Driven to distraction

Kenworth’s 2006 Class 8 models have a new speedometer and tachometer cluster with large, 2-inch-diameter gauges and LED backlighting in the faceplate and pointers – features that improve visibility of the gauges and warning lights. Kenworth also improved its turn signal switch on 2006 models to include an intermittent windshield wiper control feature.

Multitasking is a valued skill in many professions – but truck driving isn’t one of them. At 60 mph, simple tasks such as eating, tuning a radio or talking on a cell phone can become dangerous liabilities: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that distracted drivers are a factor in 25 to 50 percent of all vehicle crashes.

Today, drivers are inundated with technology that adds convenience and improves productivity. But these benefits decrease in proportion to the distractions the technology can cause. A ringing cell phone usually causes a driver to take his eyes and attention from the road and a hand from the wheel. And even systems designed to improve safety, when taken together, may add to driver distractions.

Logex Inc. – a 435-truck carrier that hauls industrial gases nationwide – uses several warning systems to help drivers avoid crashes. For example, Logex drivers hear a “rumble strip” sound if they start to deviate from between lane markings without using a turn signal. Another beep sounds if the vehicle is dangerously close to other objects in relation to the vehicle’s speed. A different beep sounds if their truck is in danger of a rollover. Drivers also see a light when objects are in the passenger-side blind spot.

“Certainly in today’s environment, there are technologies that are really needed,” says Tom Rule, vice president of operations for Orange, Calif.-based Logex. “But a guy can be confused by the different sounds and lights.”

Truck manufacturers and OEMs continue to develop tools that help drivers eliminate distractions while operating a vehicle. But a perfect solution is elusive. As technology allows truck makers to provide more information to drivers, still more alerts may be needed to help drivers prioritize that information.

Meet today’s panel
In recent years, truck manufacturers have produced many new features to minimize driver distractions. Each OEM’s information systems and controls have their own unique features, but a common denominator is that drivers are able to determine a vehicle is operating in an unsafe state without having to take their eyes off the road or hands from the wheel.

Current truck models use a software-controlled electrical system to detect troubles or problems from all electrical subsystems. OEMs and their component suppliers adhere to common communication and messaging schemes (J1708 and J1939) in the vehicle’s electronics. But each OEM has proprietary software to display information and warnings through a driver message center, says Bob Dannenberg, chief engineer of truck electronics for International Truck and Engine.

Most trucks have a “smart dash” or message center where a driver can receive all audible and visual alerts in one location. The message center is comparable to the “client” in an office network environment, and the “server” is the vehicle’s electronic control module (ECM), says Jim Tipka, vice president of engineering for American Trucking Associations.

For example, Volvo Trucks North America’s Volvo Link system, which gives fleet managers the ability to track vehicle location and condition and communicate with drivers, uses an integrated message center – large and squarely in a driver’s forward vision – for text messaging and vehicle information.

Freightliner’s driver message center is located on top of the instrument cluster beneath the driver’s outside view. To limit distraction, a driver can scroll through and see certain information only when the vehicle is parked. By using the default display, a driver can choose the information he wants to be able to see while he is driving, such as the outside temperature, says Josef Loczi, senior project engineer at the Freightliner Group.

The message center has warning lights and audible alerts that activate if a gauge approaches a critical stage. In current truck models, drivers hear the same tone for each alert, but future models will have prioritized tones based on the severity and importance of the alert, Loczi says.

International Truck and Engine currently has such a prioritized alert system. “We try to make it simple,” Dannenberg says. If a problem is detected, the main control module routes a command to a single beeper: Three long beeps denote a sensor fault, and the corresponding gauge pointer goes to the 6 o’clock position. If a gauge for a critical function such as oil pressure or coolant temperature moves out of proper operating range, the system gives five fast beeps. For a severe warning such as low air pressure, the truck gives a continuous, short beeping sequence.

Some truck OEMs incorporate more than just vehicle alerts and messages into the smart dash. Freightliner offers the Eaton Vorad system as an integrated option for its driver message center, eliminating the possible distraction caused by more hardware and additional visual and audible alerts. The warnings from Vorad’s radar-based, forward-looking collision detection and avoidance system are of the same tone as other alerts in the driver message center, but the timing of the beep changes as objects get closer, Loczi says.

Simplifying the information a driver sees and hears is one approach to limiting distraction; another strategy is to make that information easier to see and understand. To that end, OEMs have improved the location and appearance of gauges in recent truck models.

In 2001, International Truck and Engine introduced a new instrument panel on its redesigned 4000, 7000 and 8000 series models. All gauges are located centrally below the driver’s normal view over the hood: As a result, drivers no longer have to look left to right around the steering wheel to find gauges, Dannenberg says. The manufacturer also reduced the number of gauges in the instrument panel from 14 to 10.

