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Tremendous progress has been made in on-board systems in the past 20 years. Although there have been some whistlestops, some systems have evolved as popular options, some have become standard, and some are in development, which could take efficiency and safety to another level.

By Paul Abelson, senior technical editor

Today’s drivers have comfort, convenience and safety systems available to them that were undreamed of just a few short years ago.

One of the earliest examples is the automation of transmissions. The system consists of sensors, computers, software and the shift selector mechanism.

A system can be passive or active, electronic or manual. Passive systems alert you to situations so that you can take appropriate action. Active systems can alert you and then act to alleviate a situation or they can automatically initiate corrective action.

Manual systems require a driver or operator to do something to initiate an action. For example, on-board lubrication systems may be manual or automatic. They are designed to ensure that all chassis lubrication points get sufficient grease to keep them operating properly. They also ensure that no lube point is missed, no matter how difficult it is to reach.

The systems consist of a reservoir for the grease, a pump, a manifold to distribute the grease evenly and hoses leading to a series of grease fittings. They can be actuated at the push of a button or by the engine controller activating it based on miles driven. The results are reduced maintenance labor and more thorough maintenance. They also allow for extended oil drain intervals when using bypass filtration and synthetic oils.

One group of convenience and safety systems that used to be a hot topic is classified as supplemental information devices. These use radar or ultrasonics to sense objects in blind spots. While these systems seem to have faded from the scene, the one that did survive is the VORAD, which stands for vehicle onboard radar.

The earliest VORAD devices, developed by Eaton and now owned by Bendix, use radar to determine if following distances are too short. They alert drivers with lights and sounds. The most recent advance is adaptive cruise control, which ties VORAD to the engine’s fuel system and compression brake. It can maintain a two-second following interval, accelerating or slowing as needed while alerting the driver to dangerous situations.

Maintaining tire pressure is essential to tire life and safety. Often tires are not gauged because gauging is difficult to do, especially for inner dual tires. Tire pressure monitoring systems measure pressure and inform the driver. The most basic have a spring-loaded valve cap. When pressure drops below a pre-set value, an indicator pops up or a device signals an observer. Since someone must be there to observe it, these are useful during walk around inspections. But tires lose air at any time.

The monitoring systems come in two varieties. All use a tire pressure sensor, a small battery and a radio transmitter. Some package these in a box strapped to the well of the wheel within the tire. Others are in oversized valve caps. The systems continually monitor and transmit information. The other end of the system can be portable, so you can walk around the truck, or it can be permanently mounted in the cab, in or on top of the dashboard.

Tire monitoring systems are passive systems. They alert you, but you have to act on the information. Meritor sells a tire inflation system from Pressure Systems International. It monitors trailer tires and, when low, the inflation system activates to maintain pre-set pressures. The inflation system compensates for moderate leaks and allows drivers to bring trucks home without costly road service. It also leaves the damaged tire in repairable condition.

Dana Spicer’s Tire Pressure Control can reduce pressure for better traction on sand, mud or snow. It raises pressures to normal levels for safe highway travel. It works with drive and steer tires, but is a more complex system.

Anti-lock braking systems, or ABS for short, consist of wheel sensors, air valves and computers for control. The sensors count the revolutions of each wheel and compare wheel speeds.

ABS is the core of other safety systems, such as traction control, stability control and roll stability control. These are all active systems that work in milliseconds, before a driver may realize that something is happening. If the truck is entering a dangerous situation, the system de-fuels the engine and applies individual brakes. That pulls the truck back into line, preventing or minimizing crashes and rollovers.

On-board scales save drivers time and prevent scalehouse fines. They measure changes in air bag pressure with air suspensions, or use strain gauges with spring suspensions. They have sensing devices that must be properly calibrated using certified scales. Otherwise, readings may be off and fines may result.

Next stop?

While not all systems rely on electronics, modern technology has allowed systems to provide unprecedented safety, mobility, comfort and convenience for modern trucks and truckers. And we’re just in the first decade for most of the systems.

At a Feb. 1 press conference, Navistar announced a system being developed that would tie the dealer network into a problem detected in the truck. For example, currently your message center indicates you have a leaking number three injector and you would have make arrangements to get it repaired.

The proposed system would tie your GPS, telematics and on-board diagnostics system and the dealer network together. You would get not only an indication alert, but also an appointment at the next dealership along your route. And the system would make sure that the parts are in stock. In my book, that’s your on-board systems taking efficiency to the “nth” degree. LL