Safety Technologies: The New Frontier

From collision avoidance to cameras, from rollover prevention to analytics, technology is rapidly changing the safety landscape.

May 2014, - Cover Story

by Jim Beach, Technology Contributing Editor - Also by this author

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Such devices are a combination of a computer, video camera and cell phone (or other communication mode), explains Rob Bartels, senior vice president new ventures at Lytx (which sells the DriveCam product). The video camera has a lens looking out the front and a lens looking back at the driver. The camera continually erases what it records until there is an event – hard movement, hard braking, U-turn, etc. – when the unit will record for a certain length of time before and after that event. In addition to video, the systems also record movement of the vehicle, GPS and other information.

The system providers typically offer services that include review of each incident by the vendor’s analysts with results presented via reports or dashboards to fleet managers.

The video provides a view of what the driver sees and what the driver is doing. In the case of a hard-braking event, for instance, a driver may have reached for his cell phone or taken his eyes off the road for a moment. The inside lens will capture that and that driver can receive additional coaching.

Or it could be the driver had to brake to avoid a car cutting him off. Either way, the fleet has a better understanding of what happened.

SmartDrive’s event recorder includes a video camera with one lens facing forward and the other facing toward the driver. The recorder continually erases the video until activated by an event such as hard braking or an alert from an onboard active safety system such as collision avoidance.
SmartDrive’s event recorder includes a video camera with one lens facing forward and the other facing toward the driver. The recorder continually erases the video until activated by an event such as hard braking or an alert from an onboard active safety system such as collision avoidance.

Active safety systems

Many of the technologies being used by Con-way and Air Liquide are considered active systems, designed to take action if a driver doesn’t under certain situations.

Meritor Wabco’s OnGuard collision safety system, for instance, gives the driver an audible and visual warning if a rear-end collision seems imminent. The system’s cruise control and active braking features will activate engine torque reduction, the retarder and foundation brakes in sequence when engaged. If the driver takes action, the system disengages.

The company also markets stability control systems that feature antilock braking, traction and stability control and roll stability control – all active safety systems.

Integrating active systems such as these with event recorders gives driver managers an even better picture of driver performance. In March, Wabco and SmartDrive announced an agreement to allow Wabco’s active safety systems to tie into SmartDrive’s platform.

According to Steve Mitgang, CEO of SmartDrive, the integration of the two systems “makes sure our cameras go on” whenever there is an alert from Wabco’s lane-departure, collision-avoidance or rollover system. Mitgang notes that on their own, event recorder sensors may not react to a subtle shift in G-forces that collision avoidance or lane departure systems pick up.

Combining the two systems allows fleets to know which drivers may routinely go into corners too fast, for instance. Once identified, these drivers can be given additional coaching on safe driving habits.

Lytx’s Bartels explains that lanedeparture warning systems trigger events differently than event recorders. For example, “when a driver starts to drift off to the right, the accelerometer inside an event recorder isn’t tripped – there’s no sudden movement or motion.”

Bendix’s Wingman collision mitigation system also combines video and data when activated. The system can capture a video clip of that event so the fleet can get an accurate context of what just happened. Bendix’s SafetyDirect application collects that along with other vehicle data via the truck’s telematics system and compiles it into reports, with events sorted in various categories such as excessive curve speed, excessive braking and activation of onboard safety systems.

Active safety systems also may collect the types of information that can be used for driver coaching. Hans Molin, product manager at Bendix, says the system is capable of tracking trends and summarizing events by driver and not just by vehicle, so driver managers can get a better idea of the different drivers’ behaviors regardless of the vehicle they are in. For instance, the summary may list a driver’s average following distance, how often the collision avoidance system activates, how many lane departures he or she has had, hard braking events, etc. Those can all be collected on a scorecard with driver rankings based on real data.

“You can target the training based on that ranking and use the data you have to reinforce it.”

Collect and predict

Predictive analytics is another tool carriers use to improve safety.

“The most important thing is to focus on safety beyond an accident,” says Vikas Jain, vice president product & program management at Omnitracs, and general manager of FleetRisk Advisors. By focusing just on an accident, fleet managers don’t ask themselves “why safety happens,” he explains.

An analytic model such as those developed by FleetRisk, which take in all types of data, from driving performance, to messaging, to work schedule, provides a way for fleets to detect when a driver is under stress – and stress can lead to accidents.

 Tire pressure monitoring systems, such as this one from Doran Manufacturing, not only alert drivers to potential low-pressure situations, but when integrated with a vehicle’s in-cab telematics system can send that information to a fleet’s back office alerting driver managers and shop personnel of the possible problems.
 Tire pressure monitoring systems, such as this one from Doran Manufacturing, not only alert drivers to potential low-pressure situations, but when integrated with a vehicle’s in-cab telematics system can send that information to a fleet’s back office alerting driver managers and shop personnel of the possible problems.

