The pyramid of safety

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A study by Mercedes Truck found that 90% of accidents caused by ‘delayed recognition’ of a situation could be avoided if the driver hit the brakes just one second earlier.” –Alan Korn, director of engineering, Meritor Wabco

I got to spend some time this week out at the Orlando Executive Airport getting an up close and personal look at a variety of truck safety technologies, courtesy of ArvinMeritor – roll stability control (RSC), electronic stability control (ESC), and the OnGuard collision mitigation system. I’ve written about these technologies before, but what’s surprising to me is how long it’s taking to get them into widespread use in the trucking industry.

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The quote from Alan Korn above highlights the critical nature of such systems – how the difference of mere seconds (if not milliseconds) can determine how serious a highway crash is going to be, or even if one occurs at all. Of course, there’s a steep price at the moment for such systems (OnGuard alone lists for $4,000 per truck), yet the costs pales in comparison to the horrendous nature of truck accidents.

Take rollovers, for example. Research by Volvo Trucks North America found that the average cost of a single rollover is $109,000: $50,000 to repair the vehicle, $20,000 in cargo claims, $10,000 for towing, $10,000 for clean-up, $10,000 in down time, and $10,000 for higher insurance premiums.

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Accidents, however, are even worse. According to statistics compiled by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), the cost per truck accident when injuries are involved averages $245,000; when a fatality is involved this amount escalates to $3.4 million – and these are merely the direct costs, which don’t include the hidden costs of vehicle downtime, missed deadlines, and damage to a carrier’s reputation (read THAT as "getting the pants sued off you.")

That’s why companies like ArvinMeritor that design and sell safety systems are trying to take them to the next level – to build up what Jon Morrison (pictured at left), president of Meritor Wabco , calls “the pyramid of safety.”

“It’s about complete brake system integration with stability control, collision avoidance systems, etc.,” he told me at the demonstration. “It’s not about looking at each technology independently of each other; it’s about combining them and using them to achieve FVC – full vehicle control.”

[Below, Morrison explains this approach in more detail.]

In Morrison’s view, it’s about layering safety systems on top of one another. At the foundation of the pyramid are the brakes – in this case, air disc brakes, which offer more stopping power and longer life compared to drum brakes. Next comes antilock braking systems (ABS) and traction control, followed by stability control systems, then collision avoidance and mitigation systems, and finally total vehicle monitoring.

The reason “monitoring” is at the “peak” of the pyramid is twofold, Korn explained to me. The first is maintenance: “None of these systems will work properly unless they are maintained properly – and having the systems monitor themselves, alerting the fleet to brakes out of adjustment, etc., is a critical part of that.”

The second part deals with helping drivers learn from close calls. “Even seasoned drivers have difficulty know the roll and stability tipping points of their vehicles – they ride and handle so well you don’t know you’re in trouble until it’s almost too late,” he said. “But let me stress this – you need good drivers. These systems are there to help drivers, not to replace them.”

[How OnGuard can step in and help truck drivers is shown below – especially in situations where the actions of the car driver put both the car and truck at risk for a crash.]

Even in this time of economic upheaval, the technological leaps occurring with safety systems continue unabated. In 2011, Meritor Wabco hopes to roll out an ESC system that literally “learns” about the specific vehicle’s characteristics as its driven – allowing OEMs to build a standard system that customizes itself to the specific trucking application over time.

Another interesting idea – tying GPS roadway data into stability control technology, allowing the system to “look ahead” at the specific curves of the driver’s chosen highway, adjusting vehicle speed BEFORE reaching a tight corner. That, if I may say, is pretty cool.

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In two years, Meritor Wabco also hopes to have an updated version of its OnGuard system available not only with added benefits, such as lane departure warning (LDW) and blind spot detection (BSD) all in one package, but also with full autonomous emergency braking (AEB) capability.

“Today’s radar-based system only tracks objects if they are moving,” Korn (pictured at right) told me. “The next generation will use two sensor arrays, one of them being video, so it can detect with accuracy PARKED or totally stopped vehicles. It will also allow the truck to fully deploy the brakes – a full 0.5 G stop – in an emergency without any action by a driver.”

Talk about the ultimate in safety nets – both for truckers and the car drivers around them. It’ll take a lot of doing, but no doubt technology like this is going to become reality. Let’s hope that ways to encourage truckers to adopt and use such systems – from insurance premium deductions to perhaps even tax incentives – become reality as well. That fiscal support is what will help the pyramid of safety reach its full potential, I think.

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