What the driver of a truck barreling down the highway or maneuvering in heavy traffic sees out the windshield and in side-view mirrors is not always what he or she gets. The view out even the cleanest windshield can only reveal what's in eyesight range and the most painstaking mirror setup won't completely eliminate blind spots to the rear or back of a vehicle.

That's why fleet owners, industry suppliers and safety experts have long sought better ways to enhance drivers' vision of what is in front, beside and behind the trucks they drive.

Indeed, many safety-conscious fleets already use the Eaton Vorad radar-based collision-warning system. The EVT-300 system transmits signals from the front and side of a truck to monitor up to 20 vehicles ahead and in the blind spot on the right. When a potential collision is detected, points out Chris Royan, Eaton Vorad gm, a dashboard display emits both visual and auditory alerts to give the driver time more time to react before an accident occurs.

But perhaps sensing a need not fully met, suppliers are binging to market other high-tech “vision” solutions. And while not all these fit all fleets, it's a safe bet that making use of one or more of them will help improve a fleet's safety record.

IN VIEW

Using video-monitoring equipment to reduce blind-side and backing-up accidents is not new but suppliers of these systems have begun enhancing their setups with more advanced equipment and options.

The latest innovation from Intec Video Systems (www.intecvideo.com), which offers single- and multi-camera systems for reducing rear and side blind spots, is a heavy-duty black-and-white (b&w) camera designed for low-light conditions.

“The CVC320XL camera,” says director of marketing Jon Lovejoy, “is an upgraded unit that offers the highest light sensitivity of a b&w unit. While we also offer high-definition color cameras, most trucking fleets opt for b&w. And this new camera delivers a crystal-clear picture in almost complete darkness.”

He says a single Intec b&w or color camera can be mounted on a tractor to give a driver a clear view down the side of the rig that extends from the tailgate up to the sky and across three lanes of traffic, covering much more territory than a mirror can.

Intec systems also boast high-resolution in-cab monitors in screen sizes from 4.5 to 9 in. Lovejoy notes that merging into traffic is made easier with an on-screen distance grid that helps the driver judge another vehicle's distance from the truck.

“Our two-camera system,” he continues, “is set up so that when the truck is in motion, the side camera is active to show that view but once the truck is shifted into reverse, the rear-mounted camera takes over.”

Lovejoy says that Intec is careful to make “no blanket statements” about its system leading to lower insurance premiums. On the other hand, he rightly points out that “insurance rates are impacted by a fleet's safety record.”

Another provider of camera-based systems for blind-side detection and rearward vision is Safety Vision (www.safetyvision.com), which was formed in 1993 to distribute Clarion Rear Vision camera equipment and has since expanded its offerings.

Just last year, the firm rolled out a new line, dubbed the Safety Vision Backup Camera System. “Safety Vision is a total solutions provider,” says marketing director Judie Souknary. “We consult with the individual customer to design the right solution for their needs.”

According to Souknary, Safety Vision systems are installed on a customized basis to give drivers both rearward and blind-side vision. “We manufacture our own monitors and cameras,” she notes, “and they are engineered for ruggedness in the trucking environment.”

SOUND EFFECTS

Yet another new arrival on the scene is the Eagle Eye from Transportation Safety Technologies (TST) (www.tst-corp.com).

Using ultrasonic sensors placed around the vehicle, Eagle Eye can detect objects within 10 ft. of the side or rear of a truck, according to TST president & CEO Mike Coyle. “The system gives the driver an extra set of eyes when backing up or changing lanes,” he points out.

The Eagle Eye sensors can be placed in up to seven spots on the vehicle and they are heated to prevent ice and snow buildup. The system's dash-mounted Driver Alert Module provides an audible warning of an object within the system's detection range, a “yellow” or “red” light to denote whether the object is 5-10 ft. away or less than 5 ft. away, and a specific digital readout of the distance to that object.

To avoid distracting the driver with unneeded information, the Eagle Eye's side-mounted sensors activate only when the turn signal is engaged, and the rear sensors switch on only when the truck is put in reverse. “The system offers the most value where trucks are doing a lot of backing up or lane changing in heavy traffic,” Coyle points out.

He says the system is meant to be custom-designed but offers some “ballpark” pricing examples. A relatively standard system of in-cab driver alert plus three sensors retails for $1,250, while a single rear-facing sensor setup would be $650.

According to Coyle, some insurance carriers will offer reduced rates if Eagle Eye is installed. “We also offer a one-year guarantee that we will reduce a fleet's accidents,” he states. “If we don't deliver on our promise, we will return some or all of the fleet's investment. There is a sliding scale depending on how much the accident rate decreases as compared to previous years.”

As for installing the system, Coyle says it is easily done and takes about an hour and half for a straight truck and two and a half hours for a tractor-trailer. “We can train the customer to install it,” he notes, “or handle installation for them.”

Arguably the most exciting driver-safety technology to come down the pike in a while is the new XVision system from Bendix (www.bendix.com).

HOT STUFF

This is the just-for-trucking version of the thermal-imaging system originally devised by Raytheon for use by the military and popularly known as “night vision.” XVision detects objects based on their temperature and is being marketed as the first night-vision system for Class 3-8 trucks and other commercial vehicles.

More specifically, according to Andreea Raaber, director-new ventures, Bendix sees XVision as a driver's aid — and most certainly not a replacement for their eyes.

