When an airplane crashes, the most important task after rescuing survivors is to retrieve the so-called 'black boxes.' One box contains recordings of cockpit conversations; the other contains a host of data concerning the plane's behavior up to the crash. Black boxes have been instrumental in reconstructing crashes and developing programs to prevent future disasters. Black boxes lead to safer skies.

Could black boxes work for trucks? Technically, yes, and they could save lives and property - even end up being cost-effective for fleets - but other issues must be addressed first before they become standard.

One firm working on the technology aspects of safety event recorders is Veridian Calspan Operations in Buffalo, N.Y. About 500 vehicles currently are being tested with these recorders and so far the results are promising. "We've had several crashes," said senior program manager Noah Rifkin, "and the devices worked as we thought they would."

The system that's been under test for two years with cars and trucks involves a single unit containing a GPS, cellular phone, and crash detection sensor. When a crash occurs, the system dials 911 and gives emergency personnel the crash site and the cell phone number. They, in turn, call back the driver to verify that a crash actually occurred and determine whether emergency personnel should respond to the scene. If a person was using the phone at the time of the crash, the system automatically cuts off the conversation and calls 911.

This prototype is actually a "mayday" system because its main job is to send help to the driver. However, with some modifications, it could easily be turned into a recorder that would store information just before the crash occurred. "We're working on collecting information such as steering lash and brake performance," said Rifkin.

He pegs the cost at around $500 to $700 per unit, and sees growth occurring among commercial users who already have cell phones and GPS installed. The only add-on would be a sensor. Rifkin believes that haz-mat carriers might be the first large fleets to be equipped because of the importance of having emergency equipment reach them quickly.

On the consumer side, General Motors is planning to install safety event recorders in some '99 cars because it's a logical and simple outgrowth of airbag systems that can be modified to store information before and during a crash. "We will have things like brake speed, deceleration, and other data recorded from the pre-crash time frame. We're not sure how this information will be used yet, but it can be available in the system's memory," said a company spokesperson.

The outlook for installing such a system in heavy trucks may be hampered because they don't usually have airbags installed," says John Hinch, a special assistant at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). "This means that heavy trucks don't have the precursors to event recorders." Rifkin disagrees, and believes the impetus for installing safety and event recorders in fleets will come from leveraging other devices such as maintenance recorders and remote sensing equipment.

NHTSA is scheduled to hold its first working group meeting on event safety recorders this month, which will include members of the trucking industry, vendors, bus fleets, automobile makers, and others. The group hopes to convene about three times this year and next, and offer a formal presentation in about two years. According to Hinch, the group will look at several technical and non-technical issues, including what kind of data should be recorded, how it is collected, and who owns it.

Early indications suggest that the trucking industry is lukewarm to the idea of safety event recorders. In a Dept. of Transportation (DOT) notice published last year asking for comments on over20 potential safety features, safety event recorders were hardly acknowledged.

While there is always a dollars-and-cents component to any new device purchase, the real issue troubling fleets is that of privacy. This matter is being intensified by the stance of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which placed "Automatic Information Recording Devices" on its "Most Wanted" list of safety recommendations. For commercial vehicles, the NTSB also wants a device that records a driver's hours of service. This type of surveillance has become a sore point with fleets, as evidenced by the industry's reaction to DOT's current investigation into using satellite logs instead of written logbooks.

NTSB isn't singling out trucking companies for this treatment. It also wants crash event recorders in automobiles and ships over a certain tonnage. "Our goal is simple," said an NTSB official. "We need meaningful data to learn how to prevent future crashes."

The federal study on cargo liability is out and little change is in the offing. DOT put the kibosh on trucking's request for a fixed dollar ceiling on carrier liability based upon shipment weight. The present system of full-value recovery should be continued until carriers and shippers come closer to agreement on how to change the system, unless the shipper agrees by contract or released rates to vary the liability.

DOT Kevorkian The National Automated Highway System Consortium is on life support - and DOT looks ready to pull the plug. The government will cut funding from $54 million to $2 million this year, and will eliminate it entirely in the 1999 budget. The funding cut does not affect other high-tech travel research efforts.

Hafta NAFTA In an attempt to resolve the border dispute between Mexico and the U.S. over Mexican trucks' access to U.S. border states, the Mexican government last month asked for a NAFTA arbitration panel. The group would also look into whether Mexican investors in the U.S. could offer international transport services.

