IT hits the highway: Big rigs go high tech

From handheld computers to advanced safety systems, emerging technologies are poised to transform the trucking business.

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Most systems issue a noise similar to what a driver would hear when crossing a grooved-pavement "rumble strip" on the highway. Speakers on either side of the cab alert the driver to which way the vehicle is drifting. The systems are smart enough to know not to alert the driver when a turn signal is on, and they don't issue warnings at lower speeds, when a vehicle may be turning, according to Iteris Inc., which markets the systems.

The technology has limitations. Because it relies on machine vision technology, it won't work in foggy conditions or on roads that don't have clear lane markings. So far, the systems alert only the driver, not the carrier.

The systems cost about $1,000 per vehicle. But on the highway, Iteris claims, trucks equipped with the technology can reduce rollover accident rates by 68%.

lane departure warning system

Lane departure warning system.

At Schneider, driver feedback so far has been "very positive" after tests of lane departure warning systems on interstate highways, says Damman. But on secondary roads, where there are no white lines on the sides of the road, the results have been "not so good." Nonetheless, Damman says, "the technology is getting better, and we continue to look at it."

Lane change/merge warning systems

These systems use side-mounted, short-range radar or ultrasonic waves to "see" vehicles in the driver's blind spot and produce an alert if the driver attempts to merge into an occupied lane.

Together, the three collision-avoidance systems — forward collision, lateral drift and lane departure — could help mitigate 60% of truck crashes, says James Sayer, program director in the human factors division of the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute. There's just one problem.

"None of these systems are talking to each other," says Palmer, noting that too many consoles and different types of alerts can confuse a driver, especially during a critical moment. "We want systems that integrate," she says. Palmer also wants the ability to receive real-time alerts when the systems are activated.

Sayer is program manager for the Integrated Vehicle-Based Safety Systems initiative, a government-funded research project that aims to address those integration issues. The goal is to integrate the three technologies to reduce false positives and provide a single, coordinated system whose warnings are easy for drivers to recognize. In the future, there might be seven different warning systems on the truck. "How do you convey the intent, the message, without confusing them?" Sayer asks.

lane change merge warning system

Lane change/merge warning system.

Getting the systems to work together is also key. For example, the lane departure system could sense that the vehicle is rounding a sharp curve and convey that contextual information to the collision detection system so it knows that the object dead ahead is not actually in the vehicle's path.

Radar is limited to about 50 feet and can detect up to 32 objects, but it can't determine their size. Future systems will combine radar with lane departure warning system cameras and use image processing to better determine the size and location of objects in the road and what actions should be taken, says T.J. Thomas, product manager for driver assist systems at Bendix Commercial Vehicle Systems LLC. Series production in commercial vehicles is still "a few years away," according to Thomas.

Then there's the matter of cost. The systems will have to show a payback in accident cost avoidance before the industry will adopt them, says Jim Tipka, director of public affairs at the American Trucking Associations. Extra costs are weighted against the business's tolerance for risk.

Traditionally, many trucking companies have opted to accept the risk of accidents rather than spend money on high-tech safety systems, but the costs of major accidents, when they do happen, hits the bottom line hard. Avondale Partners' Broughton says most of the major carriers have had a quarter that "got blown up" because of an accident.

Tire pressure monitoring

Tire pressure monitoring improves safety, but the bigger value lies in savings from improved fuel efficiency and extended tire life. The systems continuously monitor tire pressure; some automatically inflate tires as well. Properly inflated tires improve gas mileage, and at prices as high as $400 per tire, keeping rubber on the road is one of the biggest maintenance costs for carriers.

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