International Truck’s gauge angles now use a 255-degree sweep for the pointer, whereas past models that used a smaller 90-degree sweep were harder to read, Dannenberg says. Similarly, Freightliner recently introduced a new instrument control unit for its medium-duty M2 product line. The unit features LED backlighting and gauges with 270 degrees of pointer movement, Loczi says.

Kenworth’s 2006 Class 8 models have a new speedometer and tachometer cluster with large, 2-inch-diameter gauges and LED backlighting in the faceplate and pointers – features that improve visibility of the gauges and warning lights, says Mike Dozier, Kenworth’s chief engineer.

Taking control
In addition to relocating larger gauges to the center and improving the lighting, OEMs recently have added more vehicle controls in more convenient locations so drivers don’t have to take their hands off the steering wheel.

Volvo’s Volvo Link system, for example, allows drivers to send preformatted text messages to dispatch by using the windshield-wiper control arm on the steering column. To add further safety, the messaging feature doesn’t work if the truck is traveling above 55 mph.

One of the ways fleet owners are reducing driver distraction is by spec’ing automated mechanical transmissions that reduce the need for shifting. And even the infrequently used shifter on an automated transmission can be placed so as to reduce distraction further.

For example, Freightliner offers the SmartShift as a standard feature in the Century Class S/T and on other models when automated mechanical transmissions are ordered. SmartShift is a shifting system located behind the steering wheel: The driver uses his fingertips to set it in automatic or manual, and then he presses the clutch. Once the truck is running, the driver either can let the truck shift itself, or he can shift manually by using his fingertips to push or pull the lever to shift up and down, Loczi says. The driver message center provides information on the gear engaged and the gears available under the current driving conditions.

Reducing driver distraction is only one motivation in spec’ing automated transmissions. Fleets often find reduced repair and maintenance and improved fuel economy more important in the value proposition. (For more on automated transmissions, see “No shifty business,” page 59.)

OEMs also are locating more functions on the stock control. Kenworth improved its turn signal switch on 2006 models to include an intermittent windshield wiper control feature, Dozier says. Peterbilt now offers a multifunctional turn stock that puts commonly used operations – such as turn signals, windshield wiper controls, headlamp high- and low-beam controls and “flash-to-pass” – at the driver’s fingertips.

Wireless worries
Wireless fleet management systems – an all-encompassing term for a wide range of devices of convenience, such as cell phones and onboard computers – are popular with both fleets and drivers. But these modern gadgets also give drivers a lot more information to absorb while sitting behind the wheel. So vendors of these systems also continue to develop features to reduce the distractions caused by having these devices in the cab.

“Screen blanking” has been a feature of OmniTracs since its introduction in the late 1980s, says Norm Ellis, general manager of Qualcomm Wireless Business Solutions. The screen on the display unit goes blank when OmniTracs detects the vehicle is in motion. When a message arrives, drivers hear a beep, and a light on the face of the display unit turns a solid red color; to read a message, the vehicle must come to a stop. But some customers that run team operations turn the screen-blanking feature off so the co-driver can receive and send messages while traveling, Ellis says.

PeopleNet’s g2x system design separates the message display and keyboard components. Management made this decision so fleets could integrate the message display into the instrument panel, says Brian McLaughlin, vice president of marketing and product planning. Some fleets may want to locate the driver display and keyboard out of the driver’s sight or reach, he says.

“A lot of customers say they don’t want it to be accessible to the driver when he’s driving,” McLaughlin says. “Others say they want it to be completely part of the control panel and the rest of the dash.”

Today’s innovations to reduce driver distraction mostly aren’t in hardware, but in applications that eliminate routine communications and data input by the driver.

“The modern model of onboard computing is to automate the interaction and communications functions on behalf of the driver,” McLaughlin says. A recent feature PeopleNet added to its electronic driver logs is a “negative response” instant message that can be combined with a beep alert. When a driver stops or starts, the instant message says “Your duty status has changed” if the driver uses PeopleNet’s e-Driver Logs, for example. When the driver arrives at a preplanned dispatch location, the message says “You have arrived.”

If the driver does not respond within 15 seconds, the action still takes place and the driver’s logs or dispatch system are updated automatically. The driver can make a correction if, for some reason, the instant message is not correct.

Qualcomm recently added a similar system to automate driver arrival and departure messages. Customers can “geo-code” a driver’s stops in the onboard computer. The system compares the vehicle’s location to the stops and to the load assignment. If the two match, the driver automatically is logged as having arrived or departed from that location without him having to fill out a message form or macro.

“It removes the driver from the process of having to do that,” Ellis says.