Hold everything Concern over who will pay for the new Teamsters election has forced a U.S. District Court to postpone the election for two months. Ballots are now set to mail by November 2 and be returned a month later, with a final tally by the first of the year. James P. Hoffa, son of the union's famous boss, will face Tom Needham, head of the union's warehouse division.

Funding stalled Congressional efforts to finalize the '99 transportation appropriations bill remain stalled over issues such as Amtrak funding; opposition to environmental riders; and efforts to transfer the Office of Motor Carriers to NHTSA.

The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) is expected to issue a notice of proposed rulemaking this month or next on its long-awaited hours-of-service investigation, and hopes to have the final rule ready within a year, according to Paul L. Brennan, FHWA's director of research and standards.

Speaking at a conference sponsored by the ATA Litigation Center in Scottsdale, Ariz., Brennan hinted that the proposal might focus on how many hours a driver sleeps, as opposed to how many hours he works. The proposal might allow 14 hours on duty - driving and non-driving work - followed by 10 hours off. Currently, drivers must rest 8 hours after being on duty for 15 hours or driving for 10.

Brennan also said that because research shows that those who drive at night are at greater risk for being fatigued than those who work during the day, the proposal may limit nighttime driving between midnight and 6 a.m.

The FHWA has worked on this proposal for years, soliciting comments from all over the world about fatigue and driver alertness. In the past, FHWA has suggested that any hours-of-service proposal would include provisions for individual driver testing for alertness. Research showing that fatigue and alertness are unique to each person and that blanket rules for an entire industry mightnot be conducive to the most productive work force bolstered this approach.

In a continuing effort to look beyond the hardware, Volvo Trucks North America has unveiled a customer support center designed to ensure customer satisfaction throughout the life of every Volvo truck. But the program goes beyond just Volvo owners. Volvo Action Service is available to any heavy-truck operator in North America.

The program has been up and running since April. From their Greensboro, N.C., headquarters, 40 Volvo employees provide round-the-clock customer and dealer support in English, French, and Spanish.

By calling 1-800-52-VOLVO, customers and dealers can receive information about vehicle specifications, dealer locations, warranty eligibility, or roadside assistance. Dealers can order parts, track shipments, and identify parts.

Roadside assistance is available to any operator, regardless of vehicle make, and includes service for trailers and reefer units. Future plans call for Volvo Action Service to offer turnkey roadside assistance programs for truck fleets.

The program is based upon getting the load moving, providing special assistance to truck drivers, getting the truck up and running, and price assurances. In addition, customers can track the entire process via the Internet.

The Internal Revenue Service has finally released a "market segment understanding" (MSU) that provides a clear set of guidelines for classifying moving van operators as employees or independent contractors. This guidance was painfully worked out over nearly six years with the full participation of the moving industry.

Although the MSU applies only to moving van operators, other trucking segments should find the concepts familiar and useful in determining whether their drivers qualify as independent contractors. Furthermore, the guidance is voluntary; carriers can still rely on a broader set of factors or on the "safe harbors" of section 530 of the Revenue Act of 1978 if they feel the MSU doesn't cover their fact pattern. Help is available on the Internet at www.irs.ustreas.gov.

Freightliner Corp. has signed an agreement with Daimler-Benz to purchase up to 20,000 medium-duty engines per year

This is an important day for Freightliner," noted James L. Hebe, president and CEO of Freightliner Corp., as he signed an agreement in Hanover, Germany, on September 2 between Freightliner and the new Powertrain Business Unit of Daimler-Benz AG. Under the terms of the agreement, Freightliner will be sourcing engines, as well as transmissions and axles, from Daimler-Benz to add to their current catalog of powertrain options.

Beginning in the first half of next year, the 4- and 6-cyl. engines from Daimler's BR 900 Series (with horsepower ratings of 170 to 280) will be available for medium-duty trucks from both Freightliner and Sterling. "The new engines are not meant to replace anything," Hebe noted. Instead, he expects them to support much of the increased stock of medium-duty vehicles and chassis the company forecasts manufacturing and marketing in the future. "We don't see Freightliner's current U.S. engine suppliers losing existing business as a result of this deal," he observed.

Freightliner will also offer a 6-speed, fully synchronized Daimler-Benz transmission. An 11-ton axle for crash, fire, and rescue chassis is already coming from Germany, and Freightliner is considering use of other Daimler-Benz axles as well.

