Article

The Eyes Have It

Visibility aids are important. But it's tough to do a cost-benefit analysis.

September 2006, TruckingInfo.com - Feature

by Deborah Lockridge, Senior Editor

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'If you can't see my mirrors, I can't see you." "Don't hang out in the No-Zone." We spend a lot of time and money trying to educate the driving public about a trucker's blind spots. But there are an increasing number of devices, from mirrors to high-tech cameras, that can help minimize blind spots and help drivers detect obstacles.

These visibility aids can range from less than $100 up to several thousand dollars. It's tough to do a cost-benefit analysis. Lane change accidents, the type that could be prevented by blind-spot visibility systems, are not that common, notes Steve Traylor, spokesman for Lang Mekra, which sells both mirrors and camera systems. "But when they do occur, they tend to be relatively high cost. The argument goes, if you prevent one accident you've potentially bought hundreds of cameras. But how do you count something you prevented?"

If your fleet is large enough, you can outfit a small representative sample of your trucks with the system you're considering and compare the accident results over a period of time with the rest of the fleet. Also look into whether new technology can save you money on insurance.

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"One of the fleets I personally talk to put Vorad on 25 trucks and monitored them for a year," says Bruce Lawyer, director of product planning at Peterbilt. "The number of accidents had fallen off dramatically. With fewer accidents, they felt they could go to a higher deductible, which lowered their insurance premium."

MIRROR, MIRROR

Most Class 8 trucks come standard with a flat-glass "West Coast" mirror. In addition, a round convex mirror, mounted on or near the doors, is very common. There may be some differences in mirror placement among different truck makes and models.

Peterbilt, for example, when it redesigned its line of trucks for 2007, was able to position the mirrors so the driver doesn't need to move his head as far.

Beyond the standard OEM offerings, there are a number of OEM mirror options and aftermarket add-ons.

"The biggest single improvement for the least amount of money would be a hood-mounted mirror," says Bill Downs, exteriors design chief engineer for International. These tripod-mount systems attach to the front fenders. "That mirror provides the widest field of view of any mirror you can get," Downs says, "because it's mounted as far forward as it is. Basically you can see along the entire side of the truck."

Probably the most well-known of this type of mirror is the K-10 Eyeball Mirror from K-10 Enterprizes, a small company that initially developed the product for school buses 25 years ago. Unlike a regular convex mirror, the K-10 Eyeball features a lens with a radius similar to the curvature of the human eyeball.

"Our mirror, our placement and design have been the pioneers in this industry," says Joel Geshay, director of operations. "A lot of our competitors have put the standard convex mirrors on tripod brackets to simulate what we've done, but that's more of a lane change rather than a blind spot application."

K-10 says the Eyeball Mirror, when properly mounted, eliminates dangerous blind spots down the right hand side of the tractor and even across and in front of the bumper.

Fender-mount tripod mirrors will typically run you no more than $100, so you get a lot of bang – or maybe we should say an absence of bangs – for your buck.

There are other types of add-on mirrors available, such as "look-down" mirrors on the sides of the door. Volvo, for instance, has always installed a down view mirror on the right-hand side of the vehicle, says Frank Bio, product manager for trucks.

"That provides visibility of the area next to the chassis so that if you're stopped at a light or considering making a lane change, a driver can determine if there's someone on that right-hand side."

You also can get options to West Coast mirrors. Heated mirrors, for instance, help eliminate problems from fogged or icy mirrors. There are motorized mirrors that allow the driver to adjust the visibility while backing.

Some motorized mirrors automatically go to a predetermined "backing" position when the truck is put in reverse.

"Most fleets specify a right hand remote control, but rely on a manual adjustment for the driver side," says Paul Menig, chief engineer, electrical/electronics engineering with Freightliner. "As we move forward, we can expect that both should be remotely controlled."

