Keeping it Safe on the Road

Fleets might not be able to afford safety instructors riding shotgun with each driver, but when seconds count, increasing their reaction time and eliminating blind spots can make all the difference.

Reducing accidents is a major goal for fleets, and it is no surprise why. A 2006 Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMSCA) report found that the cost of crashes involving trucks weighing 10,000 pounds or more averaged around $91,000 per incident, with that number rising to around $3.6 million if a fatality is involved. According to the American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI), trucking carriers pay out about $10 billion a year because of accidents—many of which could be avoided with a bit of technological assistance. That’s where collision warning and adaptive cruise control come in.

Whether alerting a driver to objects around the truck, helping keep a safe cruising distance from traffic or taking over the brakes to avoid a collision, these systems are slowly but surely catching on as fleet officials look to reduce costs and improve safety.


Driver error is involved in 93 percent of all accidents, with the majority caused by inattention, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. FMSCA general engineer Amy Houser says collision warning systems can significantly reduce or at least minimize the severity of accidents by giving drivers an extra second or two to react. These work by utilizing radar sensors and a variety of in-cab visual and audio signals to alert drivers of impending collisions.

“We found it could help improve the incidences of rear-end collisions by about 20 percent,” she says. “One carrier says there were incidents that could have been a lot worse if their driver didn’t have the collision warning system.”

Houser says fleets—mostly larger carriers—have purchased about 80,000 of the devices and generally see a return on investment within 12-18 months. The systems have improved dramatically since their inception, says ATRI president Dan Murray.

“What’s changed (are) the algorithms—‘Here’s when I’m going to alert you, and here’s where I’m smart enough now to know it’s not a car or anything of significance,’” Murray says. “There is much more sophistication now in terms of allowing the carrier to manage the parameters of the system—user-friendly changes that have made it more palatable to drivers.”

Adaptive Cruise Control (ACC) systems maintain a minimum distance from a lead vehicle in the same lane, using aspects of both collision warning and conventional cruise control systems. When the truck travels at more than a minimum speed, ACC controls the engine throttle and sometimes the engine brake and automatic transmission to maintain that distance, which the driver can adjust.

Houser says fleets have purchased around 11,000 collisions warning systems with adaptive cruise control. Murray says while he has heard anecdotally about the benefits of combining the systems, ACC remains a relatively new, unproven technology.

“It’s not clear in terms of empirical, objective data, exactly what the additional safety benefit is from having adaptive cruise control on top of the collision warning system,” Murray says.


Despite the initial costs of the systems than can reach several thousand dollars each, these technologies can provide an instant return on investment for fleets simply by preventing accidents or reducing their severity. Murray says out-of-pocket accident costs for carriers are extremely high because of rising deductibles.

“You’ll have a $50,000 to $75,000 deductible for the medium carriers and the big guys are up in the half a million to $3 million (range),” he says. “(Small carriers) will have a $5,000 to $10,000 deductible, so a moderate-to-severe crash is going to be covered—but you can only pull that off a couple times before your premium reflects the safety history.”

However, for fleet officials considering these technologies, Murray says everyone needs to be on board, starting at the top.

“If you’re going to fully realize the safety (return on investments) we’re seeing in our data—which can be substantial—you can’t just throw five of these on some trucks and send the guys out unprepared to manage the technology and benefit from it,” Murray says. “(Fleets need a) safety culture change that incorporates this quickly and takes advantage of the direct and indirect benefits—it stops accidents on the road and you redesign your driver training.”

Technology & Maintenance Council general chairman Darry Stuart, president of DWS Fleet Management, says because of the costs, smaller fleets are lagging behind larger ones in using these systems.

“For the large fleet, this is probably an investment they can afford, while the small carrier has a difficult time being able to justify and pay for additional sophistication on vehicles, even though it may be a smart thing,” Stuart says. “Then the middle guy, who does not have a high accident rate and therefore feels there is no justification other than additional expense, doesn’t see that as a good move forward.”


One of the more popular collision warning systems is the Cleveland, OH-based Eaton’s VORAD system, which has been out for about a decade. VORAD uses high-frequency radar to scan more than the length of a football field ahead of a truck, uses side sensors to check blind sides and can track vehicles around curves.

Eaton’s SmartCruise adaptive cruise control option lets drivers maintain a set distance by defueling the engine and engaging the engine retarder if necessary when a lead vehicle is slowing. Due to fleet demands, Eaton VORAD marketing manager Phil Warmbier says the latest version—the VS-400—comes standard with the option.

“Fleets assign a substantial cost savings with the VORAD system, especially early on because (the systems) are really a driver training tool,” Warmbier says. “The longer systems are on the trucks, the better the drivers become.”

Warmbier says the new system is much easier for technicians to install and maintain because it is incorporated into the J-1939 vehicle electronic standard.

“The codes are standard SAE codes that they can interpret and troubleshoot,” Wambier says. “The system is serviced through the exact same software we use on our heavy-duty automated transmissions, so it’s the same software they probably have in their shop today.”

The installation process is also significantly reduced.

“Where on the older system, the wiring harnesses may have challenged a technician; today it won’t,” Warmbier says.

Andrew Boyle, president of the Billerica, MA-based Boyle Transportation, says SmartCruise makes the VORAD system more efficient, though he recommended OEM installation to “avoid warranty problems and finger-pointing.” He says a majority of his drivers surveyed believe the system is a valuable tool for preventing collisions, as does he.