"This deal is a critical element in our medium-duty strategy," Hebe said. "With Freightliner and Sterling combining for more than a 40 percent share of the heavy-duty market, we know that our primary growth is going to come from the medium-duty segment and below. Partnering with the Daimler-Benz Powertrain Unit will offer us an immediate advantage in this area while ensuring us of a partner who shares our beliefs on drivetrain technology."

The Hanover agreement was also signed by Claude F.G. Elsen, senior vp of Daimler-Benz and head of its Powertrain Business Unit. For the Powertrain company, the agreement likewise signaled a major change in their business. "There is a clear trend toward global activities, growth, and expansion," Elsen observed. "Only global players will be able to hold their own in the long term... This dramatic change yields opportunities for us. We want to serve the North American, Latin American, and Asian markets.

"The Powertrain Business Unit is one of the top three in heavy-duty engine, transmission, and axle production on a global scale," he noted. "Our position in the medium segment is also highly significant. All our individual components, right through to complete powertrains, should give our customers a technical advantage and help them cut costs."

Medium-duty trucks currently represent about 30% of the business of the Freightliner Group. Hebe said that Freightliner will begin sales and service training in early '99 for its 600 dealers, who will assume complete parts and service responsibility for the new powertrain components.

The engines will also be supported by Freightliner's 24-hour hot line and will carry a two-year warranty. "By offering engines, transmissions, and axles from Daimler-Benz, we are now saying to the market: 'We take responsibility for the whole vehicle, from front to back,'" Hebe added.

Meritor WABCO Vehicle Control Systems, a leading producer of heavy-duty antilock braking systems, has announced it will join forces with Haldex Brake Systems of Kansas City, Mo., to market and distribute select truck and tractor pneumatic valve products. Meritor WABCO will begin distributing these products into the North American OEM market during the fourth quarter.

"This agreement fills the last void in our braking portfolio," according to Leonard C. Buckman, president and general manager of Meritor WABCO. "We can now operate as a true Tier 1 supplier of the complete braking system for heavy-duty trucks and tractors. Our product line, coupled with products of the Meritor Brake Div., enables us to provide the OEMs with a complete, 'one-stop' stopping system - from the compressor to the foundation brake, with all of the key components in between."

Under terms of the agreement, Meritor WABCO will be the systems integrator, providing full customer support, with Haldex manufacturing the non-ABS pneumatic valve products. The target market includes Class 4-8 truck, tractor, chassis, and bus OEMs.

Maintenance group hears how emissions regs may impact engine designs Next year's nearly here. Little wonder a session devoted to the '99 crop of heavy-duty diesels was a big draw at last month's meeting of The Maintenance Council in Kansas City.

With the caveat that engine makers are still gagged against discussing specifically how they'll meet the next set of federal emissions regulations, an industry panel ventured to sketch a rough outline of the shape of things to come. The EPA rules to take effect for the 1999 model year - as well as those expected for 2004 - will tighten the limits on the oxides of nitrogen (NOx) and particulates emitted by commercial trucks.

According to the speakers, the technology used to meet the upcoming emissions regs will determine how various operating-cost factors will be affected. Fuel economy may rise or fall. Drain intervals may shorten or lengthen. Cooling systems may get more complex. And engine service life may bear close watching.

"When it comes to certifying engines to the federal test protocol (FTP)," said Chuck Blake, staff application engineer, Detroit Diesel Corp., "there are five interdependent issues: NOx, particulates, carbon dioxide (CO2), fuel-injection timing, and fuel economy. For example, timing changes can decrease NOx, CO2, and particulates, but hurt fuel economy."

Blake noted that the challenge for '99 is "to cut NOx and keep particulates and CO2 low, while minimizing the impact on fuel economy, drain intervals, and engine durability.

Steve Berry, manager of advanced engineering for Mack Trucks, said engine makers expect NOx will have to be cut 50% by 2004. "The challenge is to meet these requirements without hurting fuel economy or having to add supplementary systems to engines," he stated.

Berry listed a range of options that may find their way into '99/'04 engines. Technologies that may appear in four years or less include injection rate shaping (added control of injection to optimize fuel delivery); multiple injection; electronic accessory control (manage auxiliary engine-driven devices); turbo-compounding (2nd stage turbine to recover exhaust energy); exhaust gas recirculation (use exhaust gas to "cool" combustion); and natural gas (in place of diesel fuel).

"Which of these technologies will be applied is still the question," Berry admitted. "The answer will depend on research success and customer acceptance, including the cost/value equation."

