While the new emission-compliant diesel engines due out October 1 have absorbed much of the trucking industry's attention, other truck components are getting government attention too.

Electronically controlled braking systems (ECBS) are the subject of 2 separate studies by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) and by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA).

Fleet Owner senior editor Sean Kilcarr sat down with Dana Corp. chief engineer for foundation brakes Jim Clarke to discuss the issue.

FO: What's the benefit of ECBS over current pneumatic brake control systems?

PC: First, it is important to remember that the foundation brake itself, which is inside the wheel, will remain pneumatically controlled. Essentially, an electronically controlled braking system will control that pneumatic system by telling it to perform certain operations, such as when to come on and how hard to come on.

With that being said, ECBS has the potential to bring about several advantages. Electronics will deliver the braking signal much faster. Instead of having air go through a small hose all the way back to a brake, which is what current braking systems do, you have an electronic signal that delivers the braking signal in a nearly instantaneous manner to a valve that has an air tank nearby. That valve opens and it allows the air to go into the brake faster than anything available today. So the speed of transmission is one large advantage.

Secondly, once you have an electronic signal, you can better achieve additional functions that should positively impact safety. You can control individual wheels, for instance, and easily identify a wheel that is starting to skid. Superior stability control is another advantage. When a tractor-trailer is going around a curve too fast and is actually in danger of tipping over, the electronics will sense that problem and actuate one side of the brakes and cause the vehicle to pull the load back down. This will significantly reduce the chances of a roll over.

FO: How much more does it cost than current systems and can fleets be convinced that ECBS is worth the cost?

PC: The cost could be anywhere from $1,000 to $2,000 more than current systems. Of course, the main justification for investing in ECBS is the safety factor because of improved stopping ability and improved control of the vehicle. Having the capability to improve maintenance features is another convincing argument for the investment. The more sophisticated systems will have sensors at the brake that will tell fleets important maintenance information, such as how much the brake is worn; is it out of adjustment; and is one brake getting hot while the other is getting cold.

FO: Is the federal government interested in mandating ECBS for trucks the way they did with ABS?

PC: The government has looked at the systems and performed some testing. They are expected to make a decision or create new rules by 2005. We also know that by 2007 the government wants a regulation that will require stopping distances to be reduced by 30%.

FO: How close is ECBS to being introduced to the commercial truck and trailer market? Or are we still several years away from commercial introduction?

PC: If you want a system today, you have to have a full pneumatic system backing up the electronic system, which means paying for two systems. Consequently, I believe the industry is waiting for regulatory changes that will eliminate the redundancy that now exist.