Out of the blind spot

Assistance systems are one of the first steps toward autonomous driving and enable a safer driving experience. The potential benefits are particularly interesting in the truck industry; more and more progress is being made here.

The dimensions are formidable: One truck can be up to 4 meters high, almost 20 meters long, and weigh up to 40 tons. Getting into the truck cab requires climbing up some stairs. Once in the cab, truck drivers can see farther down the road than anybody else on the road. Several side mirrors let the driver keep the areas below and to the side of the cab in view.

There are high expectations of automated and autonomous driving when it comes to making traffic safer in the future. The basic assumption is that advances in technology can make up for human shortcomings. More advanced technology means that more processes can be automated. Experts from the field of research and development categorize the varying degrees of automation in a five level system: from level one, with assistance systems supporting the driver, to level five, where a completely automated vehicle drives itself through real-life traffic.

While public interest in vehicle automation was largely focused on cars in the past, the truck industry is catching up. Despite the fact that autonomous driving has already taken a big step forward in the United States with Daimler’s Freightliner Inspiration Truck, the situation in Germany is quite different. The question of when self-driving trucks will be on the roads here in Germany is more a matter of speculation at the moment. The industry is still a long way off from level 5. Yet the pursuit of traffic safety improvement has in fact brought commercial vehicles to the second level. The potential to improve safety with assistance systems is considerable. And policymakers are taking advantage of this potential by creating new regulations.

Safety by law

Several truck assistance systems are now mandatory. For example, Electronic Stability Control (ESC) systems have been mandatory in newly registered commercial vehicles since 2014. Such systems automatically intervene in engine and braking management when there is a risk of overturning or loss of traction. Furthermore, Autonomous Emergency Brake System (AEBS) and Lane Departure Warning System (LDWS) technology is now required in commercial vehicles. The latter monitors lane markings with a camera or infrared system and warns drivers if they start to leave the lane unintentionally.

Furthermore, the industry has broadened its base in recent years. Above all else, urban traffic has become more complex, with continually more demands being placed on drivers. This is also the case when large trucks have to turn in cities: if a bicyclist enters the truck’s blind spot during a turn, turning assistance systems like “Sideguard Assist” from Daimler activate a yellow warning light in the A-pillar on the passenger side. If a collision is imminent, the color changes from yellow to red, the warning light is brighter, and after two seconds remains red. In addition, a warning signal sounds from a speaker in the cab. “This warning directs the driver’s attention to what is going on to the right of the truck, giving them a chance to avoid a collision by steering away or braking to a full stop”, stated a Daimler spokesperson.

Maneuvering assistance on a tablet

The introduction of turning assistance systems is being discussed by the European Union. In Germany, it is conceivable that tax incentives will encourage freight forwarding companies to procure assistance systems already available today. “In the future, no truck should be on the road without a turning assistance system”, said Federal Minister of Transport and Digital Infrastructure Andreas Scheuer (CSU), announcing that vehicles in his ministry and all subordinate government bodies will be equipped with these systems.

One thing is certain: unilateral action taken by Germany would not be in line with EU law. But another thing is also certain: logistics companies would improve their image and reputation by pushing forward with their own initiatives. For example, one discount supermarket chain has recently announced that all of its delivery trucks will be equipped with turning assistance systems by 2019. Meanwhile, the technology continues to advance.

For example, assistance systems can now monitor the area behind the truck when it is parking at a loading ramp and warn the driver when an object up to 20 centimeters away is identified. The next available technology might be maneuvering assistance, which makes it possible for an entire tractor-trailer to be controlled from outside the cab via tablet. With this system, the driver enters directional commands and a destination, and the assistant subsequently carries out the steering actions to guide the vehicle to the preselected destination.

This would be a big step towards eliminating dangerous blind spots. And a big step towards making traffic safer.