When choosing, mounting and adjusting mirrors, make sure they are complementary in terms of their field of view, says International's Downs. "If you look at the area you're looking at with the big flat glass, while there needs to be some overlap with the convex mirrors, it shouldn't be a 100 percent overlap. Each mirror has its own job."

No matter what type of mirrors you have, Downs says, take a few minutes on a regular basis to make sure all the fasteners are tight. "A couple of minutes with an adjustable wrench can often take care of an annoying vibration that'll creep up in a mirror. Any bolted joint can loosen up over time. A mirror that vibrates is not only going to annoy you, it also makes it harder to use."

COLLISION AVOIDANCE

Beyond mirrors, the best-known and most widely available visibility aid is the Eaton Vorad Collision Warning System. It uses radar sensors to detect objects and vehicles both ahead of the truck and to the side. In-cab displays use a series of warning lights and audible tones to warn the driver. Optional SmartCruise links the Vorad to the cruise control to help maintain safe distances between vehicles. The system typically offers a 70 to 80 percent reduction in accidents, according to the manufacturer.

Last year, Eaton added the Vorad BackSpotter, a new rear-object detection system that uses the same radar-based technology.

Eaton says its radar-based technology is more effective than mirrors, camera systems or infrared devices in detecting objects under poor visibility conditions such as rain, snow, sun glare and nighttime driving.

The company is working on developing a system that will make for easier installation at the OEM or aftermarket level. In the future, look for the integration of Vorad information with fleet management tools through Eaton's new Vehicle Solutions Business Unit, which combines Vorad, Eaton's MD Tools diagnostics division, and @road logistics and fleet management systems.

Vorad may soon see some competition. Bendix is working with Bosch to develop radar-based systems for active driver-assist solutions, which will be fully integrated with the Bendix ESP stability system.

Lang Mekra, working with a company called Trico Electronics, is developing a different type of blind spot-detection technology that uses lasers. The product, called SideEyes, may be available as an OEM or aftermarket option as early as next year.

"It's a very interesting and surprisingly affordable technology," Traylor says, "with a great track record for durability and robustness."

YOU'RE ON CANDID CAMERA

Rear-view and blindspot video systems had a brief moment in the limelight in the mid-'80s, but they were expensive and difficult to maintain – the video cameras of the time weren't up to the rigors of trucking, especially weather and vibration. Today's cameras are tougher and more affordable, even offering extras such as night vision. They still lag behind Vorad in terms of industry acceptance, but interest is growing.

The long-haul trucking industry has been slow to turn to camera systems, but they are popular in certain types of trucking. The refuse industry has long been a fan of rear cameras and package delivery and beverage delivery fleets are also big customers. They are also becoming more popular among tanker fleets.

Cameras have an advantage over radar- or sonar-based systems because they are visual, says Michael Padrnos, industry manager for the commercial vehicles division at Audiovox Specialized Applications, which makes Voyager brand camera and monitor systems. "Radar and sonar type systems can tell the driver something's near them, but what? A camera shows you exactly what it is."

Those benefits are echoed by Mike Schwerman with Safety Vision. "Sensors do not allow the operator to see a collision about to happen," he explains. "If functioning correctly, a sensor will only tell the driver if something is in the immediate area and sound an alarm. The operator is reacting solely to the alarm and must then decide what to do based on incomplete information."

In addition, Schwerman notes, there are situations in which sensors cannot detect hazards, such as potholes or ditches, or objects lying on the ground. "When backing around corners or over bumps, sensor systems may not be helpful at all. A sensor on the right side of a vehicle is designed to alert the driver if a car is there, but can't help if there is a fast-approaching car entering a blind spot."

Rear-view cameras are more problematic for tractor-trailers, notes Lang Mekra's Traylor, "Not only because of the physical logistics of the connection, but also because most fleets operate two and a half or three trailers per truck. So it gets very complex as far as having to equip that number of trailers. But a lot of companies are showing more interest in cameras mounted on the side of the truck to look down that right-hand side blind spot."

