Bottom Line
Modern Trucking Techniques
How electric is our future?
Collision warning systems, adaptive cruise control and more. Will these devices make your job easier and safer?

by Paul Abelson, technical editor

As many of you know, I’m active at the Technology and Maintenance Council (TMC) and the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) Truck and Bus Group. At meetings and conferences, I’ve followed many new technologies from their inception right through to their acceptance by truck manufacturers.

Some offer obvious benefits, while others may be distracting, intrusive or just not worth the added cost. Let’s look at a few examples. Many of us remember the anti-lock brake system (ABS) debacle of the mid-1970s. Joan Claybrook, then head of NHTSA, tried to force a new technology, one that held great promise, on our industry. The problem was that ABS systems were still in their infancy, and not nearly ready for deployment. It took a lawsuit by the industry, users and truck builders together, to have those regulations set aside. Manufacturers then had time to refine and develop ABS. Due in large part to advances in computers, we use ABS today without a second thought.

Automated manual transmissions are gaining popularity among experienced drivers. I’ve heard many drivers say that automating everything will just open the door to new, unsafe drivers. The other side of that argument is that new drivers won’t have to waste half their training time mastering the fine art of double-clutching, and will be able to use seat time getting the experience to operate more safely in traffic. And there will always be new drivers. You were a new driver yourself, once upon a time. On the other hand, if a driver trained only on automated transmissions needs to jump in an “ordinary” truck, he will become a rolling hazard.

But transmission automation isn’t just for newbies. Many an old hand has tested the new transmissions and used seniority to get to the head of the line. Elsewhere in this issue, there’s a photo of owner-operators and OOIDA members Bob and Suzanne Stempinski sharing their experiences at the 2001 SAE Truck and Bus meeting. They have no trouble ending their driving shifts without sore right shoulders or stiff left legs. They also mentioned reduced driveline shock, lower component wear and reduced maintenance, all helping to justify the cost.

Thirty years ago, drivers didn’t care for air conditioning and power steering. Twenty years ago, it was ABS. Ten years ago, we objected to Big Brother looking over our shoulders when satellite communications became reality. Today, there are many new computer-controlled safety devices available. In the next few years, we’ll have even more.

Proper training is imperative
However good technology is, we are all in agreement there is no real substitute for experience, ability and awareness in the driving task. As in the case of most technological advances, drivers who find themselves in a truck equipped with these new gadgets will need instructions. OOIDA believes that training in the proper operation of technology, such as collision warning systems or adaptive cruise control, is of the utmost importance. Drivers must learn to be skilled in the operation of these technologies and also must be made aware of the potential dangers associated with misuse of the technology. 

—OOIDA President Jim Johnston

What’s available now?
Let’s look at devices now available, some of which will be available soon, and a few in the early stages of development.

Traction control is akin to ABS. It prevents wheel spin by detecting any side-to-side or front-to-back differences in wheel speed, then cutting back fuel delivery only enough to keep the wheels from spinning. It matches the application of power with the maximum traction the drive tires have.

Stability control also uses ABS sensors to measure traction loss (wheel spin) but adds a few more factors to the computer equation. It measures vehicle speed, your steering input and any “yaw” or lateral movement indicating any plowing motion or the start of a spin. Before a human can even detect the motion, the computer identifies the problem, figures out the best corrective action and applies one brake selectively at one corner of the tractor to correct the problem. The problem is usually solved without the driver realizing it existed. The driver may notice in extreme cases, when the computer will de-fuel the engine and may apply any or all brakes with varying pressures.

Collision avoidance radar can be coupled with adaptive cruise control. On the market now is EatonVORAD, the basic unit uses radar to determine following distance and closing rate with any vehicle ahead. The computer processes the information, compares it with vehicle speed, and issues an alert to the driver. Either warning lights flash, buzzers buzz, or both. Upon being warned, the driver is expected to back off the throttle, or possibly brake. Coupled with adaptive cruise control, the EatonVORAD can signal the ECU to de-fuel the engine. If extreme measures are needed, the unit can activate the Jake Brake.

I drove a demonstrator truck with adaptive cruise control. With it set to 62 mph, I came up behind slow traffic. The truck slowed automatically, then sped up and slowed back down to maintain a two-second following distance from the car or truck in front. When the road opened up again, it was back to 62 mph. The whole process was almost transparent, and certainly effortless.

