Automatic Emergency Braking for Trucks Not Ready for Prime Time

Written by Shelley Uvanile-Hesch, chief executive of Women’s Trucking Federation of Canada. This is one in a series of periodic guest columns by industry thought leaders.

There’s a big push to load big trucks with the type of crash-prevention technology that is starting to be deployed in passenger cars. The thinking is that if automatic emergency braking can reduce crashes in consumer vehicles, it will do the same for commercial haulers.

Shelley Uvanile-Hesch, chief executive of Women's Trucking Federation of Canada in front of truck

Shelley Uvanile-Hesch, chief executive of Women’s Trucking Federation of Canada.

Already, data from safety organizations such as the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety are showing about a 40 percent decrease in rear-end collisions in cars and SUVs equipped with the systems.

With an eye on those figures, the Truck Safety Coalition, the Center for Auto Safety, Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, and Road Safe America filed a petition this year asking the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to make AEB mandatory for new trucks.

Now if it works for cars, it should work for trucks, right?

My experience driving a new Western Star 5700 XE — coincidentally, the same truck model used for Optimus Prime in the last “Transformers” movie — demonstrates that the technology isn’t quite ready for prime time. Regulators and safety advocates need to step back and do more research before they become a contributor to just the type of horrific crashes they are trying to prevent.

There’s a big difference between stopping a Toyota Camry and a fully-loaded big rig that weights at least 30 times more than that family sedan.

Safety advocates need to better understand that developing automated safety systems for trucks is more difficult. The huge weight and size of a big rig makes stability paramount. That means any collision-prevention system must make sure that rapid braking won’t cause the vehicle to tip over or the driver to lose control. That nearly happened to me.

It was at night on the I-71 in Kentucky. I was cruising along when a pickup truck decided to fly off a ramp in front of me instead of using the merge lane. He lost control and started spinning in front of me. My truck automatically applied the active braking system.

The next thing I saw was my trailer coming at me on the left, I very quickly had to take appropriate measures so I wouldn’t jackknife. The AEB system had applied the brakes too firmly and I barely avoided what could have been a nasty accident.

While these electronic systems have lightning-fast reactions, they don’t have the nuanced judgment of an experienced over-the-road trucker — someone who over many miles has likely encountered every type of road hazard.

My automatic braking triggers quickly if I get cut off by another vehicle. It applies the brakes much too forcefully and is unsafe.

It’s not as if this is an industry secret. When the salesman delivered my truck, he warned me how hard the safety system was applying the brakes. It doesn’t matter if you’re empty, loaded or bobtail, it applies the brakes much too strongly.

There are other problems.

I’ve found heavy rain, snow, road dirt and even a bug will cause the system’s radar to crash. When it crashes, you lose your cruise control as well. Sometimes I can pull over to the side of the road and reset it. But it’s not always safe to do so. To do this, you shut the truck off for five to 10 minutes and restart it. Sometimes it takes two or three times to get it to reset. With enough frequency, this becomes a costly delay. It’s also irritating to a team driver who is trying to get some shuteye in the bunk.

This also kills fuel economy, something that the advanced cruise control system should have improved. But how do I achieve better efficiency when my cruise control isn’t working 50 percent of the time because the radar has crashed? Once again, that’s money out of my pocket.

Don’t think I am some stuck-in-the-cab truck driver, unwilling or unable to learn new technology. I am all for anything that will save me time and fuel, and prevent a crash. I really like how when it works, the system tells me the speed and distance of the vehicle in front. That’s really handy when you drive a truck governed at 65 mph. It helps me figure out when to pass in the left lane without affecting traffic flow. The fact that it slows you down gradually to keep you at a safe following distance also is beneficial.

But I worry that turning over control of an 80,000-pound highway missile to sensors and software requires more research and thought. My experience is that these systems are not ready for our highways. Those who want to rush them onto the road in the name of safety better make sure they work.

Editor’s note: Shelley Uvanile-Hesch is a truck driver in the U.S. and Canada and chief executive of the Women’s Trucking Federation of Canada, which works to encourage the employment of women in the trucking industry.

Automated Truck Platoon Test on the...
Automated Truck Platoon Test on the 110 Freeway in Los Angeles.

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