By Danny Kucharsky
Distraction, fatigue and human errors have been cited as the causes of numerous collisions in the transportation sector. For trucking companies and businesses that operate fleets of vehicles, what role can semi-autonomous technology play in enhancing the safety of those who spend hours behind the wheel?
Six trucks driving across the borders of several European countries converged in Rotterdam on April 6. But these trucks were not part of an ordinary fleet ploughing down Europe’s highways; they were participating in the European Truck Platooning Challenge, which opened on March 29. The Challenge, which uses autonomous driving technologies to enable two or more trucks to communicate wirelessly and follow in close succession, is an initiative of the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment.
According to a statement from the European Truck Platooning website, trucks from DAF, Daimler, Iveco, MAN Truck & Bus, Scania and Volvo Group drove from Sweden, Germany and Belgium to Rotterdam. The trucks are connected by WiFi to ensure synchronized braking and prevent sudden jolts or shock effects, with the first truck determining the speed and route of the others. This truck-platooning challenge is the first major tryout in Europe.
“Truck platooning ensures that transport is cleaner and more efficient. Self-driving vehicles also improve traffic safety, because most traffic accidents are due to human error,” Dutch Infrastructure and Environment Minister Schultz van Haegen says in the statement.
While truck platooning may not be coming to North America anytime soon, semi-autonomous technology (SAT) is already a reality, with Google’s much-talked-about selfdriving cars now in the testing phase. Features that currently exist in many cars and trucks have safety implications for employers who operate fleets or trucking firms or allow employees to drive company cars.
“I think it is a great advancement in terms of safety,” Jean-Marc Picard, executive director of the Atlantic Provinces Trucking Association in Dieppe, New Brunswick, says of SAT. Picard points out that some trucking firms are using the technology, which helps to reduce accidents. Not only does SAT reduce driver stress, it is also a step towards eliminating human error, he believes.
“It is a technology that can bring more safety to our industry, which is always welcome in my eyes,” he says.
A FOR AUTOMATION
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) n Washington, D.C. ranks vehicle automation according to five levels, ranging from zero (no automation) to four (fully automated). It considers the current fleet of semi-automated vehicles in the United States to be at Level 3, or the Limited Self-Driving Automation stage, of which the Google car is an example. In other words, such vehicles allow drivers to cede control of all safety-critical functions under certain traffic or environmental conditions. The driver is expected to be available for occasional control with sufficiently comfortable transition time.
Currently, SAT offers a gamut of features, which include utomatic parking systems, blind-spot detection and pre-crash braking when the vehicle senses that a collision is imminent. There are also lane-departure warnings to alert drivers when they are swerving out of their lanes and drowsiness detection that issues a loud signal when drivers veer from side to side, which is a classic sign of driver fatigue.
“It is hard to pull numbers on this, but there are a lot of accidents caused by people dozing off at the wheel. This can help prevent that,” says Ted Lalka, vice president of marketing and product management at Subaru Canada in Mississauga, Ontario. Lalka says the fatigue-detection function is available as an option in Subaru vehicles with automatic transmission, which sells for $1,500 in Canada as part of a technology package that includes push-button start and stop instead of a key.
“We have tried to price it as competitively as we can,” says Lalka, who observes that more and more Canadians are opting for the technology, with uptake rates reaching as high as 50 per cent for the Legacy and Outback models.
For a long time, vehicles have been designed for crashes with features like air bags and crumple zones, says engineer and automotive consultant Priya Prasad of Prasad Engineering in Plymouth, Michigan. “Now we have technology that can reduce accidents. It is very promising.”
Prasad is an associate with D.J. Dalmotas Consulting, which offers crash-data analysis and evaluation, among other services. He cites SAT features like pre-crash braking, which can help avoid collisions and reduce soft-tissue neck injuries and whiplash that can happen at very low speeds. The savings in societal costs can be substantial.
“Speed is a big predictor of seriousness of injury. So if you can reduce speed by even five miles per hour, you are going to reduce injuries substantially,” he says. “This is where pre-crash braking comes in: reducing the speed of the crash or eliminating it altogether.”
Prasad is also impressed with features like lane keeping, which helps prevent side-swiping incidents, and blind-spot detection, especially for older drivers. “A lot of the things that can be done now, 10 years ago, we were only thinking about.”
For Lalka, adaptive cruise control certainly makes driving less grinding. “Driving in downtown Toronto, the traffic can be brutal, bumper to bumper,” he notes. “Rather than me braking and accelerating, you put the system on, and it does all the work for you.”
While SAT is still considered costly by many drivers, prices are coming down and will become more affordable as sales increase, Prasad suggests. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), headquartered in Arlington, Virginia, now provides top crashworthiness rankings to vehicles with crash-prevention technology, which gives manufacturers an incentive to lower prices, he adds.
Ian Jack, managing director of communications and government relations at the Canadian Automobile Association in Ottawa, notes that the technology is usually introduced in luxury vehicles with high margins, but will eventually spread through carmakers’ fleets as the cost per unit comes down.
