priority than saving fuel, because his revenue depends on the number of trips his driver is able to make. That’s why the training involves a demonstration of a driving style that combines fuel-efficiency and time-saving.

From SundaraRajan, who was my instructor for the better part of the two weeks that I trained at ALN, I learnt that the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive. The trick here is to shift up to top gear as quickly as possible, and to find the same low engine speed at which to make each shift.

On a couple of practice runs in an unloaded 1613 SundaraRajan demonstrated that shifting all the way up to overdrive at 1,000 rpm each time was the best for the road, load, and speed profile of this run. An earlier run shifting at a theoretically even more fuel-saving 600 rpm (just 100 rpm above idle!) took almost 3s longer and got us an almost negligible 4 ml fuel saving.
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