Mercer Transportation, Louisville, Ky., is one such company. It offers the Zone Defense camera system from PowerLinx at a discount to its owner-operators. Historically, more than half of the company's preventable accidents involve right turns and backing, according to Len Dunman, Mercer's director of safety. Mercer field testing has shown the camera system is an effective way to help prevent these accidents. "I am strongly encouraging all of our contractors to invest in this system," he says. "The cameras are rugged, and the night vision capability is truly amazing."

The Zone Defense system is available in a variety of configurations, starting with a rear camera and a monitor in the cab, up to systems with as many as five cameras, including digital video recorders that make a record of accidents. Infrared allows for night vision as well. Powerlinx also offers a system that can transmit the information through the existing wiring of the truck, so there are no cables to run.

"We've proven in a lot of instances that rear and side accidents have been reduced by as much as 90 percent by using our camera systems," says James Markus, vice president and general manager of transportation technology with Powerlinx. There is increasing awareness of and interest in camera systems, he says. "As fuel costs rise, companies are looking for everywhere they can to save money. A perfect way to look for savings would be in accident avoidance."

Increased interest in camera systems prompted Bendix to expand its XVision system – initially launched in 2001 as an infrared night vision system – to a fully integrated, scalable system that can support up to four additional daylight cameras for rear and side blind spot detection.

"The XVision system assists drivers to visually identify an obstacle (up to 1,500 feet in front of the vehicle), giving the driver sufficient time to avoid potentially dangerous situations," says Andreea Raaber, director of business development and new ventures for Bendix Commercial Vehicle Systems. "Unlike the warning light and audible systems that can cause driver distraction, the XVision system provides an image of the obstacle ahead, allowing the driver to recognize the obstacle and take appropriate action. The distance at which the driver can detect an obstacle with the XVision IR passive system is three to five times the distance of radar-based systems, according to Raaber. Because the XVision system provides a real-time image of the road ahead, she adds, it does not produce false positive and false negative warnings that can frustrate drivers.

However, Xvision is more expensive than radar-based systems. At a current suggested retail of about $4,600, so far the system has been accepted best in niche markets, such as fleets that have problems with animal collisions at night in rural areas.

One reason for slow adoption of camera systems in the tractor-trailer segment is lack of knowledge about today's more sophisticated camera and monitor technology, says ASA's Padrnos.

"The perception [is] of the camera system as being the CRT TVs that would never hold up in that type of application." Monitors today are sleek, slim, bright flat-screen LEDs sealed from dust and moisture.

There's also the perception that camera systems are more expensive than they are. Costs for camera systems have fallen in recent years. You can spend a few hundred dollars for a one-camera system up to a few thousand for a multi-camera system with a split-screen monitor.

Not only are the systems less expensive, but they're better. The cameras have gotten smaller (some side cameras don't stick out any further than larger marker lights). The visual field has increased, with pictures that are larger and clearer. "Most drivers are amazed at what they can see in the cameras," says Powerlinx's Markus.

COMING TOA DEALER NEAR YOU?

Other than Vorad, truck OEMs have been slow to offer high-tech visibility aids as options, although they do show up frequently on concept trucks.

Volvo's Technology Truck, for instance, shows off both a camera system and a night vision system. A few years ago, a concept Kenworth truck featured a "Kenworth Surround Electronic Vision System," which provided nearly 360 degrees of coverage around the tractor and trailer, using five cameras and a flat-panel display screen.

Freightliner recently began installation of the Bendix XVision in its PreDelivery Inspection centers. Menig notes that some customers are testing camera-based systems. While early reports have been favorable, he says there have been complaints about snow and mud buildup on the camera lens obscuring the image.

Even Vorad, though it's been on the market since 1994, has been slow to catch on. Volvo says less than 10 percent of its trucks are spec'd with the option, and Freightliner puts the number at a few thousand each year, spec'd by a "small, select group of fleets." That's changing, Eaton says. "Up until about two years ago, it was a little bit of a hard sell," says David Pierson, global sales manager for Eaton's Vehicle Solutions Business Unit. "You're starting to see more people now accept it as a viable technology."

