Praxair Tests Safety Devices in Pursuit of Perfection
July 26, 2000
Management textbooks say that business goals should be easy to describe, and hard to reach. Tom Rule, national manager of trucking operations for hazmat carrier Praxair Inc., has distilled that counsel into its purest essence.
His goal is perfection: no accidents, period.
That may sound like pie-in-the-sky, but Rule and Praxair are serious.
Rule talked about safety at the Federal Highway Administration’s research center in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., where he was attending a meeting of the National Intelligent Vehicle Initiative. As he spoke, trade reporters and government officials rumbled by in a Praxair tractor that is testing new anti-rollover technology from Freightliner and Meritor WABCO.
“We are looking for things that will fix our problems,” Rule said, referencing the half-dozen pilot programs Praxair has under way to test various safety technologies.
Besides Freightliner’s Roll Advisor & Control, Praxair is fleet-testing automatic transmissions, collision avoidance and lane tracking devices, a blind-side vision system and a black ice indicator. It also is redesigning its cryogenic tankers to lower their center of gravity, Rule said.
Praxair’s interest in safety arises from the nature of its cargo: industrial gases. The private fleet for a Fortune 500 supplier of the gases, Praxair has 650 tractors and around 1,200 drivers who cover about 75 million miles per year.
In addition to careful hiring and close monitoring, Rule is committed to aggressively testing new technologies that might get him closer to his goal of perfection.
The anti-rollover device, for example, warns drivers if they approach the danger zone, and then will automatically slow the truck if a rollover is imminent.
The idea, explained Freightliner engineer William Gouse, is to train drivers to avoid dangerous situations. The device will not necessarily prevent a rollover, but it does give the driver information that he won’t get from the feel of the truck.
The device gets its information from the antilock brake system: it tracks lateral acceleration and wheel speed, and calculates the potential for rollover.
As the truck approaches rollover threshold, the driver gets an alert on the message center on his dashboard. At 71% of threshold, the message reads “Risky Maneuver Detected.” At 81%, the driver reads, “Rollover Risk Detected,” and must push a button to clear the message. At 91%, a tone sounds and the message says, “High Risk of Rollover Detected.”
If the truck goes over 100%, the system automatically pulls back the throttle and engages the engine brake. When the rig is stable, the driver resumes full control.
Praxair has six trucks in the test – Freightliner Century Class S/Ts hauling nitrogen tanks, based in La Porte, IN. It will collect data for six months without turning on Roll Advisor & Control, to establish a performance baseline, and then it will activate the system for six more months. The data will be evaluated by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute.
How big a problem is rollover? Citing Department of Transportation statistics, Freightliner says that rollovers account for about half the heavy-duty truck driver deaths each year — more than 350 in 1998.
The truck maker intends to make Roll Advisor & Control standard on the Century Class S/T at the end of the year, and optional on its other Class 8s.
Rule wants to see the numbers, but he sees more advantages than just preventing rollovers. A reputation for safety makes Praxair a more attractive place for drivers to work, he said. The fleet’s driver turnover rate is only 12%, compared to rates approaching 100% in other industry sectors. That is partly due to the regular nature of Praxair’s operation – but it does not hurt that drivers feel valued.
Rule understands that drivers might be leery of a device that will temporarily take control of truck speed in crisis situations. The key is education, he said. “If we educate drivers they will come to some level of acceptance of it.”
Asked for his thoughts on proposed changes to the driver hours of service regulations, Rule applied the same principle. While he was mum about driver scheduling changes, he supported the requirement for onboard recorders to track driver hours.
The recorders will help drivers do their jobs, and help the company keep track of the truck, he said.
While Rule invests in high-tech safety, he has not forgotten the simple stuff – such as specifying that Praxair’s three-point seat belts are made with bright orange webbing. That way it’s easy to tell if his drivers are buckled in.