Snowplow simulator: 'Arcade game' is an ADOT training tool

By Nate Boyle
Published: Monday, December 11, 2023 - 12:33pm

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Snowplow on road
Arizona Department of Transportation
An Arizona Department of Transportation snowplow.

It might have been the hottest fall on record here in the Valley, but Arizona’s high country has already seen its fair share of snow as winter approaches. Snowbowl ski resort near Flagstaff is open, and northern Arizona is likely going to see a white Christmas.

And, with this winter wonderland comes the need for safe roads. And that means snowplows.

As you might imagine, a snowplow is not as easy to drive as, say, a Honda Civic. So the Arizona Department of Transportation requires all operators to practice first on a snowplow simulator — and it’s just like an arcade game.

Inside a state office in Central Phoenix, a snowplow operator turns a key, and the engine rumbles to life. The plow is lowered, the accelerator pushed, and the vehicle lurches into motion. But none of it is real.

“So regardless of whether or not you're an experienced operator or you're a first time employee you're still required to take the four hour course, which includes simulator time as well,” said Chase Cannon, an ADOT snow plow driver.

Person sits at simulator while another observes
Arizona Department of Transportation
The Arizona Department of Transportation requires snowplow operators to use a simulator.

As he shows off the simulator, you can see it features a steering wheel, gas and brake pedals, plow controls, parking brakes and touchscreen monitors showing the same instrument panels operators can expect to see in their trucks. In place of the windshield is a computer monitor that shows the virtual environment users traverse as part of the simulation. To the left and right are more monitors, which show the view from the front side windows, complete with rearview mirrors. And don’t forget your seat belt.

“We call it our winter readiness, which is the kind of training for the snow season,” Cannon said. “We tend to start that around mid September, early September. I'm trying to get everybody ready because as you know, snow can fall pretty much anytime after that.”

The veteran driver explains that the simulator throws all sorts of variables at the user. You can choose what the course looks like, whether you’re driving on a country highway or through a city. The city course even makes you stop for a train.

“When we go up over railroad tracks you have to raise the blade so you don't damage the railroad tracks, or the plow blade,” he said.

It also simulates a few different mechanical failures you might encounter driving a big truck, like a popped tire or a loss of brake pressure. It can even make the controls less responsive to simulate fatigue behind the wheel.

Person sits at simulator
Arizona Department of Transportation
The Arizona Department of Transportation requires snowplow operators to use a simulator.

And while all these features don’t come cheap, they do come cheaper than an actual snow plow. A plow costs around $350,000, while the simulator only costs about $130,000. And this simulator is only a small part of what it takes to be an Arizona snowplow driver. In order to drive the vehicle at all you need to have a Class A commercial drivers license, and then complete the Department of Transportation’s snowplow training program.

“It's probably close to 30 hours of training, but It's a pretty lengthy process. Like I said, there's about 12 to 14 classes for that, that everybody is required to take,” Cannon said. 

“So you have to do the simulator and then you have to do on the job training which usually involves having a experienced or qualified person out with you in the field while you're learning to kind of help you out.”

All this is to allow new drivers to make mistakes — and learn from them — before getting behind the wheel of a multi-ton snowplow.

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