“The system is not intended for driving beyond one's headlights,” says Raaber. “It aids drivers by alerting them that something is in or alongside the road before their headlights even pick it up, which can greatly increase reaction time.”

Raaber uses an example of fair-weather performance to quantify just how much advance warning XVision can give a truck driver.

“On a clear night,” she explains, “the system can detect pedestrians, animals and objects in front of the vehicle 1,500 or more feet away, which is three to four times further than a driver can see at night with headlights. That's also further than a radar system can detect. XVision's extended range gives the driver up to four times longer to react to potential road hazards than if they were relying on headlights alone.”

The system consists of an exterior infrared sensor/camera unit that picks up objects based on their temperature and converts their “heat signature” to images that are displayed on an in-cab monitor.

In the cab, the driver sees a b&w thermal image of the road ahead in which warmer objects, such as pedestrians or animals, appear as bright white while cooler objects, such as guard rails and trees, show in darker shades of gray or black.

Raaber points out there are some “technical limitations” on the system's performance in heavy rain, snow and fog. “Severe precipitation,” she says, “can limit the detail or crispness of the image projected in the cab.” However, Raaber emphasizes the camera can sense temperature differences as slight as 0.4 deg. F. “The hotter the object, the whiter its image on the screen.” And because the camera is not capturing images with light, the system's in-cab display is not susceptible to glare from oncoming headlights.

Two types of displays are available. A “head-up” unit that flips down like a visor can be mounted just above the driver's line of sight or a “head-down” display can be installed behind the steering wheel just below the driver's line of sight.

According to Raaber, both displays present a 1:1 viewing ratio, which means the images displayed in the cab are in identical proportion to what would be seen through the windshield.

“XVision gives drivers visual-based, real-time information that enhances their ability to make smart driving decisions,” Raaber stresses. “By giving drivers the capacity to see further, they can avoid late reactions that often lead to accidents.

“We've found that as drivers become familiar with the system,” she says, “they tend to simply glance at the display as their eyes sweep left to right while still looking through the windshield. A study we conducted showed that XVision doesn't distract drivers but in fact helps them focus on the road.”

Raaber says XVision comes packaged in a kit with a video that makes installing it “foolproof.” It is currently being offered through Bendix distributors and truck dealers as a retrofit product. She says Bendix is working with OEMs to have XVision released as a production option as well.

Suggested retail price for the system is under $4,000. “We feel that represents a significant value proposition,” Raaber notes, “considering this is a system that literally turns night into day.”

OEM VIEWS

Freightliner, Kenworth and Volvo are among OEMs that have been conducting in-house reviews of XVision. According to Freightliner spokesperson Chris Brandt, the OEM (www.freightliner.com) views night-vision technology as “still very new. We believe it has potential,” he notes. “Our engineers are still evaluating the system at this point.”

Just last fall Kenworth Truck Co. (www.kenworth.com) introduced its own Electronic Vision System (EVS), which consists of a video camera mounted curbside and a 6.5-in. high-resolution monitor attached to the cab header. The optional system can be ordered on various Class 8 KW sleeper-equipped tractors.

According to chief engineer Jim Bechtold, EVS supplements existing window and mirror visibility by giving the driver a wide-angle view of the vehicle's right side to aid in lane changing and backing up.

“The EVS camera has good low-light capability,” Bechtold relates. “At twilight, it sees better than your eyes or what a mirror reflection can tell you. Depending on exactly where it is mounted, the camera will present a view of a 20- to 30-ft. portion of the road extending back from the front axle.”

According to Bechtold, Kenworth plans to add onto EVS. “We are working on a truck for display at the Mid-America Trucking show that will offer a rear view from a trailer-mounted camera,” he relates.

As for night vision, Bechtold reports that KW has had XVision installed on some of its technology test trucks and has rolled up a year-and-a-half of field experience with the system so far.

“We are convinced XVision offers safety benefits,” he points out. “Through a study at our tech center, we've determined the system can give a driver traveling at 60 mph as much as a 10-second advantage in reaction time. That gives him a lot more distance to work with.

“Another study we did,” he continues, “looked at how drivers use night vision once they've moved past the novelty factor. We found drivers would become alert to an object revealed on the screen and then determine what it was as they saw it in their headlights.”

It's not surprising then that Bechtold reports Kenworth is now at the “stage of engineering XVision into our product to make it available as a factory option.”

Also offering some real-world perspective on enhancing driver vision is Curtis Jacobson, a lead electronics engineer at Volvo Trucks North America (www.volvotrucks.us.com), who has gained experience with the Bendix system on several of the OEM's test trucks. “We're looking at night vision as a long-term development,” Jacobson advises. “We're not offering it nor are we yet hearing a lot of demand for it.

“However,” he continues, “drivers who have used it tell us it's useful in certain situations, particularly for seeing animals or people in or near the road. A fleet that does a lot of rural driving and has a history of deer strikes may find it helpful.”

“The real benefit of night vision,” says Jacobson, “is that it tells you something out there needs attention, that you should slow down and be more attentive. In that sense, it is very intuitive.”

Jacobson figures that few fleets will opt for both night vision and radar-based collision warning systems. “Preference will be the issue,” he says. “Night vision may be preferred by fleets that run rural roads at night and radar by those running highway miles in traffic.”

No matter what system or systems a fleet selects for increased safety, it's always clear the more drivers know about what's going on around them, the more safely they can drive.

See this story and more online at www.fleetowner.com