Coming soon to your car: dangerous big-rig safety features

by Richard Henley

The last few new class 8 trucks I have driven have had a bevy of new “safety features” that are the cutting edge of “looks good on paper.”  I know some of you aren’t worried about what is mandated on a big rig, but what starts here will trickle down to become the next pain in your rear sooner of later. If you don’t believe me, look at the talks of tracking vehicles with GPS so they can charge you for the miles you drive. That kind of taxation has been on the trucking industry for years. What about seat belts? Those were required on commercial vehicles back when they were still a seldom ordered option on passenger cars.

Don’t get me wrong here, I’m not ranting about every safety feature here, some of them are pretty good and even helpful, like ABS. I like ABS, and it has helped me avoid some accidents a time or two, but that system was pretty thoroughly tested and had a lot of the bugs worked out before it was ever offered, and was engineered with a lot of common sense to the system. All of the ABS systems I’ve tried are designed such that if the system detects that it may not be working correctly it shuts itself down lets the vehicle operator control the brakes instead of taking control of the brakes from him.

Let me start by saying that if a driver really needs these “life saving” systems, he probably shouldn’t be driving, mostly because if a real situation arises that activates any of these systems and you aren’t already responding to it, it’s already too late to avoid the situation. Some of these safety features are already on passenger cars, while others are planned.

Iteris: lane departure systems

Iteris, the lane departure system, uses a camera mounted at the top center of the windshield to detect the lines on the road, and speakers mounted on either side of the driver to make a rumble strip noise if you get within 6 inches of the lines, the idea being that the sound of the rumble strip will cause you to jerk the wheel in the correct direction before you run off the road. It works best on freshly paved and painted roadways where the contrast between lines and road is high, but how many miles of those roads do you actually drive on?

It’s not picky, if it can’t see the lines, such as in road construction, or a gravel or snow covered road, it seems to make them up as it goes along and gives a false alarm when it feels like it. The county roads back home really drive it crazy, they only have a center line and no fog line, so the system just doesn’t know which side to rumble on and goes off back and forth at random.

It doesn’t take into account that there are times that you might need to cross the line, like when Joe RVer is passing you and he doesn’t really have a clue where the right side of his motor home is, or when you are passing an oversize load and need to give him all the clearance you can.

Of course the designers forgot (or weren’t smart enough to figure out) that I’m really not steering the truck, but rather the trailer, and to keep the trailer in the lane I might need to get the truck right on or even a bit over the line.

Without counting, I’m guessing that the system has an accuracy rating somewhere maybe as high as 2%. They did put an override switch on it so you can shut it off when in situations where it’s most apt to throw a false alarm, but they found out that most drivers “forgot” to turn it back on, so then they set it up so it came back on automatically after 15 minutes. How do you know when it’s turned itself back on? Usually you find out when you get the false alarm. How do you keep from jerking the wheel and running into something when you get the unexpected false alarm? After a couple months of dealing with false alarms you condition yourself to not react when you hear the rumble strip noise. The point of this system was what? I’m guessing it was to keep me from completely enjoying my Stevie Ray Vaughn CD unless I’m on a freshly paved and painted road.

Automatic traction control

ATC, or Automatic Traction Control. The idea here is that if the system detects traction loss, first it cuts back the throttle, and then applies the brake on the wheel that lost traction, theoretically putting the power to the wheels that have traction. My understanding is that Dumbler first started playing with this idea back in the 1980s, and they had to invent some superfast servos to activate the brakes fast enough to make it work right. 

Traction control works far better with hydraulic brakes on a passenger car than it is with the air brakes on a semi. Anyone familiar with air brakes knows about brake lag, which is caused by the fact that air doesn’t travel through a line as fast as hydraulic fluid, so the brakes can’t get applied or released as quickly as in a car (editor’s note: truck brakes also require somewhat longer lines to get to the rear of the rig). There’s nothing superfast about air brakes; they overcome the lag by using high pressure. Normal brake applications for an air brake system are usually under 25 psi, even a panic stop that locks the wheels (if ABS isn’t working) may only require 50 psi, but ATC applies 100 to 125 psi when it operates. On a slick surface, this is about useless, as it will lock the brake on the spinning wheel, and with the brake locked the next one will spin, and so forth so that instead of moving all you actually do is spin each of the drive tires one at a time in turn.

