“The driver is still the most important element in maintaining vehicle safety. However, [safety] systems can provide the additional split-second deceleration needed to maintain control of the vehicle in an emergency situation.” -Jon Morrison, president and general manager, Meritor WABCO Vehicle Control Systems.
With fuel prices out of sight and freight volumes sluggish at best, it‘s easy to take a dim and grim view of the trucking industry‘s prospects right now. But one thing that gets overlooked pretty consistently by the motoring public these days, much less the mainstream media, are the huge advances in commercial vehicle safety technology going on right under our collective noses.
It‘s not something that‘s just happened overnight, either. All the systems now in play - from Eaton‘s VORAD radar system and similar offerings from Delphi, up to anti-rollover technology made by Bendix and ArvinMeritor - to new products waiting in the wings add up to a vastly improve working environment for truck drivers and the motorists surrounding them on the highway.
For example, I got the great opportunity to see ArvinMeritor‘s OnGuard collision avoidance technology in action earlier this year ahead of the Technology & Maintenance Council meeting in Orlando, FL. [The slideshow below illustrates the kinds of vehicles involved, including some of the participants - especially the ubiquitous David Kolman, editor of our sister magazine Refrigerated Transport.]
Though expensive right now - list price is $4,500 - the system‘s forward-looking mono-pulse radar sensor can detect multiple moving and fixed objects at distances up to 500 ft., “locking in” on relevant objects at distances of 275 to 325 ft., which is a three-second following distance at highway speed. If a moving object is detected, OnGuard automatically engages the throttle, engine retarder and service brakes when it senses a likely collision without immediate action from the driver.
Think about that - automatic braking! Just getting all the technology to work properly is a concern, of course, but this system is already on the road in some 200 trucks operated by refrigerated carrier Prime Inc.
ArvinMeritor‘s competitor Bendix is hard at work on similar product, a new active cruise control (ACC) system it plans to roll out in the fourth quarter this year. The ACC system ties a truck‘s brakes, engine, transmission and the company's electronic stability program system together with radar sensors so a truck can automatically slow down and come to a full stop if it detects a slowing vehicle ahead. Bendix won‘t offer ACC without its full stability control system because it is needed to prevent further control loss issues from developing in emergency braking situations, the company noted.
(Bendix's electronic stability program or 'ESP' is in use on all kinds of trucks, including mixers. This one was available for test drives at MEMA's safety summit in Washington D.C. last year.)
Yet it‘s important to look outside the pure competitive nature of these companies to truly appreciate how far we‘ve come in terms of boosting truck safety. All of these firms are working hand-in-glove with the Motor & Equipment Manufacturers Association (MEMA) to get the attention of Congressional lawmakers firmly fixed on the subject of enhancing commercial vehicle safety.
MEMA is holding an annual safety technology demonstration on Capitol Hill next week on June 24, which I‘ll unfortunately miss since I will be on vacation. All of these systems, plus many more for the car and light truck arena, are made available for hands-on testing by congressmen and women, along with their various aides. Seeing all of this technology in action is awesome, yet it‘s still an uphill battle to get any support for fiscal incentives to get truck owners to invest in it.
“Over the next 10 years, we feel there‘s going to be a growing appetite for active vehicle safety systems in the U.S.,” Joe McAleese, Bendix president & CEO, said recently. “We believe the best way to drive adoption of safety technology is through incentives, not mandates, because we believe there is substantial payback fleets can achieve from them. And once fleets see that payback, such technology will become ingrained.”
That‘s one reason Bendix strongly supported the Commercial Motor Vehicle Advanced Safety Technology Act of 2007 (H.R. 3820) on Capitol Hill last year. That bill offered tax credits of up to $1,500 per system, $3,500 per vehicle and $350,000 per fleet for installing a variety of safety technologies on commercial trucks, but sadly gained no traction among lawmakers.
“Our primary focus is to deliver cost-effective solutions that make the roadways safer,” said McAleese. “H.R. 3820 was just one example of a congressional initiative that could make critical vehicle safety technologies even more accessible for today‘s safety-conscious fleets. It is our hope that our participation in MEMA‘s legislative summit and similar events will increase the visibility of these important issues.”
As I‘ve been in the truck cabs, watching these kinds of safety systems in action first hand, I‘ve no doubt they can do an awful lot to improve highway safety for everyone. The tough part is convincing Congress and other major players, like insurance companies, to support them.
I mean, at the ArvinMeritor event in Orlando, one fleet manager actually browbeat his insurance representative into attending so he could witness first hand how new safety technologies could lower the carrier‘s risk profile - thus qualifying them for a break on their premiums. It still proved a hard sell, but hopefully it won‘t remain so much longer.