Not driverless trucks, 'superhuman' drivers

Oct. 26, 2016
Self-driving trucks get lots of fanfare, but not so fast. Before those ever approach the mainstream, the gap will be bridged by things like Volvo Trucks' active safety technology, which is engineered to support and assist — not eliminate — the professional truck driver. The tech hit the tarmac for an impressive display Monday, Oct. 24.

Self-driving trucks get lots of fanfare, but not so fast. Before those ever approach the mainstream, the gap will be bridged by things like Volvo Trucks' active safety technology, which is engineered to support and assist — not eliminate — the professional truck driver.

Think of that technology as making the driver superhuman, since unlike airline pilots, truck drivers steer their industrial-grade machines and tens of thousands of pounds of cargo along non-uniform roadways with unpredictable passenger vehicles all around. It's remarkable how few mistakes they make, but anyone can lose focus in a given moment, become fatigued or distracted and make some critical error.

That's where Volvo Trucks North America's (VTNA) safety technology steps in. VTNA showcased its history of safety engineering and demoed active safety systems at its first Safety Symposium Monday at the vast Michelin Laurens Proving Grounds in Laurens, SC.

VTNA's Rob Simpson (Aaron Marsh/Fleet Owner)

Safety technology doesn't just mean the kinds of "driverless" systems and related components getting so much press today. For example, noted Rob Simpson, director of brand and marketing development at VTNA, Volvo's iShift automated manual transmission introduced in 2006 reduces collision risk by 22% by reducing driver fatigue and distraction related to manually shifting through, say, 18 speeds.

Or Volvo's downspeeding engine-transmission package available since 2011 not only boosts fuel economy, it reduces in-cab noise drone and driver fatigue. And in dealing with collisions, Volvo tractor cabs are designed to take a hit and protect the driver, with collapsible steering columns, breakaway pedals and engine/transmission drop-down in a front-end crash. Volvo is also the only OEM with standard driver-side airbags in its heavy trucks, Simpson noted.

But the stars of the show — or symposium, as it were — were the company's optional active safety systems featuring Bendix Commercial Vehicle Systems technology. Volvo Enhanced Stability Technology (VEST) can adjust engine torque and apply the brakes to help prevent rollovers and other loss-of-control situations, while lane departure warnings use a windshield-mounted camera to monitor road lanes and warn the driver if he or she drifts. Volvo Enhanced Cruise maintains a safe following distance behind another vehicle and can stop the truck to prevent a collision.

The latest in the OEM's safety tech, Volvo Active Driver Assist, or VADA, is based on the Bendix Wingman Fusion system, which blends object-recognition-capable video and radar systems to watch for and help prevent collisions. It's now available on Volvo VNL and VNM series tractors. Notably, if the system detects an object but can't identify it, it will not take over control from the driver such as by activating "autonomous" emergency braking; rather, it provides warnings to the driver.

Yet the VADA system identifies potentially hazardous objects — particularly other vehicles — remarkably well and monitors their relative speeds, providing warnings and finally applying brakes even if the driver doesn't. VTNA showcased these active safety systems on the tarmac, and rather than describing how they work, watch our video to see and hear them.

::In the video, you'll hear driver Fred Andersky of Bendix note:

"One of the things to keep in mind about this technology is it doesn't replace the need for safe drivers, safe driving practices, comprehensive driver training. This is driver assistance — it's not driver replacement." 

Full integration

Bendix Wingman Fusion can also be added as an aftermarket option on trucks, but Volvo is the first OEM to have fully integrated the system. Why's that important? Because it uses the existing driver information display — the instrumentation and readout in the dash — for alerts and warnings, so it doesn't require any additional screen or device for that purpose.

"The idea is we have a human-machine interface, or HMI as we refer to it, to keep the driver looking forward," Wade Long, director of product marketing at VTNA, tells Fleet Owner. "The more we can keep that driver's attention on the road and not having to worry about anything else happening, the better.

"Having this information inside the cluster makes it simple to identify what's happening with things like the vehicle identification light and the speed lamps around the speedometer," he adds. "Remember, these are driver assistance systems, not autonomous systems. We're helping the driver still do his or her job and minimizing distraction." 

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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