Another problem is that traction control doesn’t work on traction loss, but on wheel speed differences. It assumes that the wheel(s) moving the fastest have lost traction (are spinning) and makes corrections based on that. If you lose traction while decelerating, the tires with traction are turning the fastest, and since the system assumes they are the ones without traction it applies 125 psi to them, locking them up. This means none of your drive tires have traction, and shortly thereafter the pucker factor gets real high as the tractor and trailer are experiencing the infamous phenomenon called “jackknife.” 

After it did this to me on Wolf Creek Pass on snowy night, I tried to complain about the system on the NHTSA website as I couldn’t seem to get anyone at Freightliner, Eaton, or my company to take the flaw in the system seriously. I found the page where they tested the system when it was a prototype and decided it was a good thing. It doesn’t take too much of an engineering student to figure out where the flaw in the test is (or maybe it does), as they only tested it under acceleration conditions, but not under deceleration. You can’t complain about a faulty system if there is no radio button for it on the form. They must really like the system, or else someone there got an awful lot of palm grease from the manufacturers to omit the system on the complaint form.

Smart Cruise / VORAD (laser accident warning)

[Editor’s note: a toned down version of this system is used on some Toyota/Lexus vehicles with laser-based “smart cruise control” to prepare safety systems for a crash.]

The Smart Cruise/Vorad system was one of the first of the idiot compensation features on the market. This one is a prime example of what I wrote about “if a driver needs the nanny systems…” Smart Cruise/Vorad has a radar unit on the front of the truck, a display unit on the dash, and is wired in with the cruise control. If you are approaching something in front of you too fast, it flashes a bunch of lights on the display unit and makes all kinds of crazy noises to distract you from the problem at hand, and if you are using the cruise control it cuts the throttle, and if it deems necessary, throws engine and service brake on. Looks good on paper, right? Now are you ready for the reality of Vorad?

When I was almost 11 years old and my dad was teaching me to drive a truck, one of the first rules he pounded into my head was that in a big truck you want to leave at least 8 seconds between yourself and the vehicle in front of you. Much later in life I took a wonderful driver improvement course called the Smith System (fleet owners, you really want to look into that course, it is bar none the best!), and they stress the same thing, at least 8 seconds following distance. What do you know; father knows best, and the experts agree with him.

Problem number one with Vorad, the maximum setting is 3.25 seconds. Now while I’m not college educated, I did manage to graduate high school, and if I recall correctly 3.25 is just a bit less than 8, indeed, it's less than half.

Problem number two, if you try to use it while it’s set at the 3.25 second range, it not only picks up every vehicle within 3.25 seconds in front of you, it picks up every fence post, sign, bridge railing, overpass, pothole, roadkill, and tumbleweed within 50 feet of either side of the road, and goes into full on panic mode when it does. At 3.25 seconds, the system is constantly cycling back and forth between full acceleration and full deceleration, making for a very interesting ride.

A lot of the false alarms can be alleviated by setting the distance to the minimum, 2.25 seconds, but that’s just a bit too close to be following in any vehicle, let alone a big rig. Unless of course you’re talking on the cell phone, I notice that’s about the distance most cell-phone users follow while talking and driving. Remember the part about “by the time it reacts it’s too late”?  If you are gaining on something 2 to 3 seconds in front of you, you better already have a plan for avoiding the accident and you better be putting it into action, or the only thing left to do is brace yourself for the impact.

Another thing a flatbedder learns early on is that hard acceleration or deceleration will shift some loads, like PVC pipe for instance. It’s a long drive from Charlotte, NC to St. George, UT when you don’t dare use the cruise control for fear of shifting the load. (Don’t ask how I know Smart Cruise will shift a load of PVC pipe, I don’t want to talk about it.)

Unlike the others, Smart Cruise/Vorad does have one feature that almost makes it all worthwhile. It has a memory mode, so if you wind up in a collision, you hit the memory button and it saves the data from the event. If an insurance scammer cuts you off and then brakes so hard that you can’t avoid hitting him, the data can be downloaded so that when you go to court to fight the unsafe following distance ticket or wrongful injury lawsuit you have proof that he cut you off and you weren’t following too close. Joe Insurance Scammer, if you’re reading this, make certain there isn’t a funny looking black box on the front bumper of the truck before you ply your trade. If there is, don’t try it. It isn’t going to be fun when you get to court and find the tables are turned.