“Text to voice” is another technology designed to reduce distraction from onboard computers. Delphi’s TruckPC – an onboard computer that fits into the truck’s radio slot – allows for text messages sent to the vehicle to be read aloud to the driver. The TruckPC – which ties into the truck’s audio system and includes a CD and AM/FM stereo – can override the audio from the CD or radio with a text-to-speech message, says Mark Cummings-Hill, a Delphi project manager in wireless telematics.

ALK Technologies recently released PC*Miler Mobile, a navigation and routing system that runs on Nextel GPS, Java-enabled handsets. From a website, fleet mangers can track employees and enter routes for drivers. The mobile application downloads and converts the text-based routes into spoken navigation prompts for drivers as they travel. If the driver deviates from the route, PC*Miler Mobile can recalculate routes dynamically using the phone’s GPS, says Craig Fiander, director of marketing for ALK Technologies.

Qualcomm’s next-generation system, OmniVision – scheduled for release in 2006 – also will have text-to-speech technology, Ellis says. Macros can be translated from text automatically and read to the driver while driving. Qualcomm also is working with truck OEMs to integrate some OmniVision features, based on customer demand, into the fingertip controls that will be part of future steering-wheel designs.

Expanding awareness
Fleets can consider and choose from a host of technologies to help limit unnecessary in-cab distractions for drivers. But handling everyday on-the-road hazards – such as traffic and fatigue – is another matter. To counter these types of distractions, fleets increasingly are using warning systems that provide drivers with instant alerts of unsafe conditions.

Current studies show that the best available in-vehicle countermeasure to driver distraction is the forward-collision warning system, says Ron Knipling, a senior research scientist at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute. These systems are used primarily to prevent rear-end crashes – the most common inattention-related type of accident. Lateral encroachment or lane-change warning systems also have proven to be viable solutions to inattention and visibility problems for trucks, Knipling says. (For more information on collision avoidance systems, see “InFocus: Collision Avoidance Systems,” May 2005.)

Claremont, N.C.-based Cargo Transporters uses forward-collision warning and lane departure warning systems to improve safety. President John Pope credits Eaton Vorad for the reduction in his fleet’s number and severity of rear-end collisions. And since installing the Iteris lane-departure warning system (LDWS) in 278 of its 410 trucks, Cargo Transporters has accumulated almost 44 million miles of operations without a side-swipe or lane-change incident.

“We’ve been very pleased with those results,” Pope says.

Logex Inc.’s drivers have complained about the annoying intrusion of warning beeps, buzzes and other sounds in their work environment, but the carrier – which uses both the Eaton Vorad and Iteris systems in its fleet – recently had an eye-opening discovery about its LDWS from an anonymous driver survey.

“When our drivers were asked, ‘Do you think this has helped prevent an accident?’ 98 percent said yes,” Rule says. “Even though they complain about the noise, they all say it helps prevent accidents.”

Alertness monitoring is another powerful countermeasure, Knipling says. Many drivers aren’t able to predict the likelihood of imminent involuntary sleep, which points to the potential value of monitoring driver alertness using objective measures, and providing informational feedback to drivers about their alertness levels.

Two general requirements must be met for alertness monitoring technologies to have genuine value, Knipling says: They must be based on valid, scientifically sound measures; and they must provide feedback to users in a manner that not only reduces the immediate crash threat, but also motivates them to get more and better sleep.

“It’s not likely that the in-vehicle use of alerting stimuli can sustain alertness, so the primary goal of alertness monitoring must be to motivate drivers to get more sleep, both during principal sleep periods and naps,” Knipling says.

Safety technology that provides real-time alerts and stimuli to drivers is certainly an enabler to reduce the leading causes of accidents – driver inattention and fatigue, Rule says. But at best, technology is only a half-measurre.

“There is no silver bullet,” Rule says. “Inattention is a big concern of ours for our drivers. We constantly work with the driver to be wary of it.”


A whole lot going on
Even if we do not recognize it in ourselves, we all know a distracted driver when we see one talking on a cell phone, fiddling with his or her audio system, eating, reading gauges, “rubbernecking” or even daydreaming. Driver distraction and inattention is the cause of:

  • 25 to 30 percent of police-reported traffic crashes and 1.2 million crashes per year, according to estimates by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
  • 284,000 serious crashes each year, according to a 2003 study by UNC.
  • 90 percent of rear-end crashes – the most costly and risky crash for commercial vehicles, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Recent research suggests that the causes and effects of driver distraction have reached epidemic proportions, according to a leading authority on driver distraction, Dr. Jane Stutts, manager of epidemiological studies at the University of North Carolina (UNC) Highway Safety Research Center. In a 2003 study, Stutts monitored 70 volunteer subjects for one week during everyday driving, resulting in about 3 hours of driving for each person videotaped. The 70 drivers were engaged in some form of potentially distracting activity up to 16 percent of the time they were driving – not including any conversations they may have had with passengers.