Making the leap

Aug. 1, 2011
It is that which offers one the most good that often is the hardest to accept, especially as old habits and viewpoints, too, die hard. That's certainly the case in the realm of highway safety; just consider how many decades (and laws and enforcement thereof) it took to make wearing safety belts in all types of on-highway vehicles a simple fact of driving life. And so it is going now with the outfitting

It is that which offers one the most good that often is the hardest to accept, especially as old habits and viewpoints, too, die hard. That's certainly the case in the realm of highway safety; just consider how many decades (and laws and enforcement thereof) it took to make wearing safety belts in all types of on-highway vehicles a simple fact of driving life.

And so it is going now with the outfitting of over-the-road trucks with active safety systems. These systems are not new and have been heavily promoted by their suppliers and widely reported on by trucking media for years, but they are not yet being widely embraced by the majority of fleet owners.

Indeed, the perception of how these life-saving and ROI-rich technologies work and the related concern of whether or not they will be accepted by truck drivers is a much greater barrier to adoption than their initial cost for new-truck buyers.

In plain English, many fleet owners are worried that incorporating active safety systems into their trucks will upset drivers — and at a time when drivers are increasingly hard to come by — who often fear such systems will take “control” of the vehicle away from them when they need it most in emergency situations. Fleet managers themselves may share the very same concern, at least until they learn what the systems are meant to do and how they do it.

Boiled down, the fleet owner wants to know if the payback will be solid enough to outweigh potentially upsetting drivers as well as whatever the initial cost is for a given system, how much it will cost to maintain it, and how will it will hold up in actual service. Quite simply, they need to know all this before being willing to make the jump into adopting active safety systems.

To be sure, that's the general consensus of the marketplace presented by system supplier and truck OEM executives alike, who have been toiling to develop and market active safety systems to fleets for years now.

But these supply-side experts are an optimistic lot. Certainly sold themselves on what these technological tours de force can do, they do not shirk from evangelizing the multitude of potential customers out there with demonstrations of the on-the-road effectiveness of their active safety systems as well as ROI calculations of the value built into them.

Return on investment varies fleet by fleet, but the key component of the value equation is experiencing fewer accidents. And when a fleet's accident rate drops, its risk profile for insurance carriers improves; its liability exposure is reduced; its truck downtime falls; its cost of repairs drops; and its lifecycle costs decline. On top of that, its drivers and members of the motoring public incur fewer injuries and fatalities from being in motor vehicle accidents involving the fleet's trucks.

Yet, even with all that being said, active safety system providers don't expect any fleet owner to make the giant leap of faith to embrace this technology. Nope. They fully accept they must sell their story and sell it well so the buyer can make the jump with confidence that it will pay off handsomely and engender no financial or operational risks.


Good advice for fleet owners contemplating adopting this technology is to start a bit back from what might seem a cliff's edge and first get a firm grasp on the active safety product category and how and why it is being marketed. The best way to do that is by defining the systems available.

Generally speaking, active safety systems are those that help avoid/mitigate collisions in traffic or due to trucker drowsiness and those that help maintain vehicle stability in the face of difficult weather conditions or extreme maneuvers taken by a truck driver.

Roll stability systems, more formally known as electronic stability control (ESC) systems, reduce the loss of driver control of a vehicle that can lead to collisions, jackknifes and rollovers. As defined by the nonprofit National Transportation Research Center Inc. (NTRCI), ESC systems automatically slow a vehicle rounding a corner too quickly or apply individual brakes when necessary to improve the steering characteristics of the vehicle. NTRCI notes these systems “augment driver input and ensure vehicle stability in extreme maneuvers.”

And more exactly, per the European Commission on Road Safety, ESC is an “extension of antilock brake technology, which has speed sensors and independent braking for each wheel. It aims to stabilize the vehicle and prevent skidding under all driving conditions and situations, within physical limits. It does so by identifying a critical driving situation and applying specific brake pressure on one or more wheels, as required. If necessary, the engine torque is also adjusted automatically. ESC addresses the problem of skidding and crashes due to loss of control, especially on wet or icy roads or in rollovers.”

Collision-avoidance systems include those designed to detect forward objects as well as those that spot them in a driver's blind spots. These systems are typically integrated with adaptive cruise control (ACC) on heavy-duty trucks.

In a paper released by the Iowa State University Center for Transportation Research and Education, researcher Srinivasa Rao Veeramallu states that “Collision avoidance systems are technological tools that interact with the driver to reduce or prevent the occurrence of a crash by informing or warning the driver or by taking the control of the vehicle. The collision avoidance systems include driving enhancement tools like vision improvement, antilock brakes, obstacle detection and collision warning systems. Collision-avoidance systems not only reduce the crash frequency, but also reduce crash severity.