A fleet manager friend of mine installed first-generation EatonVORAD units in a few of his trucks. They had recorders that noted how closely drivers were following and how many times the units gave warnings. At first, drivers complained the units went off too much. They were annoying. My friend checked and found that all the complainers were habitually following too closely. He promised to “check the units” but made no changes. After a while, the drivers learned to open up to safe following distances in order to get rid of the warnings, because the complaints stopped. This private fleet hates to have their company logo show up in accident pictures in the local newspaper, and my friend was happy to tell me his incidence of rear-end crashes declined dramatically once he started spec’ing the radar. The units also have lane-change warning radar that looks to the side and warns the driver if someone is in his right side blind spot.

Rollover warnings and rollover control are similar to stability control. They just work in an added dimension, vertically. Since drivers may not always feel tipping of the trailer until it has gone so far over it cannot be recovered, a rollover warning system could prevent a great many accidents. If warned early enough, drivers could brake and reduce the centrifugal force that causes tipovers. Future systems could even apply brakes selectively to stop tipping before the driver is even aware of the situation.

Lane position monitors use optical tracking to identify white or yellow lines and edges of the roadway, to determine how the vehicle is positioned within the lane. If your truck strays too far over and appears to be drifting out of its lane, a warning will sound. If the directional signal is on, the monitor will remain off. The objective is to reduce sideswipe incidents.

Tire monitoring and inflating devices are already with us. ArvinMeritor markets the P.S.I. system and Dana makes the inflation system first developed by Eaton. Since many accidents are caused when tires blow out or lose their treads, and most blow-outs and tread separations are caused by low air pressure, even an advanced warning of low tire pressure, transmitted by radio from chips imbedded in each tire, would save cargo, equipment and people, provided drivers act on the information. Chips currently under development measure and record temperature as well as air pressure. When these become common, a potential buyer will be able to review the history of a recapped tire to make sure the casing wasn’t abused.

Infrared vision devices,based on military FLIR (forward-looking infrared) units, are already in the marketplace. Cadillac sells “Night Vision” for cars, and Bendix has X-Vision for trucks. X-Vision uses an infrared camera mounted above the windshield, with a heads-up display just off the driver’s line of sight. The camera picks up heat from objects and living creatures (dogs, cats, deer, people, etc.) and projects an image for the driver. Its range is about 1,500 feet, more than three times the range of halogen headlights. I drove a Cadillac with “Night Vision.” It amazed me how brightly people and animals showed up. By adjusting the display’s brightness and contrast, I could even make out fences, trees and buildings way beyond what I could normally see.

TV cameras covering blind spots can eliminate many side-swipe and lane change incidents. Eventually, they can replace mirrors and offer more aerodynamic advantages. The cameras can see in low light levels and virtually eliminate glare.

Alertness monitors are going through various stages of testing and development. They measure and compare anything from steering wheel position changes to the number of blinks of the driver’s eyes to determine how alert and awake the driver is. Some devices will give the driver a wake-up warning, while others warn the driver that the truck’s speed will be progressively limited and will shut down within five minutes, giving the driver minimal time to find a place to stop and rest.

There’s still a great deal of work to be done before these devices are fully proven, but when they are, I can see one benefit. Julie Cirillo of FMCSA has often said the best hours-of-service rule would be “Drive when you’re alert. Rest when you’re tired.” Until there are reliable methods to verify alertness that will satisfy trucking’s critics, we will be required to have rules and logbooks. If we want common sense to replace our logbooks, we’ll likely need alertness monitors to convince Congress and safety groups.

Information overload?
One concern is that with all these new gadgets, the drivers will just get confused and distracted. At TMC, the Cab and Controls Study Group has been investigating driver workload and distractions. While all the new devices and alerts may seem to add to information overload, most will appear only on a need-to-know basis, much like a jetliner’s cockpit instrumentation that shows the pilot only what is important, but can be switched to scan all instruments when the pilot wants. In cars, a light on the dashboard comes on while ABS or traction control operates. That’s for information only and does not require driver reaction.

In order to further differentiate these alerts from all the possible lights and warning tones, seat suppliers are working on tactile alerts. Imagine getting a tingling or poking on your right side if you are about to change lanes and run over a car on your right. You might feel you’re getting a boot in the behind if you’re closing too fast on a car ahead. Prototypes of these warning systems have already been demonstrated at TMC and SAE.

Time will tell
Will we actually see these systems? Will they be affordable? What will we have to learn in order to take full advantage of those that succeed? I’ve been following many of these since they were first announced. I think that we will see most of them in some shape or another. Will they offer long run benefits in excess of costs? Time will tell. Some, like alertness monitors, may be mandated by the government, or made a requirement for flexible hours-of-service programs.

I believe the use of traction and stability controls will grow in trucks the way they are growing in automobiles. They will start as options on premium models and eventually, like ABS, air bags, power steering and disc brakes on cars, become standard.

It’s the 21st century. Welcome to the age of the newest electronics.