The costs for sensors and onboard computers have declined in recent years, making the technology more affordable, he adds.
MINIMIZING HUMAN ERROR
Semi-autonomous technology does not mean that drivers can engage in distracted driving, which is the number one cause of road accidents. According to Jack, inattention behind the wheel encompasses a range of behaviour that includes texting or speaking on a phone while driving, driving when drowsy or fatigued and cognitive distraction.
“There are an awful amount of distractions in the modern vehicle cockpit, and we need to try to just minimize those and focus on driving,” says Jack, who cites numbers from the NHTSA indicating that human error is a critical factor in 94 per cent of car crashes.
Given that the average age of Canadian vehicles is four years, the point has not been reached at which the majority of vehicles on the road have assistive technologies. That being said, Jack says the technology works well, and the CAA has not received any complaints about it.
Pierro Hirsch, director of road safety research at Montreal firm Virage Simulation, which makes simulators for trucks, cars and buses, is hopeful that SAT can prevent many crashes that would otherwise occur due to human error, distraction or fatigue. Hirsch, who is also a board member of the Canadian Association of Road Safety Professionals, which has a national office in St. Catharines, Ontario, cites an IIHS report from January showing that automatic braking and forward collision warning systems reduce rear-end crashes by 23 per cent and greatly diminish injuries.
According to Lalka, an internal study by Subaru found that EyeSight, Subaru’s advanced driver-assist system, has had a significant impact on safety. Between 2010 and 2014 in Japan, Subaru vehicles equipped with EyeSight were involved in 80 per cent fewer front-to-rear crashes, 50 per cent fewer accidents involving pedestrians and 50 per cent fewer accidents overall than Subaru vehicles that were not equipped with EyeSight. “There are all kinds of savings related to that in terms of avoiding or minimizing crashes,” Lalka says.
EyeSight, which is designed to ensure that the driver is always in control of the vehicle, includes adaptive cruise control, pre-collision braking, pre-collision brake assist, pre-collision throttle management, lane-departure warning, lanesway warning and lane-keep function.
Lalka says if an SAT-equipped Subaru vehicle senses that a collision is imminent, it alerts the driver with an audio signal and a visual warning on the dashboard. The car prepares to brake by reducing throttle power and pre-charges the brakes to ensure that they will have maximum braking capacity when applied. If the driver still does not respond and a crash appears imminent, the vehicle will apply the brakes and, at certain speeds, stop the vehicle altogether.
Subaru finds that an increasing number of fleet buyers are becoming interested in the technology. “Number one, they are concerned about the safety of the people using the company vehicle. Number two, it can reduce the number and the severity of accidents, so that should lead to lower insurance premiums and less time missed from work if someone is involved in an accident. These things are just starting to be recognized,” Lalka says.
Bus fleet operators consider SAT, like braking systems and stability control in buses, to be big improvements, according to Doug Switzer, president and chief executive officer of the Ontario Motor Coach Association in Toronto. Switzer says employers in his industry recognize the human and financial costs of road accidents.
“Nobody wants to have their equipment in an accident, particularly in the coach industry where cargo is, if you will, human beings,” he says. “Anything you can do to avoid that is good.”
Most coach operators look at the cost of an accident as far exceeding the cost of many of the technologies, with SAT becoming increasingly standard in coaches, Switzer says. He adds that technology in general has made roads a lot safer in the past few decades, with the number of fatalities about half of that in the 1970s, even though there are more vehicles on the roads today.
Picard notes that the Freightliner Inspiration Truck became the first licenced, semi-autonomous commercial truck to operate on a public highway down south when it hit the road in Nevada last May. “It has obviously shown some good results, and I think it is the way of the future.”
As the technology improves, Picard believes that it will allow drivers to focus on other responsibilities, such as load and trip management and bringing efficiencies to their routes — all of which will be a boon to the industry. It could even help ease the current shortage of truck drivers by allowing workers with other skill sets to be in charge of trucks.
But he cautions that trucking firms are often set in their ways and may be slow to adopt SAT. As well, buying trucks equipped with such technology may not be affordable for small trucking firms that would rather put their money into driver training.
As with all things new, it takes time to assuage concerns that the market has towards technological innovations. Subaru’s SAT system was initially misunderstood by some people who feared that it would take control of the car.
“In the delivery process of the vehicle, we explain what EyeSight is,” Lalka says, elaborating that certain functions like the lane-departure warning system can be turned off, while the new lane-keep-assist function has to be turned on by the driver — similar to airbags, which are engaged only when necessary. “What it is is a second set of eyes and a backup to the driver, but the driver always maintains control.”
SPEAK THE LANGUAGE
Since perfect technology does not exist, Hirsch stresses the importance of training drivers in SAT so that they understand what happens when it does not function properly, particularly in driver-assistance systems that operate only in extreme or near-collision situations.
“People are still trying to figure out how to use the technology. They are assuming it is always going to be working, and that is a huge assumption and a dangerous one,” Hirsch says. “What happens when it doesn’t work?”
