'Superhuman' Drivers Will Precede Autonomous Trucks

Active safety tech is engineered to support and assist, not eliminate, truckers.

Fleet Owner Staff, Staff

November 1, 2016

4 Min Read
'Superhuman' Drivers Will Precede Autonomous Trucks

Self-driving trucks get lots of fanfare, but not so fast. Before those ever approach the mainstream, the gap will be bridged by things like Volvo Trucks' active safety technology, which is engineered to support and assist — not eliminate — the professional truck driver.

Think of that technology as making the driver superhuman, since unlike airline pilots, truck drivers steer their industrial-grade machines and tens of thousands of pounds of cargo along non-uniform roadways with unpredictable passenger vehicles all around. It's remarkable how few mistakes they make, but anyone can lose focus in a given moment, become fatigued or distracted and make some critical error.

That's where Volvo Trucks North America's (VTNA) safety technology steps in. VTNA showcased its history of safety engineering and demoed active safety systems at its first Safety Symposium Monday at the vast Michelin Laurens Proving Grounds in Laurens, SC.

Safety technology doesn't just mean the kinds of "driverless" systems and related components getting so much press today. For example, noted Rob Simpson, director of brand and marketing development at VTNA, Volvo's iShift automated manual transmission introduced in 2006 reduces collision risk by 22% by reducing driver fatigue and distraction related to manually shifting through, say, 18 speeds.

Or Volvo's downspeeding engine-transmission package available since 2011 not only boosts fuel economy, it reduces in-cab noise drone and driver fatigue. And in dealing with collisions, Volvo tractor cabs are designed to take a hit and protect the driver, with collapsible steering columns, breakaway pedals and engine/transmission drop-down in a front-end crash. Volvo is also the only OEM with standard driver-side airbags in its heavy trucks, Simpson noted.

But the stars of the show — or symposium, as it were — were the company's optional active safety systems featuring Bendix Commercial Vehicle Systems technology. Volvo Enhanced Stability Technology (VEST) can adjust engine torque and apply the brakes to help prevent rollovers and other loss-of-control situations, while lane departure warnings use a windshield-mounted camera to monitor road lanes and warn the driver if he or she drifts. Volvo Enhanced Cruise maintains a safe following distance behind another vehicle and can stop the truck to prevent a collision.

The latest in the OEM's safety tech, Volvo Active Driver Assist, or VADA, is based on the Bendix Wingman Fusion system, which blends object-recognition-capable video and radar systems to watch for and help prevent collisions. It's now available on Volvo VNL and VNM series tractors. Notably, if the system detects an object but can't identify it, it will not take over control from the driver such as by activating "autonomous" emergency braking; rather, it provides warnings to the driver.

Yet the VADA system identifies potentially hazardous objects — particularly other vehicles — remarkably well and monitors their relative speeds, providing warnings and finally applying brakes even if the driver doesn't. VTNA showcased these active safety systems on the tarmac, and rather than describing how they work, watch our video to see and hear them.

"One of the things to keep in mind about this technology is it doesn't replace the need for safe drivers, safe driving practices, comprehensive driver training. This is driver assistance — it's not driver replacement." 

Full integration

Bendix Wingman Fusion can also be added as an aftermarket option on trucks, but Volvo is the first OEM to have fully integrated the system. Why's that important? Because it uses the existing driver information display — the instrumentation and readout in the dash — for alerts and warnings, so it doesn't require any additional screen or device for that purpose.

"The idea is we have a human-machine interface, or HMI as we refer to it, to keep the driver looking forward," Wade Long, director of product marketing at VTNA, tells Fleet Owner. "The more we can keep that driver's attention on the road and not having to worry about anything else happening, the better.

"Having this information inside the cluster makes it simple to identify what's happening with things like the vehicle identification light and the speed lamps around the speedometer," he adds. "Remember, these are driver assistance systems, not autonomous systems. We're helping the driver still do his or her job and minimizing distraction."

This story originally appeared at Fleet Owner

About the Author(s)

Fleet Owner Staff

Staff, Fleet Owner

Written for executives and managers of commercial-trucking fleets that operate five or more vehicles, Fleet Owner provides information about operations, vehicle maintenance, industry regulations and information-management technology.

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