More technology promises more information, more control and fewer accidents

When asked to identify the most important criteria in choosing new trucks, customers rarely mention safety, according to a number of manufacturers. But when those same customers are specifically asked about the value of vehicle safety, they usually rank it far ahead of any other performance measure.

The reason for the discrepancy seems to be that most fleets simply take it as a given that the trucks they buy represent the highest levels of vehicle safety available.

"We think that customers see vehicle safety as kind of the `entry point' to the sale," says Dan Farmer, assistant chief engineer for advanced technology at Kenworth Truck Co. "If you don't have a vehicle that's perceived to be as safe as your competitor's, you don't even play in the game."

The reason for that basic expectation is fleet managers know that achieving the highest levels of safety starts with choosing the right vehicles, says Gary Rossow, director, government technical affairs, Freightliner L.L.C. "When we visit fleets (to talk about our products), we don't just meet with the maintenance people these days. The trend now is to include the safety department in those discussions. Fleets have come to understand both the human and economic cost of accidents, and they look at the vehicle as a key to reducing accidents."

"Safety has become a necessary part of our business strategy," says Mike Eaves, assistant brand manager for medium-duty products at General Motors Corp. "It has to involve the entire environment the driver works in, not just one particular component, so it starts with getting the basics right."

For example, driving is not the primary job for the majority of people behind the wheel of a medium-duty truck. "You have deliverymen and utility linemen who use a truck to perform their primary mission," says Eaves. "We want to make operating that vehicle as simple as possible and as comfortable as possible."

By using light-truck control systems in the C-Series medium-duties, "drivers know where the dimmer switch is, for example, and feel more in control," he points out.

Even something as simple as easy exit and entry into the cab contributes to helping drivers stay alert and in top safety form.

While effective brakes, predictable handling, cab crashworthiness, good visibility and the other safety-related elements considered benchmarks in contemporary trucks are the "minimums" expected by fleets, they are also looking to truck makers for new technologies that will take commercial vehicles and their drivers to even higher levels of safety, according to Keith Brandis, vp-marketing for Volvo Trucks North America.

In-depth customer surveys show high interest in learning about new safety technology and willingness to at least evaluate that technology in pilot programs, especially collision/ proximity warning and lane departure systems, says Brandis.

"What safety technology has the most potential for the future?" asks Mark Albertson, vp-engineering for Mack Trucks. "I would have to point to electronics. There are almost limitless developmental abilities in truck engineering with electronics because they give us better control and feedback loops.

"Everyone is developing good pieces of safety equipment," he says. ABS, automated transmission, adaptive or "smart" cruise control, and collision warning systems, for example, are all currently available on production trucks, but their full value as safety tools lies in getting them to work together.

"Electronics offer us controls to enhance the safety features already on our trucks because they will let the engine, transmission, cruise control - the works - all `talk' to each other," says Albertson. "Smart cruise control systems already talk to collision warning systems to kick off the cruise function if the truck gets too close to the vehicle in front of it. They could also be programmed to automatically downshift when they detect a grade. Drivers can devote full attention to what's ahead, to the side and behind them."

Integration of these systems will also make them more commercially viable, says Brandis. A collision warning system or automated transmission by itself has value, but by integrating those separate components with a system like adaptive cruise control, drivers get far more effective safety tools and fleets get far more value for their investment in those advanced systems. "The challenge (for truck makers) is to put the vehicle architecture in place that will allow us to do more of that," he explains.

In addition to automating more of the truck's operating functions, electronics can make a major contribution to safety by giving drivers better information to make better, and safer, decisions. "Drivers are out there doing the best they can," says Farmer. "If you have information that helps them to be better drivers, they're going to use it."

For example, night vision systems that let drivers identify objects outside of headlight range or monitors that tell drivers that they're getting drowsy help "professional drivers make professional decisions," says Farmer.

However, more information by itself won't necessarily lead to safer trucks and drivers. In fact, there is serious concern among truck engineers that safety could actually be impaired if drivers are distracted by too much information. The key will be filtering and presenting data so drivers get just the information they need precisely when they need it.

"NHTSA (National Highway Transportation Safety Administration) has already held hearings on driver distraction," says Rossow. "We're looking at voice actuation and systems that let a driver focus on just the most important things by prioritizing messages and displays."

Of course, technology in isolation, no matter how advanced, will not improve truck safety. Experienced fleet managers know that safety isn't a standalone feature that can simply be spec'd with their next truck order. But they also realize that providing drivers with the safest equipment possible is a necessary starting point in meeting the new safety mandate. And in the next few years, truck builders are going to push that starting point significantly farther down the road.