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Collision mitigation: Require it or wait?

Jan. 18, 2018
Forward collision mitigation technology for heavy trucks has had years to mature and prove itself, and research and experience show it could save lives and costs. Should the government mandate it on commercial trucks?

Should we or shouldn’t we? That’s what the question has become with collision mitigation systems, particularly as they can be applied in heavy trucks. These more broadly have been called advanced driver assistance systems, or ADAS, referring to the technology-driven alerts and emergency takeover functions appearing more and more in vehicles’ safety feature lists.

And regarding the “should or shouldn’t,” that’s whether or not the federal government should require collision mitigation systems in heavy trucks, or possibly more broadly across Class 3-8 vehicles. It was about two years ago now that the chatter at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) included a different acronym, FCAM, being applied to trucks, meaning forward collision avoidance and mitigation.

FCAM is a type of advanced driver assistance system, with another being something like a lane departure warning. There’s been a good deal of confusion with these technologies as many passenger and commercial vehicle makers have added them to their products in their own fashion, usually as a suite of safety tech and often sporting proprietary names.

Early in June 2015, NHTSA announced its mandate for all new Class 7 and 8 tractors to have electronic stability control (ESC) systems that help prevent rollover and loss-of-control accidents. The agency said the change would save 49 lives, prevent some 1,759 crashes, and deliver economic benefits of $300 million every year—all at a cost of about $600 or so per truck. That mandate went into effect in August 2017.

It came at the prompting of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which recommended back in 2008 that NHTSA study ESC and automatic emergency braking systems in heavy trucks to determine if they could reduce crashes. If so, NTSB recommended, they should be required on new vehicles. And right about when NHTSA announced its ESC mandate, NTSB renewed its focus on that other deadly form of crashes—rear-enders—and technology’s ability to eliminate them through forward collision warnings and automatic emergency braking, which together make up an FCAM system.

“In 2012 alone, more than 1.7 million rear-end crashes occurred on our nation’s highways, resulting in more than 1,700 fatalities and 500,000 injured people. Many of these crashes could have been mitigated, or possibly even prevented, had rear-end collision avoidance technologies been in place,” NTSB wrote in a report, “The Use of Forward Collision Avoidance Systems to Prevent and Mitigate Rear-End Crashes.”

At the time, NTSB chided NHTSA for “slow and insufficient” action on FCAM systems, stressing that it had been calling for technology to reduce rear-end collisions for two decades. Earlier in the year, four road safety advocacy groups—the Truck Safety Coalition, the Center for Auto Safety, Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, and Road Safe America—petitioned NHTSA to mandate FCAM systems in trucks with gross vehicle weights of 10,000 lbs. and higher.

And that fall, NHTSA responded. The agency announced in October 2015 it would evaluate a potential mandate for FCAM systems in trucks, noting it already had been studying such systems for years. NHTSA said then that it would begin testing the systems on closed courses and in field use.

Note that FCAM systems are the next step in advanced safety technology being considered for a heavy truck mandate, but they’re just part of what’s getting rolled into ADAS today. Fred Andersky, director of government and industry affairs at Bendix Commercial Vehicle Systems, explained in simplified terms how the company’s most advanced ADAS, Wingman Fusion, includes forward collision mitigation and more, tracing its roots to antilock brakes, or ABS. 

“From ABS, we were able to add some additional sensors to get full stability, or electronic stability control, technology,” he said. “That really became the foundation. We add a radar, we get adaptive cruise control; beef up the software in the radar, we get collision mitigation technology,” Andersky continued. As a next step, folding in a video camera with object recognition capability allowed for higher levels of collision mitigation and additional functionality like lane departure warnings and speed limit recognition.

Video technology will allow for further refinements to ADAS, according to Uri Tamir, director of strategic initiatives at Mobileye Vision Technologies, an Israel-based ADAS and autonomous driving systems company. Beyond rear-end collision prevention, video will be able to help detect and react to imminent T-bone, head-on or sideswipe collisions, for example, or will be able to recognize a red light and prevent a vehicle from running through it if the driver fails to stop.

What to do?

Taking the particular case of FCAM—again, forward collision avoidance and mitigation—systems, this technology has been around for some time. At about the turn of the millennium, Eaton Corp.’s VORAD product, which stood for Vehicle Onboard RADar, debuted and helped advance the technology. The system may have been ahead of its time, but eventually most drivers disregarded it for sounding off too many warnings, creating more of a nuisance than a benefit.

But in 2018, approaching two decades of market availability, FCAM systems have seen considerable real-world use and have evolved significantly, as many technologies have since 2000. Sensors like those used in the radar systems have improved along with machine learning/object recognition technology, and FCAM systems now boast much fewer false alarms and more accurate operation, reducing that nuisance factor. Both fleet experience and studies have shown FCAM can be effective as a supplement to the driver’s operation of the vehicle.

Indeed, no one seems to debate now that FCAM systems can improve safety and have the potential to save lives and reduce injuries and accident costs. After again calling for the technology to be evaluated for commercial vehicles in 2015, NTSB convened a day of industry-wide roundtable discussions the following year on the role of ADAS in passenger vehicles. And then a few months ago, NTSB teamed with the National Safety Council (NSC) to host another broad, widely represented roundtable on ADAS, only this time for commercial vehicles.

“We all can agree that ADAS technology can increase safety,” said Dr. Rob Molloy, director of NTSB’s Office of Highway Safety. And every last participant assented, raising their hands unanimously.

So there’s agreement that ADAS—with today’s evolved forward collision mitigation systems as the next step for commercial vehicles—can stop collisions or lessen their severity, and the goal, as NTSB has urged, is to get it on all the vehicles out there.

