Any vehicle collision can result in injuries and fatalities. However, the sheer size and weight of a van, bus or truck mean crashes involving these vehicles are more likely to lead to an unsavoury outcome. If the automotive industry is to truly realise Vision Zero—a future with zero deaths or serious injuries from road collisions— improving commercial vehicle (CV) safety is paramount.
Vulnerable road users
Improving safety in this field, however, largely requires looking outside the vehicle. While a CV driver is at risk of injury or worse in a crash, it is fair to say that those using smaller modes of transport are at greater risk. This is no surprise: most CVs are heavier and bigger than any other vehicle they’ll meet on the road, meaning a crash that can crush a smaller passenger vehicle, for instance, may leave a truck’s cabin practically untouched. It’s why CV manufacturers are dedicating huge focus and investment to identifying nearby hazards to avoid crashes with vulnerable road users.
This endeavour is increasingly calling for the use of cameras and radar. For instance, the many blind spots of a heavy truck mean it can be easy to miss the presence of pedestrians, cyclists and even small- and medium-sized passenger vehicles sitting beside or behind the truck in question. Cameras and other sensors can highlight their position to the truck driver and issue a warning.
The next stage will see these detection mechanisms paired with advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS). The combination of blindspot detection, lane-keeping assistance, automatic emergency braking and more could not only actively prevent a crash occurring in the first place, but, at the very least, mitigate the severity of a crash if it’s already too late—no small thing considering the size and weight of a Class 8 truck.
Cameras are not only used to look around outside the vehicle, however. The integration of in-cabin driver monitoring systems (DMS) is also growing in popularity and there is a huge opportunity to integrate DMS with ADAS. Though a DMS platform can identify if a driver is distracted, impaired or unwell and help to improve post-event training procedures and mentoring, DMS’ core value will lie in providing real-time feedback. Inside the cabin, this may take the form of vibrations or audio and visual cues that can remind the driver of their responsibilities and recentre their attention on the driving task.
One obvious scenario where this would prove useful is in a medical emergency, such as if the driver has suffered a cardiac arrest or a stroke at the wheel. Should a driver be unfit to drive, this can be first identified via the DMS which can then issue an instruction to the ADAS tech to safely pull the vehicle over, or at least come to a halt.
Once the vehicle has rolled out of the factory, safety ultimately comes down to the fleet and its drivers that are trusted with hauling precious cargo from point to point. They are also trusted to comply with hours of service guidelines, which enforce mandatory breaks and prevent tiredness and distraction. They must also not drive while under the influence of drink or drugs.
On top of this, drivers and fleet managers must ensure that their vehicles are properly maintained as faulty systems could stop the vehicle from steering, braking or accelerating as intended—perhaps causing a collision. ZF warns that air braking systems, for example, are prone to freezing or corrosion during colder months, and require additional checks. Tyre wear is also a problem, with poor grip contributing to significantly reduced braking performance.
In most major markets, roadside checks are performed to ensure trucks are in good working order. They also consider the condition of the driver and inspectors have the power to enforce an extended break or even issue driving bans. Faulty trucks can be taken off the road if deemed unsafe. All this is in the pursuit of keeping trucks on the straight and narrow and is considered by many a vital element to CV safety.
Though the safety technologies in question can be applied to practically every CV, some vehicles have unique needs. For example, in buses, ADAS and similar technologies are crucial not just in protecting the driver and other road users, but also passengers onboard, many of which may not have access to safety equipment and restraints such as airbags or seat belts. The presence of passengers also means a sudden disturbance—noisy school children, for instance—could easily cause a driver to make a mistake. As such, more developers are designing bespoke systems for this segment.
The sheer size and weight of a van, bus or truck mean crashes involving these vehicles are more likely to lead to an unsavoury outcome
Some ADAS features currently in use give drivers feedback on their driving as they complete a route. Technology can also monitor passengers for potential risks and alert drivers if any dangerous situation looks likely to occur. Where passengers are aware of safety features, they embrace them, say industry groups. But most of the time, passengers are unaware of the technology that goes into their bus journey.
COVID-19 has prompted further development of passenger safety measures on buses. Since the beginning of the pandemic, cleaning protocols have become much more important, and measures range from simple disinfectants to powerful filtering machines. Industry groups say bus travel does not represent a significant health risk to passengers in the age of coronavirus. Nonetheless, mitigating health risks has entered the priorities of public transport providers to an extent not seen before.
Tech to the rescue?
Vision Zero seems a long way away for the industry, but CV manufacturers believe it is a realistic goal and that this segment has an important role to play in making it happen. However, the segment faces unique challenges in implementing robust safety measures. The threat posed to vulnerable road users, the expensive entry costs for ADAS and DMS tech and, as is the case in many fleets, the challenge of maintaining required freight volume with an increasingly stretched and tired driving workforce all present major safety challenges. On paper, the combination of technology, vehicle maintenance and effective driver training can ease the burden.