Students in the Alexandria Technical and Community College's truck driving program will have a new way of testing their skills, without hitting the road.

"It is a kitten’s whisker away from a real truck."

- Jason Surface, program director for the truck driving program, Alexandria College

The Alexandria College professional truck driving program recently received a $120,000 truck driving simulator with a second one on the way, funded by the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act.

The simulator prepares students for a real truck by using realistic shifting and braking, motion technology that mimics a real truck and hundreds of driving scenarios; weather conditions, various road terrains, wildlife, construction sites and other variations.

“Today’s youth are used to learning visually as far as gaming and things like that,” said Jason Surface, program director for the truck driving program, “That being said, we do stress that once students are in the real truck, it is not a game.”

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When Surface took over the program two years ago, there were two simulators. Both outdated and non-functioning, and the repair cost would have been $30,000 each.

“Our thinking was, these simulators are almost 20 years old. Why not put a little more money in and get brand new simulators? We are the best program in the state; we should have the top-of-the-line equipment,” said Surface.

The business office approved the program to purchase new simulators with funding from the CRRSAA.

“It has to do with the social distancing of students,” said Dave Bjelland with the college’s business office, “With the simulators, we don’t have to pile the students into the trucks; we can social distance them easier.”

Surface and fellow instructor, Tom Weller, began research into simulators and put out a “bid for business.” Weller and Surface looked into eight companies interested in selling their simulators, but they had to meet the specific criteria, mostly realistic backing and realistic shifting, two of the toughest lessons in truck driver training.

The criteria were met by Virage Simulation and its VS600M truck simulator.

Jason Surface, left, and Tom Weller look forward to ways they will implement their new trucking simulator at Alexandria College. (Thalen Zimmerman / Alexandria Echo Press)
Jason Surface, left, and Tom Weller look forward to ways they will implement their new trucking simulator at Alexandria College. (Thalen Zimmerman / Alexandria Echo Press)

“I’ve worked with other simulators; I’ve never seen one this good,” said Surface. “It is a kitten’s whisker away from a real truck.”

The vs600m is modeled after a standard truck cab and uses three monitors that provide a virtual 360-degree view — 180-degree forward field of view and rear-view mirrors. The system mimics the feeling of being in a real truck, from seat movement on an incline, decline, turning and braking, to shaking in the shifter, steering wheel, and pedals.

“It moves as a truck would. You turn a corner; you will feel it,” said Surface.

This is the first semester the simulator has been used, and with only a few weeks in, Surface and Weller say they already see improvements.

“I have been with the program for two years, but I have six years of teaching experience. What I am seeing in students this semester after they use the simulator is remarkably better,” said Surface, “We have seen students who are having issues in the real truck, so we work with them on the simulator. By the next day, the problem is fixed.”

“Being able to get the students acclimated to what a truck sounds and feels like before we get them into a real one is everything to us,” added Weller.

Surface says the simulators will help them save money in the long run. The 13 trucks in the program go through wear and tear as inexperienced drivers often grind the gears when shifting, damaging the transmission.

“The students practice on the simulator before going into the real thing, which will save the trucks from the abuse they often receive,” said Surface.

Surface says it helps take away the anxiety from students while they are learning because the students know they won’t damage anything if they make a mistake. The simulators also provide a safe environment to teach driving during snow days, when driving a real truck could be dangerous for the students.

“The level of comfort from the simulator makes for an easier transition into the real truck,” he said.

Surface and Weller are hoping to purchase more simulators in the future. Starting in February of next year, a new federal regulation will have those looking to become commercial drivers required to go through schooling. Under the current regulations, one only needs to pass the test at the Department of Motor Vehicles.

With the new regulation, Surface and Weller expect their enrollment numbers to double, if not quadruple.

“The use of multiple simulators would help with the expected growth,” says Surface, “We only have 16 weeks to turn students into efficient drivers.”