Sean Kilcarr/Fleet Owner

Safer today, autonomous tomorrow

Feb. 8, 2016
“What’s going to be more and more important is the intelligent transportation system and V2V communications that we’re looking at down the road." - Fred Andersky, director of customer solutions for Bendix Commercial Vehicle Systems’ Controls Group

You may not realize it,  but from antilock brakes to the latest efforts toward so-called fully autonomous trucks, you’re looking at stepping stones on the same path. Commercial truck safety technologies today share a lot of DNA and in the active sense, center on different levels and periods of computer control.

How will these technologies change trucking and improve roadway safety? That depends. There are different ways things could move forward, say execs at two top truck safety technology firms, and part of that has to do with fleets’ and trucking companies’ investment in advanced safety systems.

And while the autonomous or self-driving truck concept gets lots of attention—that’s an end goal some distance away—truck safety notably has advanced so far piece by piece, and more of that is in store. The latest safety technologies being added to trucks “are the stepping stones—these are sensors that can determine the environment external to the truck—and that’s what you’ll need for more highly automated vehicles,” says Alan Korn, director of advanced brake system integration at Meritor Wabco.

Korn is quick to cut off the use of the word autonomous when it comes to commercial trucks. “To me, autonomous means a vehicle without a steering wheel or any pedals whatsoever,” he explains. “There’s no human intervention other than telling the system where you want to go, and it takes you there. So I like to say highly automated vehicles” when describing how safety systems will advance in real-world terms over the next decade, he notes.  

“A highly automated vehicle will be able to take control independent of the driver in certain circumstances, and it can automatically control longitudinally, which is the speed of the vehicle, and laterally, which is the steering,” Korn explains. Initially, when future safety systems assume that control, it’s likely going to require low-risk circumstances such as a clear day on the highway with minimal congestion, he says.

“The driver’s not going to be in the sleeper berth; he’s going to be in the driver’s seat,” notes Korn. “The driver will be there mainly for backup, almost like on a plane. They have autopilot now on all planes, but you still have pilots there so they can quickly take control or handle some of the more complicated processes like landing and taking off.

“Similarly, when it’s safe, the truck driver will be able to cede control to the system itself,” Korn continues. “I think you’re going to start to see that on heavy trucks, maybe not in 2016 but in the mid-2020s.”

Getting there

Fred Andersky, director of customer solutions for Bendix Commercial Vehicle Systems’ Controls Group, breaks down safety systems’ progress so far to a timeline that began in earnest in the 1990s when antilock braking systems, or ABS, were mandated for commercial trucks and trailers. “That gave us two things: a brain and an input,” he says.

“Now we had an ECU (electronic control unit) that could accept information from sensors—wheel speed sensors in this case—and when we determined that a wheel was going to lock up, we could release the brake,” Andersky continues. From that point, truck safety technology has become more sophisticated by adding different types of sensors and doing more with the information they provide.

“When we think about where things will go in the future, we focus on four ‘I’s’: information, intelligence, intervention and insight,” he says, explaining the thinking at Bendix. Sensors add information; intelligence is determining an appropriate response to sensor input. Intervention is safety system actions taken such as automatically changing the truck’s speed or direction to mitigate a potential problem, and insight is analysis of safety data gathered to show trends and action items for the fleet.

Of the four I’s, “when we look at how things are going to grow, what really becomes important is the information aspect,” Andersky tells Fleet Owner. “More information into the system continues to allow us to do more things.”

More sensors on top of ABS—e.g., a lateral acceleration sensor, yaw rate sensor, and steering angle sensor—brought safety technology to what’s known as full electronic stability control, or ESC. The National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration has mandated ESC systems for most new heavy trucks starting in August 2017 and additional commercial vehicles in following years. Korn points out that those ESC systems must be able to address vehicle rollovers as well as loss-of-control accidents where the truck moves in an unintended direction, like with steering drift coming around a slippery curve.

But truck safety systems already have gone beyond that point. While ESC systems focus on what the truck is doing and various safety thresholds that trigger actions when exceeded, collision mitigation systems now tap that info while also looking outwardly to other vehicles and the environment around the truck. Meritor Wabco’s OnGuard collision mitigation system uses radar, for example, to monitor the road in front of the truck for moving, stopped and stationary objects.

