Everyone recognizes the major issues facing trucking today — the 2007 emissions deadline, the hours-of-service uncertainty and the persistent driver shortage. But there's one other quietly developing issue that is going to radically alter the trucks you put on the road in the next few years.

We're about to enter a period of rapidly accelerating advancements in safety technologies specifically developed for heavy trucks and their drivers. The first of these new era technologies have already quietly entered the marketplace, and after years of steady development work, the pipeline is now full and ready to deliver systems that will provide a giant leap forward in truck safety.

One type of system improves stability control. With ABS sensors augmented by links to engine controls and momentum sensors, the first of these systems offer rollover protection, automatically slowing a tractor-trailer if it determines it is entering a corner too quickly to remain upright. You can actually buy a rollover stability system right now.

The next stage adds steering wheel sensors and full control over both tractor and trailer brakes, allowing it to keep a truck on course in a turn if it begins to understeer and actually pulling out it of a jack-knife condition. Such jack-knife protection will be available starting early next year.

Vision enhancement systems that help drivers detect vehicles and other objects in their blindspots aren't new either. But they are about to grow in sophistication, using advancements in digital optics and displays as well as radar sensors. Monitoring vehicle speed and direction, they place small screens directly in a driver's line of sight and only turn on when something actually enters one of those blindspots.

The same sensors will also be able to augment driver reaction to changing traffic conditions. Adaptive cruise control is already available, allowing a truck in cruise mode to automatically slow down if it detects a slower moving vehicle ahead and to maintain a set following distance. If the slower vehicle moves out of the way, the cruise control accelerates back to the set speed.

From adaptive cruise control, it's a short step to automatic braking if sensors detect a stopped car ahead and to automating stop-and-go driving in heavy congestion.

A third area of research and development is perfecting monitors that can finally detect a driver becoming drowsy. These same systems can also bring a driver's attention back to the road if he or she becomes distracted for too long.

All major truck OEMS and their component suppliers here and abroad are working on these advanced technologies, and all are committed to bringing them to the market as valuable contributions to the overall goal of improved truck safety.

The big issue at this point isn't whether these systems will work, but rather how they will be integrated into a vehicle without creating more distractions for the driver, which would in the end defeat their purpose. Work on that integration is also well under way, though, and should bear fruit just as the advanced safety systems begin to enter the mainstream.

At this point the real question for you and your fleet is, Will you embrace them or will you wait until public opinion and regulation force them into your trucks?

E-mail: jmele@primediabusiness.com
Web site: fleetowner.com