Technology You’ll Flip Over

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Bombarded as we are by high-tech this and high-tech that, who can tell when the latest gizmology is truly useful? Heck, who can understand it? Many of you–fleet managers and owner-operators alike-have felt assaulted by this techno-flood for the last decade or so. But now we’ve got a new something that I’m almost prepared to argue should be mandatory on every vehicle. Not just trucks, but vehicles at large.

It’s rollover-prevention technology. Such accidents represent more than half of all truck occupant fatalities, so it’s obvious that training alone isn’t doing the job. Few driving-school courses, I’d guess, teach the basic physics of a truck and its load anyway. Specifically, drivers don’t understand the fundamentals; centre of gravity in particular. Ask any RCMP accident investigator in British Columbia.

But you don’t need mountains to see the problem and its aftermath–a Saskatchewan exit ramp taken too fast for the load will produce the same result as the curve at the bottom of a 9-per-cent grade near Castlegar.

And because not every driver hauls the same freight on every run, today’s load may be infinitely more dangerous than yesterday’s–even though it’s being hauled over the same stretch of pavement.
Beef on beef hooks is one thing, for example, but pork dangling from those same beef hooks is quite another. Load wet logs on top, when the last ones were dry and you’ll raise the vertical centre of the truck’s total weight and make it more “tippy,” to use a technical term. Now add speed to the equation.

Curves aren’t the only place to challenge a driver, with or without top-heavy cargo. A sharp and abrupt steering manoeuvre to avoid an errant four-wheeler or maybe a stubborn moose on the highway can send him up on nine wheels instead of 18.

In such cases an understanding of the rig’s basic physics won’t help. And that, especially, is where rollover-protection technology can save lives.
I was in Germany last month with folks from DaimlerChrysler, who chatted a lot about using onboard computers and sensors to help the driver avoid a rollover.

In general, the electronics come into play when road and traffic situations demand an instant reaction–and the right one–faster than a driver can manage.
“Innovative technology is capable of dramatically reducing the number of road traffic fatalities in the coming years,” says Dr. Eckhard Cordes, head of DaimlerChrysler’s Commercial Vehicle Division. “DaimlerChrysler proceeds from the assumption that 90 per cent of all accidents can be avoided, provided the new technologies are introduced on a broad scale.”
That’s right: 90 per cent can be avoided.

Europeans are way ahead of us on this front, and in fact Mercedes-Benz’s commercial trucks are more advanced than its cars in terms of using technology for safety. Two years ago I saw demonstrations of the company’s Electronic Stability Program (ESP) in trucks and marvelled at its ability to decelerate a rig individual wheel by individual wheel and bring an about-to-roll truck under perfect control. Saw the same thing in smaller vehicles at the DaimlerChrysler test track in Papenburg.

That’s first-generation stuff, available on M-B trucks since 2001, and now standard on Sprinter vans and M-B and Setra buses. But you don’t have to go to Europe to get it. Late in 2002 a variation on the ESP theme was introduced here by Meritor WABCO. Called Roll Stability Control, it focuses on a truck’s centre of gravity and its lateral acceleration limit or rollover threshold. When lateral acceleration thresholds are exceeded, Roll Stability Control intervenes and slows down the truck by controlling engine, retarder and brakes. A second version is in the works.

This past winter at a northern Michigan test track I tried a similar system being developed by Bendix Commercial Vehicle Systems. Its Electronic Stability Program, available next year, goes a little further. It starts with conventional ABS air brakes and adds automatic traction control with a few additional valves and things like a yaw sensor. It will be marketed by Eaton; in March, Volvo Trucks North America committed to offering ESP as an enhancement to its standard Bendix ABS.

I buy the Eckhard Cordes logic. These rollover prevention systems should be mandatory on trucks and cars and buses alike.

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Rolf Lockwood is editor emeritus of Today's Trucking and a regular contributor to

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