Highway thru technology hell

Rick Mihelic Headshot
Updated Mar 24, 2023
cabover with a bull bar
Crash bars are called various things: brush bars, bull bars, deer bars, moose bars, and yes, even roo bars in Australia.
Rick Mihelic

As an impressionable 8-year-old my family was visiting friends, one of whom worked at the Montana Department of Transportation documenting road accidents.

His office was festooned with graphic images of horrendous heavy-duty truck accidents. I’ll save you the vivid details burned into my young brain. I think it explains why so many years later I gravitated to watching the TV series Highway Thru Hell about the recovery teams trying to keep the passes in British Columbia open.

I’ve come to the conclusion that one of the biggest challenges facing the array of new trucking technologies is that the developers really don’t grasp that trucks crash and need to be repaired.

I applaud the idealistic goals of zero crashes that multiple agencies and technology companies are aiming for, but I live in today. My experience is that vehicles crash. No disrespect to the engineers, the manufacturers, the regulators or the driving community, but reality is that stuff happens. The real world has a lot more challenges in it than perhaps we want to admit.

One of those challenges is that animals can’t read and will wander aimlessly in front of high-speed vehicles on such a regular enough basis that insurance companies have codes for those accidents.

One of the first truck models I worked on got me interested in crash bars — these come in different flavors called variously brush bars, bull bars, deer bars, moose bars, and yes, even roo bars in Australia. The National Library of Medicine published a report stating, “Nationally, animal-motor vehicle crashes account for 4.4% of all types of motor vehicle crashes.”

Vehicle manufacturers have even developed a standardized moose avoidance test protocol (ISO 3888-2) to test steering stability. Variations of the testing include crash dummy moose or kangaroos, depending on where you live. Trucks with massive front guards are seen frequently on roads all over the world, so new technology designers take note: animal crashes happen.

conventional tractor with moose barTrucks with massive front guards are seen frequently on roads all over the world, so new technology designers take note: animal crashes happen.Rick MihelicHighway Thru Hell captures a great many accidents tied to ice and snow conditions in mountain passes. Mother Nature simply does not care about you needing to move your load. The physics of stopping 30,000 to 140,000 lbs. moving at any speed on a snow- and ice-covered mountain road generally means some level of vehicle destruction, frequent jackknifes, pavement departures, roll-overs, etc.

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I once watched a bobtail semi drive into a ditch at low speed. The chassis was twisted with the front axle clocked 90 degrees to the rear tandems. The recovery truck pulled the vehicle out by its tow hooks and everything still rolled when it was back, untwisted on level ground — the chassis was more or less level again, and off it went to the yard for repairs.

Let’s fast forward a couple years and catch up to the recovery specialists patrolling the passes in Canada and the U.S. What will they encounter with a hydrogen fuel cell tractor rolled over in a ditch after a high-speed highway departure? What will they have to deal with when there is a battery electric truck jackknifed and blocking traffic in a snow storm? How will they deal with an autonomous truck with a new moose hood ornament? Questions coming out of recent hurricanes and floods: what do you have to do to move a flooded truck?

It makes me wonder. I know that engineers like to design new things. Just watch a NASCAR, Indy or Formula 1 race and you will see pristine vehicles on the starting grid. They are not always so pristine at the end of the race. The cars designed for some level of repair make it to the end.

Vehicle recovery is just the starting point to questions we need to be asking about new technologies. Once the damaged vehicle is back in the yard, how does it get repaired? I recently had the fortune to be a panelist at the Technology & Maintenance Council (TMC) spring meeting talking about electric truck battery safety. The experts on the panel pointed out that there is a lot of work yet to be done to discuss maintenance and repair of the new technologies. Even simple things like how do you know if you can park the vehicle in a maintenance bay, or do you have to leave it in the yard far from buildings?

It’s great to talk about all the new advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) that should help reduce the number of crashes, but the real world still will have a say on accidents. Even industries with significant investment in safety technology have accidents, so it’s naïve to think trucking will be any different.

Here’s my heads-up to the technologists, the regulators, the manufacturers and the fleets: start asking the hard questions about “what if,” because those doing vehicle recovery and repair are going to need to know as soon as the first vehicle is in the ditch.

Rick Mihelic is NACFE’s Director of Emerging Technologies. He has authored for NACFE four Guidance Reports on electric and alternative fuel medium- and heavy-duty trucks and several Confidence Reports on Determining Efficiency, Tractor and Trailer Aerodynamics, Two Truck Platooning, and authored special studies on Regional Haul, Defining Production and Intentional Pairing of tractor trailers.