Too Many New Gadgets

MOTORISTS traveling along a section of I-15 near San Diego, California, were treated to a rather amazing sight in August this year. They saw cars and trucks that were, in essence, driving themselves.

It was all part of Demo '97, which was sponsored by the National Automated Highway System Consortium (NAHSC), a public-private partnership. NAHSC grew out of the 1991 Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act, which called for development of a prototype automated highway system of the future.

Among the more notable demonstrations was a mass transit bus outfitted with a system that steers the bus independently of a driver at highway speeds. The driver just sits back and lets the computer do the work. The system was assembled by Carnegie-Mellon University researchers.

An optical imaging and processing system controls automatic lane changes. A small video camera mounted inside the windshield "sees" the road ahead and feeds visual data to a computer system called Ralph (Rapidly Adapting Lateral Position Handler).

Ralph processes the information and sends commands to a steering actuator, located at the base of the steering column. The actuator turns the steering wheel to keep the bus within the lanes.

The bus also has radar sensors that check for obstacles in front, behind, and to the sides. A radar sensor on the front bumper tells the onboard computer to accelerate or brake to maintain a proper distance from vehicles in front. A laser range-finder on the rear of the bus senses overtaking vehicles.

The only heavy truck on the program was a Class 8 Freightliner equipped with Eaton-Vorad's Collision Warning and SmartCruise systems. Collision Warning uses radar to alert drivers when objects or vehicles are ahead. Side sensors monitor adjacent lanes, sounding a warning when another vehicle is in a blind spot.

Scheduled for introduction in 1998, SmartCruise is an enhanced speed control. It allows a truck to cruise at normal speed until slower traffic is encountered. The system reduces truck speed and maintains headway until the lane is clear, at which point the vehicle returns to the preset speed.

These new gadgets are just a sampling of the high-tech hardware that is on the market for commercial vehicles. At The Maintenance Council's annual meeting in March, fleet managers had a chance to examine several test vehicles with even more gadgetry. Among the systems under test were braking by wire, fighter-plane-style heads-up driver displays, and side mirrors with digital readouts and embedded video displays.

All new heavy trucks have antilock braking, and most are powered by computer-controlled engines. Many trucks have cellular telephones and satellite tracking systems. Even satellite telephones are available. On-board computers can handle a full range of functions, including customer billing and invoicing.

On the trailer end, overfill systems are standard equipment for most petroleum transport operations. Satellite tracking and communication also are available for trailers. Information relayed to a central office can include temperature and pressure readings inside the tank.

Electronic seal systems have been developed and are becoming very popular for edibles shipments in Europe. Trailers are being equipped with on-board scales, weigh-in-motion, and very sophisticated product metering systems. The Research and Special Programs Administration is calling for radio control systems for emergency valve actuation on MC330/331 tanks.

More new gadgets are coming on the market all the time, and they pose a number of concerns. As a practical matter, how much technology is enough? How much new technology can we expect drivers and other fleet personnel to absorb? Can we find enough mechanics to maintain the systems?

How much control do we want to take away from the drivers? The demonstration in California showed that the trucksof the future could just about drive themselves, and that future is not far away. What are the legal ramifications of letting a computer control an 80,000-pound tanker of gasoline that is rolling down a highway at 55 miles per hour?

Moving on to another aspect of the technology, we are beginning to drown drivers in a sea of information. They can remain in direct contact with the terminal, or even corporate headquarters, every second that they are in the truck. Information is flooding into the cab from various vehicle systems.

Drivers are complaining of dash clutter as more devices are added. How much is too much information? We need to identify the maximum limits.

Answers to these questions are needed before we go too much farther.

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