A genuinely autonomous truck network carrying freight from city to city is still years away. But as more fleets adopt lower-level driver assistance technology, U.S. highways are becoming safer, according to trucking industry leaders who sat in on a recent Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) virtual safety summit.
These technologies are already providing a return on investment for fleets such as J.B. Hunt, which has forward-collision warning systems on 98% of its vehicles, according to Greer Woodruff, the carrier’s senior vice president of safety. He said that rear-end crashes are down 50% thanks to the technology that J.B. Hunt started deploying in 2011.
“We’re seeing reductions in the severity of crashes if we’re not able to fully avoid them,” Woodruff said of the J.B. Hunt fleet, which is the fifth-largest for-hire carrier in the U.S. “We're seeing a reduction in severity reduced liability expenses, reduced equipment downtime, increased driver retention. We’re increasingly seeing drivers wanting or expecting to have equipment with these types of modern features on them. We've seen great driver acceptance, which is one of the requirements for us to deploy this type of technology.”
Advanced driver assistance system (ADAS) technology still requires a good driver, Woodruff added. “But the technologies can help a good driver be an even better driver.”
Forward-facing cameras are also gaining driver acceptance for the carrier, which has dash cameras with lane-departure warning on 84% of its Class 8 vehicles. “The drivers have responded well to the benefits of instant replay that these can provide,” Woodruff said. “I think of it like a professional athlete that's always reviewing game film, and trying to perfect their technique so that they develop their skills and refine themselves.”
An added benefit of the cameras, which are triggered to record video during critical events, is helping fleet managers understand what causes crashes along with providing evidence that has helped exonerate drivers and the company. “In the past, we had difficulty knowing what really happened,” Woodruff said. “And so we’ve got some clarity there and it’s benefited our drivers in a number of different cases.”
J.B. Hunt is working on adding more Level 2 autonomous technologies to its trucks. These include lane-keeping assist that helps steer the truck into the center of the lane if it starts to drift. That combined with a forward-collision warning system and adaptive cruise control will give vehicles autonomous assistance with acceleration, deceleration and steering in certain circumstances, Woodruff noted. His fleet is also deploying blind-spot detection systems this year, something J.B. Hunt drivers have requested.
“We think this is going to help reduce lane-change accidents, sideswipes, right turn accidents,” he said. “We think the reductions in those accidents and their related costs will be sufficient to cover the cost of those additional features.”
Along with drivers buying into these technologies, driver training and ability are the keys to the systems succeeding, according to Richard Beyer, vice president of engineering and R&D at Bendix Commercial Vehicle Systems. The goal of advanced safety technology is to help drivers.
“It's a lot different for the commercial driver than a normal passenger car driver,” Beyer explained. “Because you have somebody that's sitting in a cab 10 hours a day, driving 100,000, 150,000 miles a year. It's a much different environment. The systems are much more valuable to the commercial driver because of the amount of time that they're up in the cab.”
Beyer said that ADAS, such as lane-keeping assistance, adaptive cruise control, and front-collision warnings, are being created to help drivers reduce their stress and make the job safer. “But it’s still based on good, solid driving practices of the driver staying alert and being part of the solution,” he said. “These Level 1 and Level 2 systems require the driver to continue to be engaged with the movement of the truck. They’re not going in the back and taking a nap. These aren’t autonomous vehicles.”
He expects truly autonomous commercial and passenger vehicles — “beyond a few science experiments” — is years away.
The advanced driving systems technology is still evolving, according to Ritchie Huang, executive manager of Daimler Trucks North America advanced safety systems. He said these emerging technologies can reduce 69% of crashes involving Class 6 to Class 8 trucks. “It can address the fatal as well as non-fatal crashes — both are very damaging to society,” he added.
“But we also know that it is not perfect,” Huang said. “I think one of the struggles for us as a manufacturer is not only the R&D, but the validation component is very critical for really ensuring these vehicles are performing in the real world… The world is a random place — it’s hard to design for.”
Huang said the key for DTNA when it comes to designing ADAS is being practical. Crashes are going to happen, he said. “There is driver error and other things that cause crashes. But when we're talking about ADAS, it really is going back to the capabilities of the driver and what we're building is just supplementary to that.”
The way Daimler is doing that, Huang said, is collecting data to validate current and future ADAS. “We work with our customers and fleets on what they need as well and getting that value,” he said. "But at the end of the day, it's very complicated and it's very challenging to really develop a system that operates in all conditions.”