Roll Stability Control

RSC, or Roll Stability Control is another fun one.  My last Freightliner had this, and I’m told the new Peterbilt does also. If the Pete has it they must have worked some of the bugs out, as I’ve yet to get a false alarm out of it on the Pete. This system amounts to a sensor that measures sideways G forces and a sensor that measures the amount of turn on the steering wheel, hooked up to a computer that cuts engine throttle and applies the engine brake and service brakes if it deems necessary.

As I mentioned, the Pete has yet to give me a false alarm, but some of the trucks had a recall because the factory forgot to hook it up, maybe mine is one and they haven’t figured it out yet. The Freightliner was notorious for false alarms with this system, and one of the neat gadgets they had on it was for “driver education,” it had a display on the dash that would chime and tell you that you had cornered too fast and needed to slow down by however many MPH it deemed appropriate.

I hate to admit but I got into a couple of corners too hot a time or two in the truck, and the system never did go off, but these were all on smooth roads. If there was a good bump in the corner, you could count on the system making all sorts of noise about it though, whether or not you were going too fast. It was kind of humorous to be rolling around a parking lot about 10 MPH and hit a big pothole in the middle of a turn and have the system tell you that you needed to reduce your speed by 15 MPH. What wasn’t humorous was when I hit a pothole in the middle of a 15 mph corner in Kansas City during a rain storm and instead of making the left turn I intended, the system locked up the tractor and trailer brakes (remember the unregulated 125 psi brake application to speed things up?) and I wound up jack-knifed across the oncoming traffic lanes.

Class 8 truck safety features

As I see it, the real problem with all the above features is that they are designed to compensate for a poor driver; but no matter how hard they try, they can’t make a computer in a vehicle that is smarter than a human, or that can detect every thing that may become critical in an incident that could become an accident.

In the situations on Wolf Creek Pass and in Kansas City, there wasn’t actually a problem until the system made the wrong assumptions about the situation at hand, took control of the truck away from me, and did the wrong things to cause the incident.

Fortunately, in both situations there wasn’t any loss of property or life, but if there would have been, who do you think would have been held responsible? I’m willing to bet they wouldn’t have went after the screwball engineer that came up with the idea, nor the idiot that proclaimed it as safe after seeing it demonstrated in an incomplete testing session. They wouldn’t have gone after the people that offered it on the truck or the people who ordered the truck that way either. The driver would certainly be the one they went after as being the cause of the accident, even though the accident was caused when the system(s) in question took control of the vehicle away from him.

I feel that If I’m going to be held responsible for something, I want it to be for something I did or something that I neglected to do, but I don’t want to be held responsible for something simply because I happened to be the unfortunate one sitting in the left seat when one of these systems decided to take me for a ride.

Instead of throwing millions into designing, testing, installing, and marketing these phony “safety” systems, why don’t we put some of that money into educating and testing the most important safety feature a vehicle has, the driver? Creating more intelligent drivers is the only way to create a safer driving environment, because there isn’t a computer that can beat real intelligence. In other words, the only way to truly create a safe driving environment is to adjust the loose nut behind the wheel.

The people who run the safety department at the trucking company I’m with will cite all sorts of figures that they say proves these features are cutting accidents. I think they are forgetting that there might be other things coming into play that help their numbers out. Things like the increase in driver education courses they offer, or the increased enforcement and fines against unsafe drivers. Having their independent contractors slow down to maximize fuel economy, and their work to reduce the amount they pay in insurance premiums and deductibles, has some affect on the numbers.

These are the numbers I’ve seen in my own experience, based on my operation with this company since March 2000. Before Vorad was installed in their trucks, I was never in an accident where I ran into another vehicle in front of me; after Vorad, I still haven’t had one, so there’s a 0% reduction. Before the Iteris, I never accidentally ran off the road, and after Iteris, I still haven’t accidentally run off the road, another 0% reduction. I never had a jackknife accident in my life, until the ATC and RSC systems were installed, and then each caused one, so that’s a 100% increase for both. I think the safety department needs to re-examine their numbers.