It's probably the “Gee whiz” factor, but new hardware gets most of the attention when it comes to new safety initiatives. It's fun to write about dashboards telling a driver to pull over and take a nap, or stability systems that compensate for boneheaded driving decisions and pull a truck back from a rollover or jack knife.

Overlooked in this dazzling display of ingenuity is the driver who will have to somehow take in all this added information while still carrying out the basic functions of moving a truck safely through a difficult and fast-changing environment. Add in the so-called nomad devices we all carry like cellphones, PDAs and portable messaging devices, and the truck cab can quickly become an overwhelming tsunami of beeping, ringing, blinking and even talking systems all clamoring for immediate attention.

Of course the engineers, designers and others working on new safety technologies are well aware of the potential for overload. The problem is, what can they do about it and still preserve the potential safety gains offered by their new smart systems?

The answer is, develop even smarter systems. That's the approach being taken by a team of Volvo Truck researchers, for example, as part of an international cooperative effort with the sufficiently geeky title of “adaptive integrated driver vehicle interface,” or AIDE. Drawing on behavioral scientists, medical doctors, ergonomics specialists and computer software developers, AIDE's entire purpose is to make the truck driver's life easier while also allowing technology to make it safer for everyone on the road.

The concept outlined by Volvo's researchers at a recent safety seminar is simple: Give drivers only the information they need at any particular moment. For example, you're maneuvering through an exit ramp with a decreasing radius that has your stability system sensing a potential rollover just as your cellphone receives a call and your fuel level drops to near empty.

An AIDE system would evaluate the inputs from each of those systems as well as other vehicle operational information and prioritize them for delivery to the driver. Obviously, the roll over warning and advice to slow down has to be given to the driver immediately. The cellphone can be suppressed until the truck is off the ramp, and the low fuel warning can wait until the driver has answered the phone.

As usual, applying the concept to the real world is far more difficult. Systems from a variety of suppliers will have to communicate for the AIDE process to work, and all the various warning devices would need some kind of standardization so drivers can intuitively sense what those systems are trying to tell them. Given the complexity of even current advanced safety systems, that's a tall order.

And that's where you, the truck buyer and user, come in. The truck industry now has standard data busses for plugging in drivetrain controls because some fleets demanded such standardization at a crucial moment in engine electronics development. We're now at a similar moment for advanced safety systems. You need to begin asking your suppliers hard questions about how they intend to get these systems working together. It's that or get your drivers earplugs.

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