As technology improves and costs continue to drop, however, high-tech visibility aids may be more readily embraced. Peterbilt's Lawyer predicts that within the next couple of years, we'll see a number of truck OEMs offering video systems.

"Quite frankly, the camera portion of it has gotten down to where it's fairly cost attractive. What we're struggling with is getting a cost-effective and durable video display in the cab. The displays are not quite there yet, but they're making dramatic improvements."

One downside, Lawyer notes, is that an in-dash display can eat up space that otherwise would be used for as many as six gauges – and Peterbilt owners tend to love their gauges.

"It's always an issue to find the right real estate inside the cab, where [the monitor] is visible but not in the way," says Lang Mekra's Traylor. "Because of the fact that the electronic dashboard is becoming more common, more truck OEMs are looking into using the screen that's already there that provides the electronic information about engine performance and all that stuff. I think there's a good potential there."

TOO MUCH OF A GOOD THING?

One drawback of any type of visibility device is that in many ways, they are only as good as the driver. Used improperly, some say, they can be a distraction, a crutch, or a poor excuse for not looking in the mirror.

"All of the gizmos, mirrors, cameras and cutesy add-ons are only as good as the driver," says owner-operator Dave Sweetman, who has nearly 4 million miles of safe driving to his credit. "When I started driving trucks, we had 6-inch round rear-view mirrors, no convex mirrors, no fender mounts or any of that. You were careful because that's what a professional driver does – drive carefully. I use my mirrors, and constantly scan all places around the truck and do not allow anyone to ride alongside of me for too long, nor ride my bumper."

For instance, International's Downs says that fender-mount mirrors won't improve safety if drivers use them to the exclusion of other mirrors and direct line-of-sight. "It's so easy to look at that mirror, it's right in [the driver's] field of view. They'll look in that mirror and make a decision about making a lane change, without paying attention to the fact that a convex mirror severely distorts your depth perception. A car that looks like it's far enough back [in a convex mirror], if you look at that same vehicle in the flat glass, you'll say, 'No, I'm not passing yet.'"

ASA's Padrnos is quick to point out that camera systems are not a replacement for mirrors. "They are an excellent advancement of mirrors," he says. "We usually place (the monitor) centered on the dash or overhead console, allowing the driver to scan mirror, monitor, mirror, monitor, mirror, and that's a very natural pattern."

K-10's Geshay notes that when it comes to high-tech visibility aids, there's a learning curve involved. "Truck drivers are used to using mirrors," he says.

Even the government is concerned about the effects of too much information on the driver. Eaton is part of a the U.S. DOT's Integrated Vehicle-Based Safety Systems Initiative, which is looking into an integrated countermeasure system it estimates could prevent over 48 percent of rear-end, run-off-road and lane change crashes.

"The government wanted to look at the effect of combining everything into one, intuitive display," Pierson says. "We're developing a display for this program. Essentially what it does, it wants to make the system intuitive, where you prioritize your alerts – what's the most critical thing the driver needs to look at? Make it where he's going to get the most critical alert first and then he's going to react, rather than looking around for where the beep came from."

In the end, the value of visibility aids, whether it's additional mirrors, radar, camera or night vision systems, is that they give you additional information to make better decisions, Downs says.

"A good driver who actually takes the time to look at the information in those mirrors and systems, it allows him to make a better decision because he has more information. The systems we have today give the driver a lot of good information, but in the end he's got to use that information to make a good decision."

On the other hand, notes Freightliner's Menig, "An airline pilot also has many gizmos and things to help fly an airplane. Would we consider them a crutch? I don't think so. We would not have been able to maintain or improve the safety of air travel in the face of more planes and passengers without additional aids for the pilot. I believe the same is true for commercial vehicles."

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