“The collision avoidance systems may achieve traffic safety by preventing accidents altogether,” the author also points out. These systems “will alert the driver of a possible collision in advance, giving him sufficient time to react. If the driver does not react to the information, the collision-avoidance system warns him of the impending collision. If still the driver does not react to the situation, the collision-avoidance system takes control of the vehicle to avoid the collision.”

To be sure, what fits under the active safety umbrella can be pie-in-the-sky stuff to anyone who has not experienced it first-hand. And this reporter can attest to that, having ridden shotgun in more than a few tractor cabs when either roll-stability or collision-avoidance systems were demonstrated “live” — including on test tracks and actual roadways — and walking away afterwards mighty impressed. But exciting even a seen-it-all journalist about a whizbang product is not anywhere near the same thing as selling it to a fleet.

“We've found the early adoptees [of active safety systems] have top management who make safety a top priority,” points out Fred Andersky, director of government relations, Bendix Commercial Vehicle Systems LLC, which markets the Bendix ESP electronic full stability, Wingman ACB (Active Cruise with Braking), and the Wingman Advanced systems.

According to Andersky, other fleets more open to active safety include those that experienced an accident that they felt ‘painted’ their fleet in the wrong light. “Other customers discover the system when we are conducting live product demos,” he adds. “And we learn of some who are on the fence about it because they call us up looking for customer referrals.”

“The truck driver is always in control [with these systems],” states T.J. Thomas, director of marketing, customer solutions & data for Bendix's Controls Group. “Warnings always come on first, and the systems [go active] only if the driver does not respond quickly enough. No driver wants to feel out of control — these systems only assist them and provide a safety net.”


Thomas points out that while “normal” cruise control often does not work in traffic in regional operations, the adaptive cruise control built into active safety systems with forward and side collision-avoidance features will help to reduce driver fatigue.

“It's important to emphasize these systems do not replace the need for a good safe driver in the first place,” says Andersky. “It's not unlike health insurance; no one wants to use it, but you surely want to have it just in case.”

The post-sale training of drivers and technicians — operations personnel, too — is crucial to success with active safety, according to Thomas. “We offer such training and also support materials, such as videos, data sheets and manuals as well as materials for training reinforcement and [product] updates.”

According to Mark Melletat, director of trailer systems/field operations for Meritor Wabco Vehicle Control Systems, which markets the OnGuard collision-avoidance system and the SmartTrac RSC and ESC tractor and trailer RSS stability-control systems, the “most beneficial way to explain these systems] is with a live demonstration. To do this, we have trucks equipped with our systems located around the country so we can bring the technology to the customer to witness. A real-world demo will truly highlight the benefits while a Powerpoint just won't do the systems justice.

“Some drivers ask us what will happen [with the collision-avoidance system] if someone cuts in front of them,” he continues. “We explain that with our system, as long as the [offending] vehicle is traveling at a slightly higher rate of speed, the system will not change the tractor's speed. But if that vehicle is decelerating [in front of the truck], our system will kick in and slow the tractor down to a safe following distance.”

Melletat says training on active safety can run the gamut from videos to training the driver trainers and drivers. “When a fleet takes delivery of its first equipped truck,” he says, “we provide orientation and work with their driver trainers and drivers. We also have an 800 number drivers can call to ask questions. And one fleet told us they wanted to emphasize to drivers the extra safety investment they had made so active safety was explained to them with a special packet of information.”

Proof positive that active safety has been accepted and presumably been effective in fleets is the 100% reorder rate Mellatat reports Meritor Wabco has enjoyed thus far from its system sales. “One fleet,” he adds, “has told us it has realized a 20% reduction in its accident rate thanks to active safety.”


Automatic and automated manual transmissions can be considered an active safety spec as well because they literally take shifting out of the driver's hands, allowing him or her to focus more attention on other driving tasks. What's more, Shane Groner, product planning manager-North America at Eaton Corp., which produces both manual and automated manual transmissions, points out that combining adaptive cruise control — which sets a truck's following distance and speed — with an automated manual transmission greatly lessens driver fatigue.

“In bad traffic especially,” he says, “with so much needing to be done with the brakes and steering, letting the transmission handle the shifting increases the driver's focus on what is happening on the road.

