If you’ve never taken your hands off the steering wheel of a moving Class 8 truck weighing more than 10 tons, it can be a little frightening. I know, I tried it.
Within seconds the massive International LT began to drift out of its lane. But just as it headed toward the lane markings — potentially a disastrous situation—the steering wheel gently veered the truck back on course. German supplier ZF Friedrichshafen hopes to make this a regular occurrence on U.S. roads.
The company is preparing to debut the next generation of its OnTrax adaptive steering technology. It is part of ZF’s strategy to introduce automated technologies to the commercial vehicle sector.
“We think OnTrax is really going to help safety,” said Mark Cartwright, manager of global product planning at ZF. “It actively helps the vehicle stay within its lane boundaries.”
Automakers currently offer similar technology, commonly referred to as lane-keep assist, as optional equipment in passenger cars and light trucks. All four vehicles included in the Trucks.com Winter Adventure Drive came equipped with lane-keep assist.
The feature has yet to be deployed in the commercial sector, and ZF did not announce an expected arrival date. However, truck fleets and manufacturers have tested OnTrax and are considering using ZF’s system in their vehicles.
A short drive on private roads surrounding Lucas Oil Raceway near Indianapolis demonstrated that OnTrax is close to highway ready.
There’s no button or switch necessary to activate OnTrax — trucks equipped with the system automatically turn it on at speeds above 40 mph. For testing purposes, OnTrax activated at just 20 mph. A small “LKA Status” light changed from yellow to green on a center-mounted display.
The system scans the road through a single radar camera mounted to the top of the windshield. ZF is a leading supplier of radar cameras for passenger cars. The company made more than 8 million in 2017.
When the camera detects the truck leaving its lane, an electronic motor in the steering column kicks in. It produces torque assistance to the hydraulic steering pump to move the steering wheel to put the truck in the center of the lane.
On several test runs the technology worked as expected. The truck avoided crossing into the oncoming lane and moved back into its lane. The thought of driving a semi-tractor hands-free, even for a few seconds, should be harrowing. In this instance, it was uneventful.
Driving on the small roads kept speeds down to about 35 mph. The truck was also unloaded. The situation may be much different for a fully loaded, 80,000-pound truck at highway speed.
Still, OnTrax for commercial trucks ranks among the top of lane-keep assist technologies driven by Trucks.com. Its gentle and accurate direction is similar to systems equipped on the Ford F-150 and Tesla Model X. The ZF system is more refined than that on the Subaru Outback and avoids the back and forth “ping-pong” sensation in the Chevrolet Tahoe
OnTrax is not programmed to turn the vehicle around corners or act as an autonomous driving feature. ZF executives were careful to note that they do not recommend that drivers take their hands off the steering wheel at any time.
ZF already offers OnTrax on U.S. roads in RVs and buses. It has been installed in about 25,000 large vehicles since 2008.
The system tested in Indianapolis represents the next generation of the OnTrax technology to debut on large commercial vehicles.
OnTrax also helps ZF understand how to implement autonomous technology in the future. The company is developing early versions of systems that will take over major driving functions.
“When the industry is ready, when the regulations are ready, when the manufacturers are ready, we’ll be ready to take steps toward autonomous behavior,” Cartwright said.