Truck manufacturers, regulators and technology firms are increasingly looking to technology like advanced driver-assistance systems to improve truck safety.
But the viewpoint isn’t universal.
Proponents believe that widespread use of the technology will help slow the increase in traffic deaths, but skeptics raise concerns about regulation, training and data privacy.
The systems, referred to in the trucking industry as ADAS, include functions such as collision avoidance, lane departure warnings and speed sign recognition.
On Monday, the National Transportation Safety Board and the nonprofit National Safety Council convened a panel of more than a dozen regulators, manufacturers, fleet owners, technology providers and insurance experts. Meeting in Schaumburg, Ill., they brainstormed how to implement ADAS in more heavy-duty vehicles.
“There’s proven technology available today — we don’t need to wait for a fully automated vehicle to rescue us,” said co-moderator Alex Epstein, a senior director at the National Safety Council. “There’s nothing that stops any of us from advancing this topic.”
Motor vehicle collisions are the leading cause of preventable death in the country, and more and more large trucks and buses are involved in fatal crashes, according to the government.
The number of heavy-duty trucks involved in fatal crashes in 2015 rose 8 percent from the prior year to 4,050, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.
ADAS technology is designed to reduce collisions by targeting easily avoidable mistakes.
Adoption, however, has suffered because commercial carriers — especially those with small fleets — often don’t know exactly what ADAS entails, the panelists said.
Many truckers incorrectly associate anti-collision options with much-ballyhooed developments in driverless systems.
“We have to explain what the technology is, but also what the technology is not,” said Uri Tamir, director of strategic initiatives at collision-avoidance system provider Mobileye. “It’s not a surveillance camera and it’s not intended to replace the driver.”
ADAS technologies vary from developer to developer, which adds to the confusion and can trip up to drivers assigned to different trucks day to day. Also, the rapid pace of innovation means that the pool of options is always growing. Some dashboards now feature dozens of distracting alerts and warnings.
“If we don’t see some standardization in terms of what this particular buzzer means or what that seat vibration means, drivers will get confused and it will affect customer adoption,” said Robert Kreeb, a division chief at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Fleet maintenance, customization and driver turnover is another issue, panelists said.
A built-in ADAS system might be compromised by an aftermarket snowshovel added to the front of a truck, blocking sensors. Retrofitting older vehicles with the technology is encouraged, but the systems need occasional care.
“If that technology isn’t being managed or maintained properly, or if the driver isn’t trained, it raises exposure to risk,” said Bob Crescenzo, vice president of Lancer Insurance Co. “And drivers often moving back and forth between vehicles present challenges.”
So too does training those drivers, according to Deborah A.P. Hersman, chief executive of the National Safety Council.
“We have to make sure that drivers use that technology appropriately, that they’re not misusing it or confused by it,” Hersman said. “Technology will not be an immediate panacea for highway fatalities — all the technology in the world won’t make a difference if drivers don’t know how to use it or turn it off.”
But changing trucker demographics and vehicle design could help increase ADAS adoption, panelists said. Semi trucks don’t require as much manual operation as they once did. Younger drivers are joining fleets, as are more women.
“The pool is widening,” said Adam Gregori, chief executive of Sentinel Transportation, a private trucking company joint venture between DuPont and Phillips 66. “Their flexibility to accept new technology is what we need in the future.”
As the ADAS market grows for commercial truckers, the industry will face a choice: whether it will voluntarily adopt the technology or wait for manufacturers to make it a standard feature in vehicles.
Volvo Trucks North America, for example, just unveiled a complete redesign of its VNL long-haul truck. It has a camera and radar-based system that combines forward collision warnings and active braking and can spot and react to stationary vehicles. The system features an industry-first heads up windshield display if a driver approaches too closely to an object in front. If the driver does not hit the brakes, the system automatically kicks in to slow the rig.
Another option would be for regulators to mandate the technology be part of truck design, the panelists said.
Some suggested that the government offer incentives for carriers to adopt the technology, such as a truck replacement program akin to the 2009 Cash for Clunkers trade-in tactic used to take gas-guzzling passenger vehicles off the road.
Others worried about how to handle the vast troves of digital data generated by ADAS systems. Several panelists said they would share information about their fleets as long as it was left anonymous.
The level of industry engagement is promising, and will only increase, said Michael Cammisa, vice president of safety policy, connectivity and technology at the American Trucking Associations trade group.
“It does build up on itself,” he said. “As the big fleets purchase more, the price comes down, the technology gets better and the smaller fleets see the benefit.”