In many ways, trucks are the lifeblood of the Australian economy, delivering over 220 billion tonne kilometres of freight across the country each year.
Trucks deliver food and water, transport raw materials, and move products around to keep distribution networks alive. In fact, if you think about it, nearly any goods or service you rely on, has at least one point in its supply chain that depends on the trucking industry.
But for the drivers, it can be a tough gig.
Long hauls, shift work, time pressures and fatigue are all challenges of the job. In addition, the sheer size and weight of these vehicles poses a risk, not only to themselves but to motorists and pedestrians.
In 2020, almost 180 people were killed in crashes involving heavy trucks. Occupants in light vehicles (such as cars) accounted for almost 60% of these fatalities, while truck occupants themselves accounted for nearly 20%. Further, more than 500 heavy truck occupants are hospitalised each year.
Thankfully, innovation is proving to be a saving grace for truckies and other road users.
Technology is evolving to make truck driving safer for all. In this article, we look at eight of the most important heavy vehicle safety innovations in the industry today.
Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS)
Hours driving trucks on seemingly endless roads is an invitation for weary eyes and lapses in concentration–and that’s where Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) can come in handy.
This technology uses a combination of sensors, cameras, and radar to help the driver avoid accidents before they happen, by providing alerts and assistance when needed.
These systems can detect and alert drivers when they are tired or distracted (for example, by mobile phone). They can also include features such as lane departure warning, collision avoidance, and adaptive cruise control to reduce the chances of a driver making a mistake or losing control.
Electronic Stability Control
Another challenge when driving long haul is changing conditions on the road. Corrugations, potholes and loose and slippery surfaces—not to mention changing weather conditions—can impact the control a driver has on their vehicle.
Electronic Stability Control (ESC) systems help to keep heavy vehicles stable by detecting and correcting skids or slides. When ECS detects that the truck is losing traction or stability, or at risk of a rollover, it applies the brakes to individual brakes and modulates the throttle to regain control.
Automatic Emergency Braking
At 100km/h, motorists need almost 160 metres to slow a car to a complete stop. For a truck, that rises to nearly 190 metres—and that’s in optimal conditions with few distractions.
Automatic Emergency Braking (AEB) is a technology you want on your side in case of a collision. AEB monitors the road ahead and autonomously applies the brakes if it detects an imminent collision.
This technology is so effective that the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) placed AEB on its most recent ‘Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements’.
Here in Australia, Both AEB and ECS will be mandatory on Australia trucks over 3.5 tonnes from November 2023—a move expected to save 100 lives and avoid more than 2300 serious injuries over the next four decades.
Road safety innovations don’t always have to be high tech. In fact, clear, visible signage is one way to keep our roads safer for truckies and other road users. One innovation in this space is occurring in Western Australia, where a trial is underway that could have big benefits, especially on regional roads.
New signage on road trains—which can be more than 50-metres long—aims to inform following motorists exactly how long the vehicle is (instead of just that it’s a ‘long vehicle’). The trial hopes to enable other drivers to better evaluate the space they need to complete a safe overtaking move.
Blind Spot Monitoring
We’ve all had a moment on the road where we’ve wished we had an extra set of eyes. This is particularly true for truck drivers, who even with mirrors and cameras sometimes have only 180 degrees of visibility.
Blind Spot Monitoring (BSM) systems effectively increase that visibility by using microwave and radar technology to monitor whether there is a vehicle in the truck’s blind spots, helping to prevent accidents during lane changes or turns.
Forward Collision Warning
Systems which warn drivers when they are heading into potentially unsafe situations are particularly crucial for truckies who are driving long distances, often battling fatigue.
Two systems in particular, Forward Collision Warning (FCW) and Lane Departure Warning (LDW) detect unsafe scenarios and alert the driver.
LDW uses sensors to detect when the vehicle is drifting out of its lane and sends an alert to the driver to help prevent accidents caused by lane departure, while FCW uses sensors to detect when a collision is imminent, sending an alert to the driver.
Mirrors can help drivers identify hazards, but research shows that in the time it takes to scan, assess and react to hazards, a vehicle can travel 10-metres at 5km/h.
Cameras can help. While cameras in our vehicles might seem like relatively modern technology, they’ve been used to increase visibility behind the wheel since the 1950s.
Of course, technology has come a long way since then. New systems offer a complete 360-degree view of a driver’s surroundings, helping them to identify dangers in all directions and making the blind spot a thing of the past.
Electronic Logging Devices
For many workers, getting the job done means working late at the office or starting on the tools early. For truckies, it can mean driving a 40-tonne truck while fatigued, stressed and under pressure. The results can be deadly, with fatigue accounting for more than a third of truck driver deaths.
Electronic Logging Devices (ELDs) can protect both drivers and employers, by ensuring truckies aren’t pushed beyond their limits. These devices are synced to a truck’s engines to track and monitor driving hours, helping to limit fatigue by ensuring that drivers are not driving for longer periods than allowed by law.
Autonomous Smart Trucks
They might still seem like science fiction, but self-driving trucks are coming. In 2021, autonomous trucking company TuSimple transported watermelons 1500km across the United States without a driver.
However, while Australia leads the way when it comes to self-driving trucks on mine sites, we have a long way to go before autonomous smart trucks are on our roads. In particular, regulatory and infrastructure constraints are curtailing opportunities for self-driving trucks on our roads.
However, some self-driving vehicle trials are underway. In November 2022, a self-driving truck began operating on Melbourne's CityLink toll road (with a trained operator onboard)—the first trial of this type of vehicle on public roads in Australia.