“I look at it as an investment to reduce the possibility of a catastrophic accident,” Boyle says.


Troy, MI-based Meritor WABCO’s Collision Mitigation System uses an anti-lock system to apply foundation brakes to avoid a frontal collision if the driver does not react quickly enough. Its cruise control mode provides a set distance to a vehicle in front by controlling the braking systems and provides several sets of warnings to alert drivers to collision dangers.

Meritor WABCO chief engineer Allan Korn says this new system—which remains in the “introductory” phase—blends collision warning, anti-lock braking and adaptive cruise control technologies to actively intervene if necessary.

“That’s what drivers would like and what fleet maintenance people want as well,” Korn says. “(With) just a warning system, by the time the system warns what has to happen and the driver has to react, that can take maybe a second or a second and a half. If you’re traveling at 60 miles an hour, you’ve traveled 88 feet before you get any reaction.”

Korn says the system represents a big improvement over previous systems that provided warnings but could not help drivers avoid collisions.

“Our background is in brake control, so we like to focus our attention on control systems that involve the control of foundation brakes,” Korn says. “So this became very natural for our evolution.”

Korn says maintaining their collision mitigation system is very similar to anti-lock or stability control products.

“The electrical connections can typically cause some issues, (but) the actual individual components; there’s nothing to repair.” he says. “If a component fails, the diagnostics will pinpoint the problem to the technician, and the technician will have to change the component. What is very important is the actual wiring between the components—make sure things are tie-wrapped properly but not overly tight—maybe look to get away from the use of tie wraps to other clips that won’t pinch the wires. Some fleets might have issues with other control systems and if you don’t pay proper attention, these will carry to collision mitigation systems.”


Elyria, OH-based Bendix Commercial Vehicle Systems is currently testing its new radar-based collision mitigation system, expected to be available to fleets in mid-to-late 2008, says electronics marketing manager Fred Andersky.

“(The system) slows the vehicle down by reducing the throttle, engaging the engine retarder and applying the brakes as necessary to slow the vehicle down and maintain that following distance,” Andersky says. “We combine that with our stability system, because when you apply brakes, obviously on a slick surface you can create some instability.”

Andersky says the system is designed to provide drivers with a variety of options to maintain following distance and help them to keep control of their vehicles when they need to make evasive maneuvers.

“Our eventual goal is to get to proactive accident mitigation so we’re able to help the driver avoid as much as possible getting into a collision or accident,” Andersky says. “If (fleets are) having a lot of front-end collisions, they’re looking for technologies… like adaptive cruise control.”

As promising as some of these systems are, Andersky says they do not mean much if they cannot improve the bottom line.

“It’s a little bit like health insurance; it’s to be there when you need it,” Andersky says. “This technology is not going to make a bad driver a good driver, it’s just going to help a good driver to avoid a bad situation.”

Troubleshooting and repairing their systems will not be difficult for technicians who are up on their electronics, Andersky says, since little actual maintenance is needed.

“We will be updating our diagnostic software, which we make available free to fleets and to maintenance shops,” Andersky says. “(Technicians) will need to make sure they’re equipped with the latest version, and we’ll probably have a bulletin about this that will help them to figure out what the fault codes are and how to take care of things. Perhaps the biggest issue we’re looking at is the alignment of the sensor—it will sit behind the bumper or protective material, but it could be susceptible to rocks or damage or alignment problems.”

Stuart says technicians should have no troubles maintaining any of these systems.

“If there’s anything, it’s to truly understand the basic braking and valve systems,” Stuart says. “I don’t think it’s any more a hurdle than any other electronic diagnostics that are currently being used. Make sure they are up on their electronics.”


Aside from reducing accident costs, changing driver behavior for the long term is an important side benefit of delving into these technologies, Murray says. And the sooner fleets start, the sooner they can reap the rewards.

“There are really smart, safe carriers out there designing driver simulator scenarios around the sort of activities these on-board technologies are discovering,” Murray says. “So the minute you find out from your collision warning system that you’ve got a couple drivers for (whom) hard braking is a way of life, they’ll bring the guys back into the driver simulator and concentrate on hard braking.”

Yet can there be too much of a good thing? Murray says while several thousand U.S. fleets use at least one of the systems, much fewer carriers have multiple systems; in part because of possible sensory overload.

“If I’m coming up to traffic that is stopped abruptly... the collision warning system is going off because I’m coming up on a car, so now I’m going to start to turn the wheel to avoid a rear-end accident so my lane departure warning system is going to go off,” Murray says. “Then as the trailer or tractor starts to lean, the yaw sensors are going to say you may be getting into a roll-over situation.”

The answer is to keep working on a better way to incorporate all these safety systems, Murray says.

“We can’t necessarily wait for OEM-level systems to come out in five years; we’ve got to do something much sooner than that,” Murray says. “If we can develop some kind of aftermarket plug-and-play device that allows a carrier to comfortably invest in all (collision mitigation) technologies, knowing they’ll work together, that would move these technologies forward much more quickly.”

Murray says with the FMSCA looking to reduce fatal accidents, voluntary adoption of these technologies is a top industry priority. He says fleets need to stay in front of regulatory compliance before something is mandated by the government.

“Everyone from industry and government is eager to fast-track (these systems) so we can benefit out there quickly, because accidents are extremely costly,” he says.

In the February issue of Fleet Maintenance, we’ll take a look at other related safety systems for heavy duty vehicles—rollover and stability—and see how fleets are increasingly using these technologies to keep their trucks on the road and their businesses in the black.