Automotive technology finding a home in heavy trucks

by Jim Bray

RED DEER, Alta. –Computerized technologies such as anti-lock brakes have been helping keep pilots and drivers safe for years, and now one major supplier of commercial truck equipment is upping the ante by bringing even more sophisticated safety equipment to the transportation industry.

Meritor Wabco, the Troy, Mich.-based maker of commercial vehicle braking systems, controls and the like, is parading its latest active safety system products -SmartTrac and OnGuard -across the continent to show prospective buyers and users the potential of the technologies.

The company describes such active safety systems as ones that can be activated (or which activate themselves) in response to “a safety problem or abnormal event.” The systems jump into the fray automatically, thanks to an electronic control unit (ECU), to provide “improved performance and handling and to assist the driver in maintaining control of the vehicle and avoiding accidents.”

The systems looked very impressive when the company’s road show touched down at the Red Deer, Alta. airport in late June.

There, representatives from private and public fleets were not only given a compelling background presentation about the technology but also had the opportunity to ride in the cabs of OnGuard and Smart-Trac-equipped trucks as they were run through simulated situations in which they’d come in very handy in the real world.

SmartTrac is a stability control system that’s similar in spirit to the ones available on increasing numbers of cars today. Likewise, the On-Guard Collision Safety System combines technologies -such as adaptive cruise control -that are also becoming available on more and more passenger vehicles. All that’s missing, it seems, is a gadget that would let your rig parallel park itself, like some Ford, Lincoln and Lexus vehicles can.

And wouldn’t that be quite a sight?

“Technologies on the light vehicle side certainly let us do this,” admits Matthew Williams, Meritor Wabco’s manager, fleet sales, training and customer service. “But it’s also a matter of caring for the industry and the motoring public as well as the drivers in our industry. To provide that level of safety to them and the public, I think, is more of our vision than just being spurred by other technologies.”

The professional applications are more heavy-duty than you’d find in an Infiniti, Mercedes Benz or Lincoln, of course, but the basic premise is the same: keep the wheels on the road, keep them from sliding and keep the whole vehicle from either flipping over or ramming into something.

The SmartTrac “family” includes ABS, Automatic Traction Control (ATC), Electronic Stability Control (ESC), Roll Stability Control (RSC) and Roll Stability Support (RSSplus). The systems use an array of computer devices, sensors and assorted other high-tech gewgaws to monitor the truck’s systems as well as the world outside the vehicle and, if necessary, to be ready to act in the driver’s stead if a situation develops that warrants it.

A lateral accelerometer in the StartTrac system monitors sideways motion and, if the truck exceeds a set threshold, it will decelerate the engine, take over the throttle and even Jake brake -and if that isn’t enough it’ll grab control of the drive axle brakes and modulate the trailer brakes as well, to simulate ABS. All of this happens within milliseconds.

It doesn’t just chuck the driver aside and take over, however. Meritor Wabco says that if the driver reacts quickly enough and uses more braking pressure than the system is applying, the driver’s input will take over, effectively elbowing the robot out of the way.

It’s really just a safety override; if you aren’t paying attention or are incapable of taking the correct motions, the system will give you a hand -but if you take control again it defers to you -as it should.

The system can also help in emergency lane change maneuvers, for example if another driver pulls in front of you, forcing you to swerve around him or her.

The idea is to get around the obstacle and have the trailer follow, without it swinging out. With the system activated, if a driver cuts hard to get around the object the trailer is pulled right behind the tractor, following it right through the turn. The system maintains control of the entire combination, as opposed to the tractor going one way and the trailer going another.

In the live demos, which featured a tricked out International whose trailer is equipped with wheeled outriggers to keep it from flipping onto its side like a beached whale, the company puts the truck through a couple of serious maneuvers with the system disengaged (at which point the purpose of the outriggers becomes crystal clear), and then with the system activated. The difference is very noticeable.

Standing OnGuard

OnGuard is being promoted as the first commercial vehicle Collision Safety System with Active Braking, and it can help drivers maintain a safe following distance to avoid or reduce the impact of rear-end collisions. Similar to the adaptive cruise control systems found on some higher end cars, it uses radar sensors to monitor the distance to the vehicle (or whatever) ahead.

When its virtual brain detects a potential collision developing, it first sends audible and visual warnings to the driver, through an in-cab dash display, and if that doesn’t work to get the driver’s attention it’s ready to take over and decelerate the vehicle automatically, using the truck’s throttle, engine and foundation brakes.

It also makes for an interesting demo, with a tractor and an “obstacle vehicle” (driven by a brave soul) going through a prearranged ballet, with the big rig coming to a safe stop without rear ending the other vehicle -much to the relief of both vehicles’ drivers.

Why is this a big deal? According to figures cited by Meritor Wabco, rear-end collisions account for approximately 20% of all heavy-truck crashes, with the truck being the striking vehicle in 60% of those accidents. Inattention or poor decisions (driving too fast for the conditions or following too closely, for example) are the primary factors in two-thirds of collisions whose fault is assigned to the truck driver.

On the upside, Meritor Wabco estimates that 90% of all rear-end collisions could be eliminated if the driver were to have one additional second of reaction time.

Hence OnGuard, an “always on” technology that’s active whenever the vehicle is being driven. And like SmartTrac, it disengages automatically if the driver takes the appropriate actions in time.

Williams says the system, which will also accelerate the vehicle again once its path is clear, is smart enough to differentiate between road kill on the shoulder and a deer meandering across the asphalt.

The concept behind such devices is actually pretty straightforward, and the reasons why fleet owners would want to check off the boxes that add such systems to their purchases are obvious: increased safety means increased efficiency and decreased downtime and liability.

John Nelligan, Canadian regional director for Meritor Heavy Vehicle Systems, says they brought the demonstrations to Canada to show Canadian fleets not only what’s available but where the industry can go with safety technologies like these.

“I think the roll stability is huge,” he says, “because in major cities there’s always a rollover somewhere, with loads dumped and roads shut down.”

Nelligan thinks this type of technology will be mandated in the next few years, noting that it’s already being pushed “big time” in the States by groups like the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. “It’s going to be mandated on cars first, it looks like,” he says, and it’s inevitable that the industry will follow.

“It’s good technology,” he says, “and it’s good for our industry. Any time we can save a life or prevent an accident or keep ourselves cleaner it’s better for the industry.” Nelligan points to the obvious fact that a car doesn’t do as much dama
ge as a big truck when it rolls over or rear ends something, “so maybe we should be leaders in this area.”

SmartTrac systems are being used right now in commercial, construction, fire and emergency, bus, coach and military applications, Williams says, and the technology is being received well. “Stability control is a very common specification on vehicles now because of its ability and its integration into the OEMs,” he says. “The collision safety system is gaining momentum in the industry, particularly with safety-conscious fleets that want to address rear end-type incidents.”

Some retrofitting options are available, Williams says, but it’s more practical to have the systems fitted while the vehicles are being assembled.

SmartTrac and OnGuard are both available in Canada now, through Freightliner and Navistar, and Williams says more manufacturers should be coming on-board in the future.

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