Bendix’s latest product, Wingman Fusion, adds an active video feed that works in tandem with radar, increasing the system’s intelligence level and reducing false alerts, Andersky contends. “What’s happening is the radar looks out and sees, potentially, a stationary vehicle: ‘Hey, there’s this metallic object of size in front of our vehicle,’” he explains. “So it checks with the camera, ‘What do we have here?’”

The goal of a collision mitigation system, according to both Korn and Andersky, is to warn the truck driver of impending or potential collisions so he or she can respond appropriately, and if that doesn’t happen, to take corrective action. “The key is that these systems don’t replace the driver; they assist the driver,” Korn says. “And when they intervene, they intervene for relatively short periods of time.”

When a collision mitigation system can’t avoid an accident—there’s only so much any system can do versus the laws of physics—it’ll try to reduce the truck’s speed as much as possible to take energy out of a crash. Such systems with the ability to “look ahead” in front of the truck also enable adaptive cruise control, which can adjust cruise speed to maintain safe following distances; using much of the same hardware, breakout safety systems can provide warnings and intervening action regarding lane departure.

Fleet investment

Since ESC and collision mitigation systems are still voluntary add-ons, their inclusion on heavy trucks today is proof of their effectiveness, Korn argues. “Right now in the North American market, well over 50% of new tractors are being purchased with stability control—without the requirement of a mandate,” he says.

Dean Newell, vice president of safety and training at Little Rock, AR-based trucking company Maverick USA, sums up the importance of truck safety systems this way: “You have to protect the drivers, and you have to protect the motoring public—I believe it’s our moral obligation to do that.” Fortunately, he says he’s always had good support from Maverick, which has spec’d advanced safety systems on its fleet for more than a decade and makes a very prominent point of it.

The company has progressively added features like electronic stability, collision mitigation, lane departure, video, and more on its 1,500+ tractors, and those are supplemented by other safety technologies like tire inflation and monitoring systems and driving simulators to develop and hone drivers’ skills. “One of our business philosophies is to promote our unwavering emphasis on safety,” Newell notes. “When we made the decision to put a collision warning system on the trucks, the company’s owners basically asked me two questions: Would it have made me a better driver, and is it the right thing to do?”

The answer to both of those was affirmative, he says, although Newell points out that purchasing safety systems requires a leap of faith. “We may not know how many accidents we prevent,” he notes. “We don’t get called on the near-misses. But I honestly believe it works, and we’re confident in the systems we run. We believe in them.”

Newell also says he finds video invaluable in helping document circumstances in case of an accident. “To me, that’s priceless—to know exactly what our driver saw and what happened is priceless,” he contends.

Advanced safety technology can also boost Maverick’s image as perceived by potential clients, according to Newell, but even more telling is the notice the technology gets from insurers. If Maverick is looking to acquire another carrier, for example, “the first thing the insurance company asks me is, ‘Are you going to put the safety technology on those trucks?’” he says.

“Some of it I can retrofit and some of it I can’t, just based on the spec of the trucks when we get them,” Newell adds. “But it’s interesting that people are starting to notice that these safety systems actually work. When you start looking at some of this stuff and what it can do for you, it’s pretty amazing.”

With different truck safety systems using many of the same components and having come out progressively over time, however, Newell says he thinks integrated safety products are the way of the future. “I believe you’re going to see more single products that’ll be collision avoidance or collision mitigation, plus lane departure warning and video,” he notes. “That’s really where I believe this is going.” 

Next up

Because fleet and trucking company adoption is likely to play a large role in the progress of safety systems, Meritor Wabco’s Korn says he thinks truck platooning is likely to be a catalyst for more advanced systems.

With platooning—linking together two or more trucks electronically so they can travel together at closer distances than otherwise possible—both the lead and following truck achieve better aerodynamics. “As highway speeds go, let’s say over 60 mph, one of the prime users of fuel is overcoming the aerodynamic drag of a truck,” Korn says. “The beauty of truck platooning is that it reduces the aerodynamic drag not only of the following truck but of the lead truck, so both vehicles in a platoon will save fuel,” he notes, and those savings could help justify the cost of necessary technology.

