Until quite recently, truck safety rested on passive systems, things like brakes that allowed drivers to stop as quickly as possible or cab structures that resist high impacts. But with the advent of reliable heavy-duty antilock braking systems (ABS) in the 1990s, the industry started down the road to a new safety era, one marked by systems that actively controlled vehicle performance to augment and even override the driver’s control.

The electronic controller developed for heavy-duty tractor and trailer ABS was the first important step in the evolution of active safety systems for trucks, according to Jon Morrison, president and general manager of Meritor Wabco. For the first time, a device could sense an impending lockup of any wheel and then modulate brake actuation to prevent a lockup, all with more speed and consistency than a driver, especially in emergency braking situations.

Building on that ability to monitor and control the brakes on individual wheels, electronic roll stability (ESC) for combination vehicles was the next important step in active safety in the early 2000s. That was followed toward the end of the decade by collision mitigation systems—controls that slow a truck without a driver’s input based on sensing the speed and activity of other vehicles.

Morrison describes this careful progression to ever more powerful systems as “building a pyramid of safety.” Today that pyramid has risen well above its ABS foundation to include a range of active systems that not only help trucks avoid accidents, but can also lessen the severity of accidents when they do happen as well as make driving a heavy truck easier and less stressful.

But the work on this particular pyramid is far from completed. We are about to see a next generation of active safety systems that promise significantly broader capabilities. More importantly, these systems will function in ways that not only help reduce accidents, but also help a driver focus on critical actions in emergency situations.