IT hits the highway: Big rigs go high tech

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Electronic onboard recorders (EOBR) automate the process of updating driver logs and help to verify that a driver isn't cheating, by matching the driver log entries with information on the vehicle's location and whether it was moving at a given time. "The next big wave will be onboard recording," says Avondale's Broughton.

PeopleNet offers an EOBR application for its BLU handheld, and J.B. Hunt is testing similar technology on 100 trucks. The J.B. Hunt system transmits driver log status and alerts to headquarters and also lets drivers know one hour before they need to stop for the day. Information from the EOBRs is then passed to the decision-support system when assigning vehicles and drivers to new loads, so that drivers with just a few hours left on the clock aren't sent out.

But many drivers object to using electronic logs. Because they're paid by the mile rather than by the hour, drivers have an incentive to drive more hours per day than is allowed. "If they can deliver a load in 12 hours and just drive straight through, you can do it a lot cheaper than if you have to pull it over two days," says Palmer, adding that J.B. Hunt takes steps to prevent that. Trucking businesses also have incentives not to use EOBRs (see "Technology and the tired trucker").

Even when drivers want to comply with the regulations, there's the risk that the driver will lose track of the exact hours worked in a given day. "If you're not keeping up with stuff in real time, you can put something in [the log] wrong. If you're off by 15 minutes, that's considered a falsified log, according to the DOT. That's one of the biggest nuisances," says Palmer. Many drivers like EOBRs because it makes tracking hours of service easier, she says.

Ultimately, the adoption of EOBRs may not come down to a cost/benefit analysis: The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration is gradually moving toward making them mandatory for safety reasons.

Safety systems

The latest safety systems have evolved to the point where they can not only alert drivers, but also intervene in emergency situations. The payback from installing these systems is measured in reduced costs associated with accidents, including liability and lost revenues from out-of-service vehicles. Because tractor-trailers are so large, accidents often cause major property damage and loss of life. In 2006, large trucks were involved in 4,995 fatal accidents.

Most safety-monitoring systems warn the driver of an impending collision or rollover. But not all are designed to work with one another in an integrated way, and they don't all capture and support the transmission of safety event data to the dispatch center.

Vehicle stability systems

Of the active safety systems described here, vehicle stability, or anti-rollover, systems are the most mature and most widely adopted. The systems use two frame-mounted accelerometers to measure pitch (which can cause a rollover) and yaw (the propensity to slide, causing the rig to "jackknife") as a vehicle goes around a curve.

Such systems can alert the driver and mitigate an impending rollover by applying the vehicle braking systems and cutting fuel to the engine. Before taking action, the system takes into account factors such as how the driver is steering the vehicle, to gauge the driver's intent.

When activated, most systems make the event data available on the J1939 bus, where fleet management systems can pick it up and transmit an alert to the carrier's dispatch center in real time. J.B. Hunt has already adopted the technology. "We went right to the mitigation systems, and it did help reduce rollovers," Palmer says.

Schneider National has also adopted the systems. "The technology has come down to a price that made it realistic for us to put it in all of our trucks," Damman says, adding that the carrier has seen an improvement in fleet safety.

Forward collision warning and adaptive cruise control systems

These systems use forward-mounted radar to detect vehicles or other objects in the road ahead and warn the driver of an impending collision. Adaptive cruise control uses radar to maintain a safe following distance behind vehicles. Some systems issue collision warnings, while others can take actions to slow down the vehicle to avoid a crash.

Schneider's Damman isn't sure the warnings are effective in the long run. Initially, a driver's performance improves when using such systems, but after about six months, he typically goes back to his bad habits. "He thinks he's better than the system," says Damman.

But Damman sees potential in collision mitigation systems. "We're testing them, and we like them," he says.

Lane departure warning systems

These systems, also called lateral drift warning systems, use a forward-facing, windshield-mounted camera that tracks the position of the vehicle in the lane by watching the painted lane markers on each side of the road; the system issues an alert when the vehicle starts to drift. It uses image processing to identify lane markers by detecting the contrast between the white painted line and the darker pavement.

Most systems issue a noise similar to what a driver would hear when crossing a grooved-pavement "rumble strip" on the highway. Speakers on either side of the cab alert the driver to which way the vehicle is drifting. The systems are smart enough to know not to alert the driver when a turn signal is on, and they don't issue warnings at lower speeds, when a vehicle may be turning, according to Iteris Inc., which markets the systems.

The technology has limitations. Because it relies on machine vision technology, it won't work in foggy conditions or on roads that don't have clear lane markings. So far, the systems alert only the driver, not the carrier.

The systems cost about $1,000 per vehicle. But on the highway, Iteris claims, trucks equipped with the technology can reduce rollover accident rates by 68%.

At Schneider, driver feedback so far has been "very positive" after tests of lane departure warning systems on interstate highways, says Damman. But on secondary roads, where there are no white lines on the sides of the road, the results have been "not so good." Nonetheless, Damman says, "the technology is getting better, and we continue to look at it."

Lane change/merge warning systems

These systems use side-mounted, short-range radar or ultrasonic waves to "see" vehicles in the driver's blind spot and produce an alert if the driver attempts to merge into an occupied lane.

Together, the three collision-avoidance systems -- forward collision, lateral drift and lane departure -- could help mitigate 60% of truck crashes, says James Sayer, program director in the human factors division of the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute. There's just one problem.

"None of these systems are talking to each other," says Palmer, noting that too many consoles and different types of alerts can confuse a driver, especially during a critical moment. "We want systems that integrate," she says. Palmer also wants the ability to receive real-time alerts when the systems are activated.

