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Are There Limits To Electronic Safety Systems?

A new study released by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has found that electronic safety systems may not see stopped vehicles and, in some situations may exacerbate the situation if the truck driver is not paying adequate attention. This may come as quite a surprise considering how much the transportation industry and government agencies have been advocating the use of such systems.

Called “Reality Check,” IIHS released the study on August 7 after testing the electronic safety systems built into the vehicles from several manufacturers. The tests were carried out on both public and private roads, and the results were quite sobering.

Prime Examples

It is important to note that the study did not outwardly dismiss the value of electronic safety systems. IIHS acknowledged that these systems have saved many lives. Yet, the study warned that the systems are not perfect and can fail under certain circumstances. The moral of the story? Truck and passenger car drivers using these systems must nor rely too heavily on them, but instead continue paying close attention to the road around them.

Truck drivers especially must understand the limitations of electronic control systems, whether they are behind the wheel of a passenger car or a commercial motor vehicle. The study found situations in which vehicles under the control of a semi-autonomous safety system did things that put the driver and others on the road at risk.

One such example included testing two Tesla vehicles equipped with electronic safety systems. In these tests, IIHS turned off adaptive cruise control while leaving automatic breaking turned on. While both vehicles braked when an object appeared, they still managed to hit a stationary balloon, which represented a potential pedestrian. With adaptive cruise control turned on, however, both vehicles braked sooner and were able to avoid the balloon. Engineers also discovered that the Tesla Model 3 failed to respond to simulated vehicles stopped in front of them.

The Need to Pay Attention

In many of the vehicles tested, the situations were mentioned in the owner’s manual, but always with the important caveat that the operator must pay close attention to what is going on around them on the road. The names for some of these systems can be misleading, referring to them as “Pilots,” when in fact they are not self-driving systems.

While these systems may assist with things like speed control and collision mitigation, they may not always get it right. It is essential that anyone operating a vehicle, whether it be a semi-truck or passenger car, keep a very close eye on what is happening around them on the roadway.

Trucks were especially vulnerable to lane-centering systems, which failed on curves and hills. On passenger cars, lane-centering systems steered the car toward the center of the line, rather than keeping the vehicle within its own line. IIHS hopes this study will cause vehicle manufacturers to take note and make critical changes to these systems.

Commercial Vehicle Impact

While the IIHS study primarily focused on passenger cars, there are specific implications for commercial motor vehicles. If there is one thing that has become glaringly obvious as a result of the study, it is that the idea of driverless commercial motor vehicles are a long, long way off. There may be unrealistic expectations of what these systems are capable of. With their capabilities still yet to be determined, truck drivers are still needed.

Electronic safety systems are great, but many consumers and industry advocates still don’t understand that this technology is in its infancy and requires active driver involvement. Just a decade ago, no one would have referred to a commercial motor vehicle safety system as an ‘autopilot,’ yet today, that is exactly what they are called.

Fortunately, professional truck drivers receive a lot of training on safety systems and new technology updates. Many fleets have adjusted their safety system training to focus not on what these systems can do, but instead what they cannot do. While safety systems come with manuals outlining what they are capable of, too few operators read these manuals. It is incumbent on the fleet to ensure their truck drivers are up-to-speed on the systems.

It is critical that motor carriers ensure their truck drivers can distinguish the difference between a driver assist program and a safety warning system. There is no technology available today that releases the truck driver from having to perform critical truck driving tasks. They must ensure they are paying close attention to what is happening on the road.

A New Rating System

As a result of their findings, IIHS has begun the process of developing a ratings program that will provide better information and guidance regarding adaptive cruise control, lane-warning, collision mitigation, and other adaptive driver assistance systems. IIHS already has a ratings program in place for evaluating safety technologies and will wrap those ratings in with the new regime.

While the program has not been officially unveiled yet, and is still under development, IIHS has begun talking about its potential release. Though no target date is announced, IIHS has already been testing the system using on-road and track tests. The “Reality Check” tests were merely an outgrowth of the new ratings system.

With many of the safety technologies being tested still in their infancy, the research being done on the new IIHS ratings are focused on Level 2 autonomy. Using the still unproven Level 1 technologies, IIHS was able to better refine the ratings system to address technologies still under development.

Specifically focusing on adaptive cruise control systems, IIHS used four different tracks to determine how vehicles stopped and exited lanes, depending on the systems in place. They also evaluated how well the systems caused acceleration and braking. IIHS did point out that the potential safety benefits of these systems are promising, yet they are not without limitations. Many of the systems were not able to adequately handle speed control in every traffic situation.

Truck Drivers are Key

While all these technologies are meant to reduce the likelihood of a collision while the operator is driving the vehicle, much of the technologies that these companies offer focus specifically on what can be done to reduce accidence before and after a truck driver hops into the cab and hits the road.

Fleet managers should analyze how advanced safety systems can be used within the fleet and ensure they get buy-in from their truck drivers. Training programs must also be put into place. We recently reported on using data to increase safety. Fleet managers should be using data to assess measures such as speeding, braking, lane departures and more.

The fact is these safety systems are only as good as the operators who are working with them. Motor carriers must make sure their truck drivers are viewing these systems as tools rather than supplements. Even as they are tested to ensure efficacy, many fleets are still using them. With so much at stake, can a transportation provider afford to ignore the implications these technologies provide.

Driver assist and semi-autonomous technologies will require massive amounts of data and truck driver inputs to be truly effective. When they are ready for prime time, however, they carry with them the promise of safer driving experiences and more productive fleets.

The Benefits are Real

The evidence surrounding the benefit of safety systems such as active lane-keeping and adaptive cruise control offers real potential to prevent crashes and road fatalities. Research provided by the institute shows that preventing lane-departure crashes alone could have the potential to save almost 8,000 lives per year. Lane-departure warning systems in heavy duty commercial motor vehicles are associated with an 11% reduction in crash severity and over 20% reduction in injury rates involving such crashes.

Automatic braking systems have been shown to reduce rear-end crashes by as much as 40%. Forward-collision warning systems have been shown to reduce rear-end crashes by 23%. By continually testing and advancing these systems, vehicle accident rates could drop over the years. Indeed, these are not small numbers.

Considering U.S. vehicle fatalities have been on the rise for the past two years, many are openly wondering what it will take to cause that number to drop. Many of the factors linked to the rise in on-road fatalities and crashes can be directly tied to distracted driving and the number of miles driven on an annual basis.

In-vehicle technologies, such as advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) will play a big role in keeping our nation’s roads safer for both truck drivers and passenger car drivers. With these systems becoming increasingly commonplace, research and rating systems provided by IIHS will be critical to ensuring safe travels on the nation’s roads and highways.

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