Technology as safety net for drivers

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Yesterday was a milestone for our family. It wasn’t one of the huge milestones, mind you-- no birth of a child or grandchild, no wedding or even a graduation. But in some respects, it might be the scariest transition of them all.

Our oldest child got his driver’s license.

As I paced nervously at the DMV during my son’s road test, I thought about how tough it was just to be in the car with him while he drove. I was terrified at the prospect of handing him the keys and giving him total, unfettered control.

With nothing to do but think and worry, I recalled a couple of episodes over the past month. First, I replayed the testimony a day earlier by Dave Osiecki with the American Trucking Assn. before a Senate subcommittee.

Osiecki recommended a change in direction for safety oversight to focus on the most critical issue: Ensuring safe driving behaviors. He repeated ATA’s call for speed limiters on large trucks and for expediting the mandatory adoption of electronic logging devices and electronic stability control, for example.

And I thought of my experience earlier in the month when I was privileged to witness Daimler’s demonstration of autonomous driving at its Future Truck 2025 event near Magdeburg, Germany.

Having spent months in the right seat of our automobile while my son continued to make occasional– though increasingly infrequent– mistakes behind the wheel, what struck me during the Daimler event was how much we needed all of that technology as soon as possible.

After all, my son is just driving a Toyota Corolla. I don’t want to even think about him as captain of a tractor-trailer.

Sure, it was impressive to glimpse a future when truck drivers could spend long stretches of time working on their business or relaxing– a function Daimler calls “Highway Pilot”-- but there are many hurdles to that vision: Money for infrastructure, liability worries, public acceptance and governmental inertia, among others.

Take away the business about the driver not actually steering the vehicle at all times, however, and we could very quickly be a long way toward much safer highways if the trucking industry were to adopt the types of technologies Daimler had installed on the 2014 Mercedes-Benz Actros used in the July 3 demonstration.

Some of those technologies are already used today in the United States or elsewhere; others could certainly be commercialized quickly if demand warranted.

The Future Truck 2025 uses radar sensors and a camera to scan the road ahead, for example. Inputs from the radar sensor guide technologies Mercedes-Benz already uses:  Proximity Control Assist and Emergency Braking Assist. The stereo camera identifies single- and double-lanes; pedestrians; moving and stationary objects; all objects within the monitored area; the condition of the road surface; information on road signs; and lane markings.

Daimler’s Future Truck networks all of this data and information from side radar sensors into a complete image of the truck’s surroundings and processes it through a central computer linked to all the vehicle control functions.

The computer even integrates a three-dimensional digital map that Mercedes-Benz already uses for Predictive Powertrain Control, giving the truck full awareness of the road’s course and topography.

With Daimler’s Highway Pilot autonomous-drive system engaged, a truck driver can swivel his seat for comfort and to gain freedom of movement to engage in other activities

What isn’t available yet are the Vehicle-to-Vehicle (V2V) and Vehicle-to-Infrastructure (V2I) communications that would be needed to execute Daimler’s full vision for Highway Pilot.

As the Government Accountability Office pointed out last year, these technologies face some serious challenges in the United States. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has begun working on regulations to guide V2V development, but it will be years before vehicles will be able to communicate with one another routinely.

Autonomous driving is a worthy pursuit, but we should take advantage of all the technologies we can now to help counteract driver error. The technology is here now.

What’s needed is a mechanism for implementing it in a financially competitive trucking industry. One way is through universal mandates, but that’s a lengthy process as we saw with NHTSA’s snail-pace adoption of shorter stopping distances for heavy trucks.

A faster way to get to the same result would be incentives that might come in the form of tax breaks or even some type of enforcement credit through the Compliance, Safety, Accountability program, for example. 

As the father of a new motorist, I don’t care as much how we get there as I do that we get there as quickly as possible.

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Avery Vise comments on how economic, regulatory, technological and supply chain developments affect the trucking industry.

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