Platooning trucks might be able to travel perhaps just 60 or 70 ft. apart, he adds, which will require instant vehicle-to-vehicle, or V2V, communication; the following truck would need to apply its brakes the instant the lead vehicle does and equally as much, for instance. Bendix’s Andersky also sees this as a bridge to the next step in advanced safety.

“What’s going to be more and more important is the intelligent transportation system and V2V communications that we’re looking at down the road,” Andersky says. He gives an example of a truck driver becoming incapacitated while heading into a big curve in a highway.

“We know from GPS where that driver is. If we have V2V, we know that vehicles ahead are slowing down; our radar and camera can also show us vehicles are slowing down,” he adds. “We can react to the situation. We can start alerting the driver, and if there’s no response, we can apply the brakes and start slowing the vehicle down.

“If we also have steering control, we could even put the turn signal on and cautiously get that truck moving over to the side of the road,” Andersky continues. “And we could send out alerts that something’s wrong with our driver. The authorities, the ambulance and what have you could come into play.”

As safety systems become more and more advanced and include data-heavy inputs such as video feeds, Andersky points to limitations of the truck’s current ECU connections. To make these systems more robust, he says, trucks could add redundant sensors/inputs as well as redundant power supplies to those sensors. The J1939 ECU communication/diagnostics bus used on heavy trucks “is a terrific network, but it’s getting overcrowded,” he contends.

“As more things are integrated into the J1939, we can see the need for a safety-critical network and safety-critical applications,” Andersky tells Fleet Owner.

Similarly, there’s more going on around a truck than just what’s in front of it, Korn points out, so collision mitigation systems like Meritor Wabco’s could add more coverage—think radar sensors covering blind spots or looking off the rear of the trailer. “And in order to have more advanced systems to address crashes occurring at the rear of the tractor-trailer, we’d have to get that information from the trailer to the power unit,” Korn explains.

“Now you need a high-speed data link specifically from the trailer to the tractor, and as of now in the North American market, that doesn’t really exist,” he continues. “Typically, we have a J560 [seven-way wiring] connector, and that’s it.”

Of course, with autonomous trucks and system testing already taking place, Andersky contends that the federal government needs to take the lead on related regulations so that states don’t end up creating a patchwork of disparate regulations and possibly hindering the technology’s use. And federal incentives—perhaps a boost to a carrier’s CSA score from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration—could help fleets justify the additional spend on advanced safety systems, he says.

Piece by piece, these safety systems are laying the foundation and paving the way for the autonomous truck. But Korn remains skeptical, again pointing to the value of human input in operating a heavy truck. Notably, he says, perhaps 80 to 90% of motor vehicle accidents that occur can be attributed to some kind of human error. “But I like to look at it the other way around: 99.999% of the time, humans are making the proper decisions and an accident doesn’t happen,” he argues. 

“We can’t take for granted that just because we’re talking about machine control, it’s going to be safer than a human driver,” Korn contends. In order to reach that theoretical, fully autonomous truck, the control systems on such a truck will have a very tall order to fill.

“The benchmark for the autonomous truck won’t just be a bare-bones tractor. It’ll be a tractor with many of these safety systems we’ve been talking about, and we’d have to exceed that level of safety,” he says. “That’s going to be the challenge we all face.”

About the Author

Aaron Marsh

Before computerization had fully taken hold and automotive work took someone who speaks engine, Aaron grew up in Upstate New York taking cars apart and fixing and rewiring them, keeping more than a few great jalopies (classics) on the road that probably didn't deserve to be. He spent a decade inside the Beltway covering Congress and the intricacies of the health care system before a stint in local New England news, picking up awards for both pen and camera.

He wrote about you-name-it, from transportation and law and the courts to events of all kinds and telecommunications, and landed in trucking when he joined FleetOwner in July 2015. Long an editorial leader, he was a keeper of knowledge at FleetOwner ready to dive in on the technical and the topical inside and all-around trucking—and still turned a wrench or two. Or three. 

Aaron previously wrote for FleetOwner. 

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