But times are changing. The phrase ‘duty of care’ is on everyone’s lips and some – just some – operators are beginning to realise that maybe their drivers have a right to be treated like human beings instead of office consumables.
In this new enlightened world, health and safety devices are slowly filtering down from cars to commercial vehicles, although it’s a slow process.
Even now, some manufacturers charge extra for a driver’s airbag because they claim fleet buyers won’t cough up the extra cash for them.
The latest added extra, which more and more makers are beginning to offer, is an automatic gearbox. It might not at first seem like a health and safety aid, but just consider that the average urban van driver makes around 1,800 clutch operations in a day. Taking away responsibility for gear-changing makes for a more relaxed driver – and a more relaxed driver is a safer driver.
The latest auto kid on the block is the Volkswagen Caddy DSG – the moniker standing for direct shift gearbox.
It is no ordinary automatic shifter but a specially made unit that offers a conventional synchroniser unit assigned to each gear, like a manual box. It has a ‘brain’ inside it that flips through the cogs with no loss of traction. All this means some amazingly slick changes.
While Volkswagen doesn’t expect a huge take-up of the DSG option – 250 in the first year and 10% of the sales mix later – the firm believes that eventually, items like this will become commonplace among British fleets.
Duncan Sands, head of operations for Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles, said: ‘A driver using this van will be less stressed and therefore will be safer on the roads.
‘Companies are beginning to be more concerned about health and safety than they were years ago.
‘People are beginning to realise that their drivers are an important asset and as such should be looked after.’
Sands believes urban fleets and courier companies will be especially interested in the DSG option, which is already available on Volkswagen’s cars.
The firm claims that, unlike other automatic boxes, there is no increase in fuel consumption over the manual versions.
On the road
A WET winter morning in Hannover is – believe me – not the ideal time and place for testing a new van.
But even the mighty Volkswagen conglomerate doesn’t have the right connections to order up a sunny day, so I found myself peering warily through a rain-soaked screen as I cruised the neat suburbs of the German city while my co-pilot barked directions from the passenger seat.
It could have been a lot worse – the Caddy is no mean performer and in 2005 won the title of Fleet News small van of the year, so at least if I had to drive around in the rain on the wrong side of the road, I could do so with a certain amount of panache.
The Caddy DSG is such a smooth operator that it is difficult to believe this vehicle is actually a commercial one. Gear changes are totally seamless and there is no perceptible loss of power when they occur. Despite the bad weather, I felt totally relaxed behind the wheel.
The box can either be used as a full automatic or, nudging the lever sideways, the driver can paddle up and down through the gears manually. Personally, I can’t see the point of all that old malarkey, but Volkswagen points out that at least it’s there if you want it.
Squeaks and rattles simply don’t exist and the Caddy’s general demeanour exactly mirrors that of its car brothers.
Under the bonnet, the 1.9-litre 103bhp turbodiesel engine offers plenty of power and mated to this new box, it is more silky and smooth that any other van I’ve driven. Fuel consumption is reckoned to be 51.3mpg with no load aboard – that’s no mean feat for a van.
IF I was an owner/driver I would consider £1,000 a bargain for the stress relief this DSG box brings. As a fleet operator I would have to think long and hard. But whatever the arguments are now, in the future auto boxes like this will be the norm, as they already are in North America, so it’s hats off to Volkswagen for taking the plunge first.