Scorecards can only go so far in this regard, Jain says. “A scorecard is an indicator of a driver’s performance, not the safety risk he may be.” This is because a driver’s stress will build over time. What analytic models provide is a way for fleets to see subtle changes over time, across thousands of points of data.

Maverick’s Brown says his company has seen good results from these tools. The company “throws more data into the mix,” he says, including unstructured data like messaging. “We’ve found that the count of messages from drivers when combined with other data can be predictive in terms of their performance.” The tools bring additional focus to “what we need to address or who we need to address,” he adds.

Lytx’s Bartels says that data from event records and other sources allow fleet managers to identify patterns of behavior that lead to collisions. “We can say a particular event is more predictive of a possible collision.” For instance, following too closely is a predictor. “Using a cell phone and following too closely are highly predictive.”

But the effort goes beyond predicting which driver may have an accident, he says. “It’s really about making drivers better.”

Likewise, Meritor Wabco announced in March it had partnered with SmartDrive to offer ProView, a system designed to offer video and data analytics for improving driver performance.

A better work environment

While much of the responsibility for safety rests with the driver, technologies that make his workday easier and less stressful can also lead to improved safety.

For instance, navigation is an area where fleets see opportunities to improve safety.

While speeding remains the number one driver error that leads to accidents, being unfamiliar with the roads is second. A lost driver is probably a distracted driver.

In fact, SmartDrive recently introduced a U-turn trigger to its onboard event recorder. SmartDrive’s Mitgang says these unsafe maneuvers usually indicate the driver is lost or missed a turn. In-cab, truck-specific navigation systems help mitigate this problem with turn-by-turn instructions and automatic re-routing when necessary.

Maverick’s Brown says the company is looking at navigation. “We believe it’s going to be the next step, being able to recommend better routes.” That includes not only using the routes supplied by navigation providers, but using all the data they collect on each trip to make better routing decisions.

Minimizing driver distraction also helps safety. One improvement has been the increasing integration between various onboard systems that allows navigation or other services from one provider to run on another provider’s in-cab device. For instance, Drivewyze recently announced its pre-clearance system would run on Rand McNally’s in-cab devices and previously announced integrations with other mobile communication providers.

Other efforts to reduce driver distraction include cell-phone blocking technologies. For instance, last year NexTraq introduced a Bluetooth trigger unit that interacts with a mobile app on a driver’s phone to block the phone’s use while the vehicle is moving.

In the future, intelligent transportation systems, vehicle-to-vehicle, and vehicle-to-infrastructure/infrastructure-to-vehicle data may provide additional information for active safety systems, notes Bendix. These inputs might reveal what other vehicles around and ahead of the truck are doing, and what roadway obstacles – such as work zones – may be ahead. This additional information can help the system deliver even more meaningful alerts (and help reduce false alerts), as well as potential additional interventions.

The list of technologies trucking companies can use in their safety is much more comprehensive than those covered here and can extend into a number of operations, including recruitment/retention, training, maintenance, routing and many others.

But technology alone isn’t enough without a commitment from a company’s leadership, says PeopleNet’s Ochsendorf.  Not just in allocating the resources necessary to invest in the technologies, but also on the follow-through on implementation. “The companies that struggle purchase the technology but don’t focus on the tools they have.” 

What’s the ROI?

Return on investment with safety technologies can come in a number of ways, according to vendors.

Fleet managers should not look at the investment to deploy such systems as just a cost, says Rick Ochsendorf, senior vice president operations and product management at PeopleNet. He says that it is up to the technology providers to “educate fleets so they see it not as just an expense, but as something that brings value to their company” in terms of safety.

“There is an understanding that there is a lot more ROI for the safety tools,” he added. “When it comes to reducing accidents, staying in compliance or improving your safety rating, there is a lot of information that shows safety scores are directly correlated with the safety tools a fleet uses.”

Rob Bartels, senior vice president new ventures with Lytx, says that while “customers are looking to validate ROI – it’s the lagging indicators that are important to a business.” That would include things such as having the data and evidence necessary to exonerate a driver after a collision. “If you have a video that shows you are not at fault, it saves the driver his or her job and saves the company money” in terms of liability, insurance cost, etc. “If you can reduce those costs, it’s an enormous savings for the company.”

On their own, safety technologies won’t always lead to reduced insurance premiums. “There isn’t an automatic discount because of the use of safety equipment,” says David Hagen, RSI Insurance Brokers. But he added that, “the use of safety technologies can result in discounts on insurance. The amount of a discount and whether or not a company is eligible depends on other factors.”

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