The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration is researching a number of high-tech approaches to truck safety. A webinar last week updated participants on four ongoing projects at the agency's Office of Analysis, Research and Technology: tire inflation and monitoring systems, enhanced rear signaling for commercial motor vehicles, IntelliDrive for CMVs, and a management system for the CDL skills test.
One of the technologies FMCSA is testing  involved improved rear signaling to prevent rear-end crashes into the back of trucks.
One of the technologies FMCSA is testing involved improved rear signaling to prevent rear-end crashes into the back of trucks.

Reducing Rear-End Crashes

In 2006, there were approximately 23,500 rear-end crashes into the backs of heavy trucks, killing 135 people and inflicting incapacitating injuries on 1,600 more, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's General Estimate System. So FMCSA is looking at what sort of technologies might help keep other drivers from crashing into the back of trucks.

What they're looking at is a system that would activate warning lights on the back of a truck or trailer, activated by rearward-facing radar that detects a vehicle closing on the back of the truck. After going through some static testing, the most promising set-up appears to be two sets of six LED brake lights on the main bumper. The test involved a "driver" sitting in a vehicle behind the truck, instructed to perform distracting activities such as finding a station on the radio or entering coordinates in a navigation system, and measurements of how quickly the lights drew the "driver's" attention without producing an uncomfortable glare level.

Other configurations they looked at also involved lights on the rear underride guard, additional lighting placed on the edges of the trailer's rear, and combinations of these.

Currently the testing has moved on to a dynamic test on Virginia Tech's Smart Road, which offers controlled testing conditions that are nonetheless similar to the real world. This testing is evaluating the main bumper lighting configuration that was promising in the static tests, compared against normal brake lights, additional conspicuity markings, lights on the underride guard, and the six-back groups of lights on the upper corners of the trailer doors.

The most promising concept from this testing will move on to real-world testing on the highways of Virginia. That will lead to a field operational test, where the technology will be tried out by real-world fleets. The agency hopes to start the field operational test, which will take at least two years, by the end of the year.

Under Pressure

The tire pressure monitoring and maintenance project has wrapped up a field operational test with two fleets. Although some preliminary results were shared on the call, a final, official report won't be out until next spring at the earliest.

In previous research, the agency was somewhat shocked to discover just how poor a job truckers do at keeping tires inflated to the proper pressure, said Chris Flanigan with the FMCSA's technology division. In a study that looked at hundreds of trucks at various shows and facilities, the FMCSA found that only about half were within 5 psi of the recommended pressure. One out of 14 were at least 20 psi under-inflated. In addition, about 20 percent of the dual tire assemblies had tire pressures that differed by more than 5 psi.

The study also indicated that improper tire inflation can hike tire procurement costs by 10 to 13 percent, cut fuel economy by 6/10 of a percent, accounts for at least one road call per truck per year - overall, increasing the operating costs on a truck by $600 to $800 per year.

Tire pressure monitoring and inflation systems can help fleets keep on top of tire pressure, but the agency's numbers (which admittedly are several years old) showed that only about 5 percent of national truck fleets were using them. So FMCSA embarked on a research program to investigate the pros and cons of different types of systems. The hope is that the tests will show fleets can benefit not only from improved safety, but also improve their bottom lines.

The research is drawing to a close, as the agency just wrapped up the second of two field operational tests at two fleets: Sheetz in Altoona, Pa., and Gordon Food Services in Grand Rapids, Mich. Sheetz has married tractor-tanker combinations that use wide-base tires. Gordon uses tractors with both refrigerated pups and standard trailers. They tested the Meritor Tire Inflation System by PSI; the Tire Safeguard Monitoring system; and the Wabco Integrated Vehicle Tire Monitoring system.

Preliminary results from the Sheetz test - and Flanigan emphasized these are only preliminary - found that the test fleet had a 1.8 percent increase in fuel economy over the control fleet, and that the tires on the control fleet showed faster wear than those on the trucks with the pressure monitoring and inflation systems.

Smart highways

IntelliDrive is a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration initiative that goes beyond commercial vehicles. The goal is to take some of the information that already exists in the computers on today's vehicles and share that with other nearby vehicles, with the surrounding infrastructure, and with passengers' personal communications devices.

Vehicle-to-vehicle, or V2V, communications systems will provide 360-degree situational awareness of other, similarly equipped V2V vehicles within range. DOT analysis indicates that up to 76 percent of all crashes by unimpaired drivers could potentially be addressed by this technology.

For instance, drivers could be warned of a school zone, sharp ramp curve, or slippery patch of roadway ahead. Warnings could be provided of imminent crash situations, such as when merging puts vehicles on a collision path, or when a vehicle ahead stops suddenly.

Vehicle-to-vehicle, or V2V, systems are built on low-cost technology that combines a wireless technology similar to household WiFi with the Global Positioning System technology that is already in many vehicles. Under a cooperative agreement with automobile manufacturers, DOT has developed V2V safety system prototypes that build on this combination to transmit alerts and warnings to other vehicles sharing the roadway.

According to the FMCSA's Jon Mueller on the webinar, according to NHTSA estimates from 2005-2008, 71 percent of truck crashes could potentially have been prefented. There were approximately 4,000 fatal truck crashes in 2007; according to these estimates, 2900 could potentially have been prevented or at least been less severe.

FMCSA is working to determine what potential crash scenarios are most likely to be affected by this technology, develop performance requirements for the technology, and look at commercial motor vehicle interoperability issues as well as potential human factors issues.

"Regardless of the vehicle make or model, whether it's factory installed or retrofit, we have to ensure the systems will work properly," Mueller said. "For V2V systems to be effective, interoperability is critical."

Mueller says the goal is to get as much research on the issue as possible done by 2013, when NHTSA is supposed to make a decision on where to go with a regulatory approach on this idea.

Foiling CDL Fraud

Finally, FMCSA is in the process of rolling out a new Web-based system that will help state motor vehicle administrators prevent CDL skills testing fraud as well as make the process of managing that testing more efficient.

Quon Kwan with the FMCSA's technology division explained that the Commercial Skills Testing Information Management System, or CSTIMS, was prompted by a 2002 inspector general's report on CDL fraud. The report uncovered CDL fraud in at least 16 states, and a number of fatal accidents were caused by truckers who obtained their CDLs fraudulently. (See "Report: CDL Oversight Needs Work," 5/13/2002).

With the new Web-based sy