“Some fleets approach us about automated transmissions specifically because they are concerned about safety as they must hire less experienced drivers,” Groner continues. “These fleets want those drivers to mainly focus on getting the truck safely down the road.” He adds that Eaton is seeing a “very consistent” reorder rate on its automated manuals and that they are “holding their value consistently” on the used market.”

Call it payback or return on investment, but that calculation is as crucial to fleets as is overall safety performance. When it comes to active safety, the ROI criteria may vary by fleet, but the numbers will always pan out favorably, report OEMs who spoke to Fleet Owner.

According to Randy Smith, marketing segment manager for Freightliner Trucks, which offers active safety systems from various suppliers as well as its proprietary RollTek occupant-protection system, most fleets are “still studying what [systems] make the most sense to them.”

To get the ball rolling on active safety, Smith suggests a fleet owner get together his finance, purchasing, safety and maintenance managers and “ask them what is the operation's most costly and most common accident types” as well as what it costs to have a truck sidelined by an accident. “Once you know the incidents being incurred, you can match up the safety technologies needed to prevent or mitigate them.

“And once a fleet identifies those, [we] get them involved with a demo of the technologies,” he continues, “so they can see just what would occur on the road. Once they see the positive impact, we can get into cost per truck for the systems they most need. Then, all of a sudden, the fleet realizes the systems do reduce the incidence of both large and small accidents and they can see the ROI — which always must include the cost of vehicle downtime.”

Frank Bio, product manager-trucks for Volvo Trucks North America, which provides the Volvo Enhanced Stability Technology system, based on a Bendix system, as standard on tractors as well as optionally offering Volvo Enhanced Cruise, also built off a Bendix system, says there's a “host of industry data out there” on active safety payback.

“As a starting point, we use a published number from NHTSA that shows a typical truck crash costs $170,000 on average,” he says. “We also have developed a calculator that uses industry-standard statistics to point out both what an [accident] ‘event’ and safety technologies cost to purchase.

“Ultimately,” Bio adds, “the calculation must show that adding one or more technologies will lower their accident rate” to make the customer willing to make the jump to active safety.

“It was the truck”

The abridged and unsolicited testimony submitted by a safety manager for a well-known truckload carrier to Meritor Wabco regarding its OnGuard active safety system starkly demonstrates why one experienced truck driver fully grasps the benefit of having some control of his truck taken away electronically at a critical moment while under way on the highway:

“[Our driver] called me this morning praising the [OnGuard] braking feature on the new trucks. He had his truck on cruise at 60 mph when a vehicle carrying two kids decided to go from the far left-hand lane clear across him to make an exit. The car went right in front of him and actually braked.

“He said no man could have reacted as fast and smart as his truck did in that situation. It stopped the truck so fast without skidding of the tractor… the trailer actually began to jackknife, but the truck quickly corrected that as well.

“He is sooooo thankful for that braking feature on the truck and thinks it was some of the best money spent. He believes without that feature the incident probably would [have resulted in] fatalities. Another truck driver that saw the incident asked him how he stopped the truck so fast and he responded with ‘It wasn't me, it was the truck.’”

Drivers know best

Fleet managers faced with selling their drivers on active safety may want to consider sharing the view of such systems expressed by a veteran driver who has had active safety along for the ride for some time.

In 2010, Con-way Freight placed an order for 1,300 Freightliner Cascadia tractors equipped with a package of integrated advanced safety technologies.

As for what it's like to pilot a vehicle so equipped, Fleet Owner spoke with a Con-way driver who daily drives a truck with the active safety package the fleet spec'd. Alan Baker, a professional driver for 42 years, the last 17 with Con-way Freight, says having active safety onboard has helped focus his driving attention even further.

“You don't want the truck to beat you to the punch,” he says. “You want to be smarter than the truck.” Baker has been driving one of the vehicles equipped with the technologies for about eight months and reports the active safety systems have only had to intervene a couple of times. “After you drive it, you do lose a little bit of control, but it's not a bad thing,” he contends. “Sometimes it is good.”

Baker feels one drawback of the systems is that their sensors only record what they “see” and cannot process what the driver is actually seeing in real-time. “It's a computer,” he allows. “It doesn't see what I see. I see the car in front is going to turn, but [the computer doesn't]. I can see the driver has his foot off the brake before the computer can.”

He notes the lane-departure warning given by the system is a vibration that comes through speakers on either side of the cab. But the system feature he likes most is active cruise control. “Smart cruise control is a wonderful tool as well because you set it at 62 mph [max speed allowed by Con-way Freight], and if the car in front of you is doing 58, it will slow you down [automatically].”

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