Fred Andersky will tell you that when one looks back over much of the century-long history of the trucking industry, safety technology largely served a completely mechanical role on commercial vehicles—especially when it came to brakes.

That all began to change nearly 30 years ago, however, when electronics began being incorporated in braking systems, a development that, in his words, meant “adding a brain” to the brakes.

And making braking systems “smart” triggered a cascading effect where safety technology is concerned and sparking a stunning series of advances that shows no signs of slowing down.

“When we added an ECU (electronic control unit) and sensors, we sudden­ly added intelligence to the braking system,” Andersky, director of customer solutions and director of government and industry affairs for Bendix Commercial Vehicle Systems, explained in a conference call with reporters hosted by research firm Stifel Capital Markets in May.

That single development—adding a “brain” to truck braking systems—triggers a “revolution, if you will, in terms of brake technology,” he emphasized, “because now we were able to do things like start to control where the brakes were and weren’t applied. That gave us traction control.”  

From there, the addition of other sensors continued to expand the safety footprint of Class 8 trucks.

“A steering angle sensor figured out driver input and a yaw-rate and lateral acceleration sensor to figure out yaw or directional stability as well as lateral acceleration. That gave us electronic stability control, or ESC,” Andersky noted.

ESC, in turn, allowed companies like Bendix to move forward with additional advances, such as adding radar sensors to the system. That, in turn, led to the development of “active cruise control,” i.,e., when the cruise control system on a truck is activated, it auto­matically figures out the distance between it and a forward vehicle.  If the “safe following distance” gap gets too small, the system itself alerts the truck driver and de-throttles the engine as necessary, engages an engine retarder, or applies the brakes to help maintain that following distance behind the vehicle.

“That kind of started the movement on collision mitigation technology,” Andersky said. “Now we have autonomous emergency braking systems [which] combine adaptive cruise control with collision mitigation. If the system determines a collision is imminent, it alerts the driver whether they are in cruise control or not and applies the brakes as necessary to help the driver mitigate the collision.”

The further addition of a forward-looking camera to what Bendix calls its Wingman Fusion system two years ago paves the way for even more active “interventions” by the vehicle itself to prevent potential crashes, Andersky noted.

“What you’re really looking at is the idea of more information coming into the system to enable more types of interventions—not only braking, but steering control in the future to help the driver mitigate more types of collision situations,” he explained.

While the safety benefits of such technologies tend to be obvious—one fleet Bendix worked with witnessed a 70% reduction in the number of rear-end collisions and also a 70% reduction in the severity of the remaining 30% by installing its Wingman system—the bottom-line savings can be difficult to tally at times, Andersky explained.
The biggest savings potential, though, can be summed up in two words: insurance premiums.

“What we have found is that insurance companies look at the risk profile of the [trucking] fleet,” Andersky noted. “But unlike on the automotive side where if you buy a car and you get all these safety features you may see a discount right away, it’s not that quick for truck fleets.”

As insurers examine the overall “risk profile” of the fleet to calculate premiums, things that the fleet does to reduce the risk of crashes—adding collision mitigation, stability control, and air disc brakes, driver training, performing good maintenance, and so on—all help them look better than truck operators who don’t do those types of things, he stressed.

“I recently wrote a white paper called ‘The Fleet Safety Equation’ that looks at the idea that safety isn’t an ‘either/or’ decision, but it’s really an ‘and” decision. It’s not just adding technology that’s going to make your fleet safer, but it’s adding technology, training your drivers, keeping your trucks in good shape, and other types of things,” Andersky pointed out. “Fleets doing that, again, are going to look better and should see results in terms of fewer crashes and, therefore, should start to see lower rates from their insurers.”

It’s also important to point out that a lot of trucking firms these days are “self-insured,” Andersky added, meaning they have one level of coverage where they pay for the cost of crashes directly while retaining “catastrophic insurance” for extreme or “higher level” crashes.

“When you think about it, crashes can be extremely expensive depending on the severity and frequency of those crashes,” he emphasized. “Being able to reduce those crashes—both the frequency and severity—really helps in terms of being able to reduce the cost of operations, as the money to cover the cost of those crashes comes right out of your profit margin.”

Andersky also noted that certain positive side effects can occur from the use of certain safety systems, such as active cruise control.

“By adding in the use of cruise control, fleets suddenly found that they were getting better fuel economy,” he explained. “We did a cursory test where we ran two trucks out and back across the country. It wasn’t a Society of Automotive Engineers Type II fuel economy test by any means, but we found that the trucks utilizing the adaptive cruise control saw a 5% improvement in fuel economy.

“And we’ve even heard fleets getting as high as a 10% to 15% improvement [in fuel economy] just by adding that [active cruise control],” he continued. ”So, there can be other benefits from adding [this] technology beyond crash reduction.”