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Super sight

By Paul Abelson, senior technical editor

It’s common for children to pretend to have “superpowers.” They run around with bath towels clothes-pinned shut around the neck, sporting special goggles to enhance their vision.

As adults we can’t help but chuckle and remember the superpowers we once yearned for.

If you really think about it, even now you might admit there are some superpowers you would like to have. Ask half a dozen grown-ups what superpower they would want and you’d probably get six different answers.

But for truckers, superhuman vision would probably come up more often than not. That shouldn’t come as any sort of surprise considering that between 75 and 90 percent of a driver’s awareness comes visually.

With the recent advancements in forward lighting and vision systems, it’s not at all out of the realm to think about these systems giving you superhuman vision on the road.

Take looking around corners and peeking into blind spots. Unlike the childhood superheroes limited to cardboard tubes, tape and mirrors, truckers have a few more options available to them.

It wasn’t always that way
Back in the 1980s, motorized rear view mirrors were the height of new technology. Even today, most trucks have motorized mirrors, but primarily for adjustment, not for the reason they were originally promoted.

MotoMirror, the originators of the technology, said drivers should use them to scan during right turns to keep from seeing only the trailer’s wall. Round, convex mirrors were still a rarity at the time, and hood/fender, mounted mirrors were yet to be introduced.

To spot cars, cycles and people in the blind spot to the right of the cab, truckers relied on windows in the passenger doors, which were often obstructed, and look-down convex mirrors that are difficult to interpret quickly.

In the decades that followed, more devices were designed either to improve vision or to alert drivers to objects in blind spots, bringing vision systems into the “tech age.”

One development that failed at first, but that is showing more and more promise, is television or video.

Early versions using “lipstick” cameras – which are about the size of a tube of lipstick – were mounted on tractors’ front fenders. They scanned the blind spots next to the tractor.

Display locations and sizes varied. Some were mounted on “A-pillar” where they could be scanned by the driver along with mirrors. Others embedded picture screens in the mirrors, turning them on when directional signals were activated.

Reliability plagued the early systems. Shock and vibration took their toll on cameras and screens. And, initially, the systems were in many cases cost prohibitive.

Today, cameras are more rugged and durable. They are also more sensitive in low light. Backup cameras are becoming common in passenger cars and straight trucks. Advances in wiring may eventually enable signals to be sent through ordinary wires between trailers and tractors, making rear-view video practical. Wireless video can also monitor areas immediately behind the trailer while backing.

Video-only systems are still generally reliant on light and can be overcome by glare.

While it’s not quite the X-ray vision you may have yearned for as a small child, infrared and radar technology is showing truckers hidden dangers like never before.

A few years ago, I test drove a truck equipped with infrared vision enhancement on dark country roads. Along our route, company personnel were walking, and one simulated changing a flat tire on a car with its headlights left on for “safety.”

The pedestrians were virtually invisible with normal vision, and the tire changer was completely lost in the headlight glare.

With the infrared system, now made and marketed by military supplier FLIR Systems, all were easily detected and glare was not a factor. The system even showed mice in the fields.

Radar-based systems proved successful as well. VORAD pioneered by Eaton and now part of Bendix, is a line of forward- and side-looking designs.

Side-looking systems scan their blind spot with radar and alert the driver by flashing lights and sounding buzzers. To prevent false alerts and to avoid missing real dangers, sophisticated electronics analyze return signals. They differentiate between stationary trees and fence posts, concrete median barriers, vehicles and pedestrians.

Forward-looking radar differentiates between vehicles changing lanes and proceeding and those cutting in front then slowing and others making equally foolish moves. First-generation VORAD only gave signal warnings. The second generation linked to the engine control module (ECM) and, if the driver didn’t respond quickly enough, de-fueled the engine to slow the truck and get the driver’s attention. The third generation can apply the engine (Jake) brake but not the service brakes. Adaptive cruise control maintains safe following distances, even as traffic speeds and slows.

Adapted for automobiles that have no compression brakes, several European car makers offer forward radar systems that can bring a vehicle to a complete stop. Mindful of the potential dangers of coming to a full stop on the road, the court of public opinion has yet to decide to accept or reject them. If there are no incidents, we may see automatic braking accepted for big rigs. The technology exists now.

These systems can all be overridden by the driver
Of course, some superhero fantasies include the desire for a sidekick – a trusty companion who has your back. Even though that’s not realistic, some of the data processors and image recognition software available today almost feel like someone else is looking out for you.

Advances in high-speed data processors and image recognition software made lane recognition possible. They scan the road for even the smallest visual cues that define lanes.

When first introduced by Iteris, the units needed strong visual cues like curbs and painted lines. The units improved over time, and now, under Bendix, a visual as faint as the dirt at the edge of a gravel road or tire tracks in the snow can signal a lane departure warning (LDW) system that you are drifting out of your lane.

Early models used lights and buzzers to alert drivers, but research found that drivers suffered information overload. The system now uses vibrations, and sound systems simulate driving over rumble strips so there’s no mistaking what the alert is for. LL