Trucks at Work
Activating safety

Activating safety

“Courage is being scared to death ... but saddling up anyway.” -John Wayne.

You can hear the tires scream as we corner around the orange cones at a shade over 35 mph. Looking in the rear view mirrors perched on the cab‘s nose, I can see the tanker we‘re pulling keel over sharply. The only reason it doesn‘t kiss pavement - taking myself and the driver of our tractor with it - are a long pair of outriggers that keep us upright. The G-forces push me out of my seat nonetheless, my stomach giving a sickening lurch, my heart rate hits the stratosphere, and my body tightens involuntarily - expecting the worst to come.

“Whoa, pretty aggressive on that one,” the driver said. (Talk about understatements.)

Yet the next time we take the corner, it‘s a whole different story. This time, the truck‘s engine de-throttles in a hurry, the air brakes pulsing in rapid succession, keeping us level with all 18 tires on the rough asphalt beneath us - showcasing the wonders of electronics stability control (ESC). My body still stiffens, again instinctively readying itself for trouble ... but the moment passes much easier this time, the violence of our turn removed by active safety systems.

“That‘s better,” the driver noted, almost to himself. (Oh, you can say that again.)

It was all part of a comprehensive safety technology demonstration put on by ArvinMeritor here on a wide patch of sandpaper-like blacktop scant feet from the runways of Orlando, Florida‘s Executive Airport. Test drivers demonstrated the capabilities of trucks equipped with roll stability control (RSC), the aforementioned ESC, and the company‘s newest safety product, called OnGuard: a forward-looking, radar-based adaptive cruise control system with active braking, which improves vehicle safety by automatically using the vehicle foundation brakes to alert the driver and decelerate the vehicle when a pre-set vehicle following distance is compromised.

Pursuing a pair of chase vehicles - a bobtailing tractor and a Chrysler minivan - drivers demonstrated how OnGuard would automatically cut engine power and activate the brakes to prevent a rear-end collision. And this isn‘t prototype technology either: OnGuard is currently installed on nearly 200 vehicles and is targeted to become a factory-installed option on several truck brands by the third quarter this year.


(That's Jon Morrison on the left, talking with Jean-Christophe Figueroa, VP-vehicle dynamics and controls for Meritor WABCO, on the right.)

“It‘s designed to equip drivers with automated features that help ensure safe following distances and provide active braking as needed,” said Jon Morrison, president and general manager, Meritor WABCO Vehicle Control Systems. “The driver is still the most important element in maintaining vehicle safety; however, the system can provide the additional split-second deceleration needed to maintain control of the vehicle in an emergency situation.”

Meritor Wabco GM on collision mitigation

Description: Jon Morrison, president and general manager of Meritor Wabco, talks about how the company's new collision mitigation system is built off proven technology.Listen here!

What a safety net for the commercial driver. You get distracted so much in heavy traffic - watching cars merging from the right, coming up on the left - that you can get caught by surprise by a sudden stoppage in front of you. Now here‘s a technology that can cover you: providing 500-feet worth of constant forward vision, able to literally “see” around corners due to a gyroscope incorporated into the radar device itself. However, OnGuard‘s algorithms are most effective at “locking in” on relevant objects at distances of 275 to 325 feet--a three-second following distance at highway speed. Not only does it warn you of an impending collision; it can actually step into the breech and start stopping the truck for you. (Can I please get this installed on my minivan?)

OnGuard collision mitigation podcast

Description: Alan Korn, chief engineer-vehicle dynamics and control for Meritor Wabco, explains how the OnGuard collision mitigation system is built off existing technology, making it easier to incorporate onto today's heavy-duty trucks.Listen here!

This is a big deal for the trucking industry. According to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA), such rear-end collisions account for over 20% of all heavy-truck crashes, with the truck the striking vehicle in 60% of those accidents. Inattention or poor decisions (e.g. driving too fast for the conditions or following too closely) are the primary factor in 66% of the collisions where fault is assigned to the truck driver, NHTSA noted.


(Alan Korn, Meritor WABCO's chief engineer)

Yet ... will fleets buy it? It‘s not cheap, for starters (list price is $4,500). Second, insurance companies still don‘t seem willing to give any discounts to fleets that step up and buy such technology, nor for RSC (list price $700) or ESC (list price $1,700). “We‘re trying to work all the angles, especially when it comes to insurance discounts,” Morrison told me. “We‘re all trying to show them where the benefits are versus the costs.”

Melletat explains safety benefits

Description: Mark Melletat, senior manager-marketing and communications, explains why driver acceptance of collision mitigation technology is a critical step for fleets, so carriers can gain the safety benefits this technology offers.Listen here!

One fleet even brought its insurance agent to the demonstration, to show them just how revolutionary this technology can be in terms of improving highway safety.


Yet, as Joe Plomin, vice president for ArvinMeritor‘s truck components group, told me at some point it‘s got to be about more than just the cost of this technology. “It can‘t just be all about cost savings, though that‘s important,” he explained. “At some point, it has to be about doing the right thing, about improving safety for the fleet, the driver, and the public. The focus has to be on what we can do to make trucking safety.”

Sure, making active safety systems more affordable is critical - trucking is a business after all - but with all the new safety systems now readily available from ArvinMeritor, Bendix, Eaton, and other suppliers, it‘s foolish to relegate them to a dusty shelf entirely based on a dollars and cents equation. This technology can save lives - a lot of them. It‘s time we find a way to get it to take a more active role in this industry.