Sayer is program manager for the Integrated Vehicle-Based Safety Systems initiative, a government-funded research project that aims to address those integration issues. The goal is to integrate the three technologies to reduce false positives and provide a single, coordinated system whose warnings are easy for drivers to recognize. In the future, there might be seven different warning systems on the truck. "How do you convey the intent, the message, without confusing them?" Sayer asks.

Getting the systems to work together is also key. For example, the lane departure system could sense that the vehicle is rounding a sharp curve and convey that contextual information to the collision detection system so it knows that the object dead ahead is not actually in the vehicle's path.

Radar is limited to about 50 feet and can detect up to 32 objects, but it can't determine their size. Future systems will combine radar with lane departure warning system cameras and use image processing to better determine the size and location of objects in the road and what actions should be taken, says T.J. Thomas, product manager for driver assist systems at Bendix Commercial Vehicle Systems LLC. Series production in commercial vehicles is still "a few years away," according to Thomas.

Then there's the matter of cost. The systems will have to show a payback in accident cost avoidance before the industry will adopt them, says Jim Tipka, director of public affairs at the American Trucking Associations. Extra costs are weighted against the business's tolerance for risk.

Traditionally, many trucking companies have opted to accept the risk of accidents rather than spend money on high-tech safety systems, but the costs of major accidents, when they do happen, hits the bottom line hard. Avondale Partners' Broughton says most of the major carriers have had a quarter that "got blown up" because of an accident.

Tire pressure monitoring

Tire pressure monitoring improves safety, but the bigger value lies in savings from improved fuel efficiency and extended tire life. The systems continuously monitor tire pressure; some automatically inflate tires as well. Properly inflated tires improve gas mileage, and at prices as high as $400 per tire, keeping rubber on the road is one of the biggest maintenance costs for carriers.

J.B. Hunt buys 170,000 tires annually and has 500,000 tires on the fleet at any given time. Last year, a survey of the fleet showed that about 22% of those tires were underinflated. It's hard to get drivers to check all 18 tires, especially in bad weather. "We have a really big interest in that," says Schimelpfenig.

The cost to add monitoring is about $1,200 per 18-wheel truck, says Chris Nau, a sales representative for Doran Manufacturing LLC, which makes tire pressure monitoring devices. He says savings from improved fuel mileage and longer tire life deliver a payback in about one year.

But Schneider's Damman says that for a carrier with a good tire-management program, the payback period for the technology is much longer. Schneider runs thousands of tires on 40,000 trailers and 10,000 tractors. That's 180,000 tires on the road at any given time. "We find that better than 96% of them are at the recommended pressure," he says. Spending $1,200 per tractor-trailer to benefit 4% of the fleet just doesn't add up.

"We haven't found any case yet where we can rationalize the cost based on our metrics," says Damman. But carriers that don't see their trailers often enough to be able to maintain the tires the way they would like to might find a monitoring system to be effective. "It's going to be a different equation for everyone," he says.

The systems do have drawbacks. The sensors are mounted to each tire or valve stem. Since many tires are changed on the road, making sure that the monitoring system stays with the tractor and that the new tire has the same sensor on it can be a problem.

The systems also add another information display to an already crowded cab and haven't been integrated to work with onboard computers or to provide data to fleet management systems.

RFID

Radio frequency identification technology is already used by some carriers to pay and track toll and fuel charges. Combined with electronic driver logs and smart handhelds, RFID technology could remove most, if not all, paperwork from the cab. It is also used today for container and trailer tracking within a yard or facility.

But in the future, the technology could also be used to facilitate state Department of Transportation vehicle inspections and to help businesses track vehicle conditions, says Palmer. "The idea is to have one technology that would be used by all," she adds. For inspectors, an RFID reader could quickly determine the date of the last inspection, the last repair and even the condition of the brake pads.

The issue is the number of sensors needed to cover all sensor points, ranging from steering and braking systems to weight and motion sensors. "For that to work, you have to have sensors all over the truck, and that's pretty darn costly," says Rich Craig, director of regulatory affairs at the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association.

"We love the idea," says Palmer, but despite falling costs for RFID technology, the return on investment isn't there quite yet.

Driver cams

In-cab video cameras can be configured to watch the road or the driver. Some are designed to record the driver's view of the road during the interval of time leading up to an accident. Others watch the driver's eyes and alert him when he's getting sleepy. But the systems can also be used to monitor the driver's behavior in the cab, raising privacy concerns.

"It does appear that drivers change their behavior if they have something like that in the truck," says Damman. But, he adds, "that is very Big Brother, so we've got to gauge whether that will be accepted."

The University of Michigan's Sayer doesn't think driver cams work. "We've never found that placing a camera in the cab affects outcome," he says.

But the biggest problem is that drivers don't like them. In an industry facing a shortage of drivers, this is one technology that's not likely to take off, says Palmer.

Applied science

While in-vehicle technologies can produce a wealth of data and make fleets safer and more efficient, carriers are still learning how to best make use of them. "You have to have the technology, the processes and the behavior to apply it," says Gary Whicker, senior vice president of engineering services at J.B. Hunt.

While analytics can improve operational efficiency, safety systems also depend on driver acceptance. Once the technology is in place and management provides feedback to the driver, the question is whether the driver will change his behavior based on that feedback.

"Will they actually reduce hard-braking events or pay more attention to lane integrity?" Whicker asks. The technologies that make it onto the road will need to pass that test first.

This story, "IT hits the highway: Big rigs go high tech" was originally published by Computerworld.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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