In another session, Larry Strawhorn, vp-engineering for the American Trucking Assns., detailed other federal regulations impacting trucking.

Updating the FHWA proposal for maintenance of the newly mandated trailer underride guards (FMVSS 223 and 224), he said the agency wants carriers to use a repair program incorporating four key points.

To begin with, the person in charge must have knowledge of FMVSS 223 and 224. Secondly, the truck owner must ensure that vehicle and component sources certify that FMVSS 223 and 224 has been met. Next, a knowledgeable and capable maintenance person must service the guards. And the persons servicing the guards must know about FMVSS 223 and 224, and whether their repairs will restore the vehicle to its "previous" condition.

What's more, Strawhorn said FHWA proposes to make fleets ensure the guards retain their original dimensions - and the permanent certification labels affixed by manufacturers. "It is unclear exactly what the final rule will bring," he advised. "In the meantime, TMC's underride guard task force is addressing this issue."

Highlighting another issue, Strawhorn reported that FHWA has opened a docket (#MC-94-1) on retrofitting trailer-conspicuity materials. He noted that Congress requires this rule to be in place by next June - but the agency is not required to order retrofitting.

However, under the proposal, carriers will have two years to retrofit all heavy-truck trailers built before December 1, 1993. Colors and patterns for tapes and reflectors are expected to be basically the same as for new equipment but underride guards will not have to be marked.

Pop-pop-pop Turning to the local regulatory scene, Strawhorn pointed out that communities around the country are starting to ban engine retarders to reduce noise.

"Manufacturers hint to us that camless engines, all having engine brakes, are in our future," he stated. Given that, and the fact the devices do provide an important supplementary braking function, it is time to get very serious about quieting this technology.

"Right now," Strawhorn continued, "there is no noise-enforcement standard for engine brakes. We need a performance standard that enables communities to go after bad actors - instead of banning good technology."

TMC's keynote speaker, Richard Clayton, vice president-heavy truck components group for Dana Corp., said the key to differentiating leading suppliers is how they respond to a trucking industry that is rapidly growing on a global scale. "Leaders use technology to add value for the customer while eliminating failures in the manufacturing process," Clayton stated.

For example, he cited Dana's use of product data management "to eliminate the possibility of failure - even before a manufacturing plant opens."

According to Clayton, transmitting virtual designs electronically between Dana and its original equipment customers enables "concurrent collaboration," eliminating the bureaucracy associated with paper-based information. "Sharing data electronically," he added, "speeds action."

On the other hand, Clayton warned that those "slow to embrace technology are putting their companies at risk" in today's competitive business environment.

Clayton told FLEET OWNER that the Dana-Eaton strategic marketing alliance is on track as it continues through a two-year transition period.

Under the deal, announced early this year, Eaton's Roadranger operation is charged with the marketing and sales of all Dana and Eaton components to fleets and dealers.

"There is some co-branding of componentry now," he said. "But the goal is to market Roadranger systems consisting of Eaton-brand and Dana Spicer-brand products."

Seat makers Recaro North America Inc. and Sears Manufacturing Co. recently announced an agreement to develop, manufacture, and market heavy-duty truck and bus seats.

Under the name Recaro Sears LLC, the joint venture will produce what it describes as "next generation, state-of-the-art" seating for the North American market.

Clawson, Mich.-based Recaro North America, a unit of German seat maker Recaro GmbH & Co., designs and manufactures custom and orthopedic seating products for the truck, automotive, and racing markets.

Sears Manufacturing supplies seats for agricultural, construction, and industrial applications.

Leroy Smith has hand-polished more than 175,000 Mack Bulldogs during his 33-year career at Victoria Plating, Bronx, N.Y. Mack recently honored Smith for his contribution to this American icon. The metal mascots, designed by chief engineer Alfred Fellows Masury, have been riding on the hoods of Mack trucks since 1932.

By the end of the year, General Motors will be out of the P-chassis business entirely. All assets of the chassis, designed for commercial trucks up to 14,500 lb. GVW, as well as recreational vehicles, will be sold to Union City Body Co. (UCBC). According to GM, the move will enable it to focus its resources and dedicate its Flint, Mich., facility to core truck products. Union Body will produce its own versions of the chassis beginning early next year.

"The transaction is viewed as being in the best interest of stripped chassis customers because of UCBC's ability to service custom and niche markets which currently use the P-chassis," GM said in a prepared statement.

The move will make UCBC the only one of the three principal walk-in body manufacturers with in-house chassis production.