Switzer points out that while there may be the occasional breakdown or glitch that can lead to accidents, human negligence and error pose a far greater safety risk. “Every day, there are tired drivers, drunk drivers, bad drivers, senior drivers, young drivers making bad decisions on the road and causing accidents.”
He likens concerns over SAT to the debate over seatbelts when they were first introduced in the 1970s. “There were those who said, ‘What if it catches fire and I am stuck in the vehicle because of the seatbelt?’” While that is a conceivable scenario, he notes that it would likely be one in a million compared to the number of times when seatbelts save lives.
For Hirsch, the bigger issue is that the training given to drivers is not catching up with increasingly complex technologies that car manufacturers are introducing into the market. On one occasion, he conveyed that concern to the vice president of marketing with a major car manufacturer, who replied that car salespeople are often hesitant to provide training, because they are not as qualified and knowledgeable in the technology as the engineers and technicians who invented them.
As well, training programs are difficult to organize. “Technologies are hard to address, because some of them only come on in extreme circumstances. What are you going to do — deliberately go into an oncoming traffic lane? How do you train that? You have to do it by having a simulator, [like] the way pilots are trained for critical events.”
For Switzer, training may be needed for a person who is used to driving an old vehicle. But as the technology has come along, drivers have learned to drive with the technology and understand it. “I don’t think it posts any particular training challenge,” he suggests.
While semi-autonomous vehicles can improve safety, employers need to consider issues surrounding liability when an accident involves a vehicle equipped with SAT. Jack says legal liability for a collision will always remain with the driver regardless of whether the built-in SAT issues an alert when the vehicle veers into another lane or comes too close to a pedestrian. “You are still absolutely 100 per cent responsible as the driver.”
Hirsch adds that according to the NHTSA, automated vehicle laws in several states in the United States consider the person who activates the automated vehicle system to be the “driver” of the vehicle. Semi-Autonomous Motor Vehicles: What Are the Implications for Work-related Road Safety?, a 2014 report published on the Science Blog of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in Washington, D.C., raises questions about liability, considering the availability of highly automated vehicles.
“If a semi-autonomous vehicle is under the full control of automated functions at the time of a crash, who is responsible — the manufacturer, the driver or the driver’s employer? How will the courts determine who is liable, and how will insurers conceptualize fault? Until highly automated vehicles become more widely available and legal precedents are established, it is difficult to predict how this will play out,” the report states.
It also advises drivers of semi-autonomous vehicles to learn about the capabilities and limitations of their vehicles and recommends that employers who furnish highly automated vehicles to workers for business or personal use should consider providing additional training.
“Workplace safety is always influenced by management efforts to create and maintain a safety culture,” Hirsch says. “If SAT is introduced properly and monitored like any other innovation, it should improve workplace safety.”
Danny Kucharsky is a writer in Montreal
|IN THE DRIVER’S SEAT
Semi-autonomous technology (SAT) has a role to play in enhancing the safety of those in vehicles, but it is by no means a panacea for distracted driving.
“We are certainly not anti-technology. There is a whole sort of brave new world that is probably coming, and we are in the early stages,” says Ian Jack, managing director of communications and government relations at the Canadian Automobile Association in Ottawa.
Features like lane-departure warning signals are fine and dandy, but drivers should not be lulled into thinking that the technology will always save them from distracted driving. While some high-end vehicles can correct the course of a car and keep it in its lane, most vehicles will just issue an alert.
“We still have to be in a position to react to the beep and know what to do about it,” says Jack, stressing that the driver always remain at the centre of that system — not the technology. “It is your responsibility as the driver to have control over your vehicle and be able to react to anything that may happen on the road. These new technologies currently are not a replacement for active driving and awareness,” he adds.
Over-reliance on technology can present problems too, notes automotive consultant Priya Prasad of Prasad Engineering in Plymouth, Michigan and an associate with D.J. Dalmotas Consulting. “The last thing I would like to do is get in my car and read a newspaper, because I have got lane-keeping assist and pre-crash braking,” he says. “When you tell people that the car will brake automatically, maybe they will rely too much on it.”
There is also the potential problem of risk compensation when people engage in riskier driving behaviour as a result of a false sense of security from driving an SAT-equipped vehicle. When drivers rely on automated systems to steer and brake for them, they engage in more non-driving tasks, suggests Pierro Hirsch, director of road safety research at Montreal-based Virage Simulation and a board member of the Canadian Association of Road Safety Professionals.
A study, Transition to Manual: Driver Behaviour When Resuming Control from a Highly Automated Vehicle, published in the November 2014 edition of Transportation Research, found that during the first minute after manual control was transferred back to drivers from automation, drivers’ vehicle control was erratic for the first 10 to 15 seconds, with around 40 seconds required before their performance stabilized.
Some drivers find features like lane-departure warnings annoying and turn them off, which negates the potential safety benefit. People who are skeptical about or do not understand the technology also tend to interfere with its functioning, Hirsch adds.