But reaching that point can take many paths. The government could issue a mandate requiring FCAM systems for all new commercial vehicles, for instance, which tends to be a drawn-out process. Alternatively, federal and/or state incentives could help entice purchasers to include it. Truck manufacturers can also make the technology standard on their vehicles, typically with an opt-out credit, or safety-conscious fleets can do their own math and choose to implement the technology.

Those two latter things have been happening—Volvo, Mack, Kenworth, Peterbilt, and Navistar all have made such systems standard on some trucks, and fleets such as United Parcel Service and Schneider have been spec’ing them for years. But some in the industry believe it’ll take a federal mandate to propel FCAM systems beyond a solid foothold to the larger pool of commercial vehicles.

Accomplishing that could very significantly cut down the nearly half of all two-vehicle collisions that are rear-end crashes, according to NTSB, and panelists in the watchdog group’s latest roundtable echoed that argument. But it’s difficult to place any one percentage on how effective FCAM systems are, since it comes down to the individual fleet’s or operator’s use and experience.

Still, NSC cited a figure that collision mitigation systems could prevent 40% of accidents, while Andersky referenced a fleet using Bendix Wingman technology that found it reduced rear-end crashes by 70% and the severity of crashes that did occur by 70%. Meritor Wabco, another big player in commercial ADAS, has claimed collision reductions of up to 85% or higher with its OnGuard system, which includes radar-based FCAM. 

For some safety advocates, that’s plenty to move forward on. “While we understand that there is a limit to the technology, and the technology is going to be improving, you have to find a point where you say, ‘Okay, this technology does have its proven points where it works, and we need to move towards getting it into all the vehicles so we can avoid these injuries and deaths,’” said Dr. Shaun Kildare, director of research at Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.

The consumer coalition was one of the groups that petitioned NHTSA to mandate FCAM and calls for a strong federal regulatory role in getting that and other ADAS technologies out into the market in commercial vehicles. Kildare noted that the European Union already requires automatic emergency braking, part of FCAM, in heavy vehicles.

Where things stand

During the NTSB-NSC roundtable, Robert Kreeb, division chief of intelligent vehicle research at NHTSA’s Office of Vehicle Crash Avoidance and Electronic Controls Response, provided an update on the agency’s activities regarding a potential FCAM mandate for heavy trucks.

He explained that NHTSA is still gathering data and recently completed a test of FCAM systems in 150 commercial vehicles. “We’re trying to separate innuendo from fact and anecdotal data from really statistical data,” Kreeb said. Results from the testing were “encouraging,” he added, and the agency is launching another 150-vehicle test evaluating technology from three different automatic emergency braking/ FCAM system suppliers.

“We continue to try and refine our test procedures, which at the end of the day are really how we will determine pass/fail criteria, should a regulation ever be forthcoming,” Kreeb noted. “At this point, all I can say is we’re continuing to study it; the results so far are encouraging. We think it is important to get that real-world experience under our belt with the very latest-generation systems. So, for example, even from the 150-vehicle fleet [test] that we just finished, the technology has already changed.”

FCAM technology itself is continuing to advance and be refined, but Kildare pointed out that with the state of the technology right now, a mandate justifiably could move forward. That’s especially the case because there’s also “the added time lag of the fleet turning over,” he said, meaning the tractor buying and replacement schedules of fleets. A mandate right now would mean an implementation date at least a few years out, and it would take years from then for fleets to shift out their trucks with new equipment.

Kildare referenced the government’s ESC mandate for passenger vehicles, which took effect for 2011 and later models including light trucks, in arguing that a mandate may be necessary to achieve widespread adoption of FCAM. “What we saw there in terms of the ‘take rate’ was that until the regulation was almost pending, you did not see the take rate in light trucks,” he recalled. 

“And then all of a sudden, you saw this humongous, steep curve with everyone trying to catch up,” Kildare continued. “So why we push for regulation and why we support it is because, number one, it levels the playing field in terms of what the performance is going to be and establishes that standard. It also helps in terms of bringing down the price of that system when you start getting into mass quantities.”

“And we know that there’s such a long delay between [making a] regulation to when it starts to be implemented to when people start to take it up, and then you get the turnover of the vehicle fleet,” he added. 

While praising truck manufacturers’ decisions to make FCAM systems standard on new trucks, Bendix’s Andersky also noted that federal mandates can help achieve the near-total levels of adoption now seen in vehicles of technology like ABS.

“There is value in some regulations. What we’ve seen from when ABS was mandated the second time [for commercial vehicles], when the technology was ready, is that the take rates today are 98-99%,” he said.  “We believe that the same thing eventually will happen with [electronic stability control], though not quite as high because [the ESC mandate] is not covering as many vehicles as the ABS mandate does.”

As fleets, truck manufacturers, and government regulatory agencies continue to implement and study FCAM systems and other types of ADAS, National Safety Council president and CEO Deborah Hersman predicted it will take more action on all their parts before all heavy trucks have collision mitigation systems.

“We’ll need strong standards, we’ll need strong regulations, but we’ll also need voluntary commitment from fleet operators,” she said. “And we also need manufacturers to take a lead role.”    

NHTSA described collision mitigation technology this way:

FCAM systems use forward-looking sensors, typically radars and/or cameras, to detect vehicles in the roadway. When a rear-end crash is imminent, the forward collision warning system warns the driver of the threat.

If the driver takes no action such as braking or steering, or if the driver does brake but not enough to avoid the crash, a collision mitigation braking or automatic emergency braking system may automatically apply or supplement the brakes to avoid or mitigate the rear-end crash.

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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