Vehicle manufacturers are investing billions of pounds in new technology, and there are predictions that by 2020 autonomous vehicles will be a common sight on the road. In the meantime, many of the features needed for full autonomy are already available. From the perspective of managing the safety of drivers in your organisation, what do you need to know – and what should you be doing?
Some years ago, I had a conversation with a fleet manager who was very excited about a deal he had struck with a car dealer to provide the whole sales force with cars with hands-free phone facilities at a “knock-down price.” He hadn’t considered the existing risks, or the risks he would be creating. Was there, I asked, a problem with staff currently trying to use their mobiles hand-held whilst driving? None that he was aware of. So, his “great deal” would actually increase the road risk, by encouraging staff to make calls whilst driving. There is plenty of evidence that the distraction caused by hands-free mobile phone use adds to road risk.
The lesson from this is that when considering the new technology available, start by identifying your hazards and assessing the risks. If most of your accidents involve reversing, consider cameras and Reverse Collision Warnings (RCW); but RCW will not help if more of your accidents result from fatigued drivers, vehicle speed or tailgating. Look at where and when accidents occur. If you understand the problems, you are better positioned to determine how all this new tech can help you. For example, Caterpillar identified that 65% of their truck hauling accidents were due to drivers being tired, so they installed driver alert systems to overcome this.
Useful technology to manage driver risks
When a driver receives feedback on their driving behaviour that behaviour tends to improve. Telematic systems vary from those which monitor only significant events (such as speeding and hard braking) providing the data to a fleet manager at the end of a journey, to those which collect a full range of data throughout the journey (including acceleration, cornering and location) and can flag up warnings to the driver during the journey, as well as providing information for post-journey feedback.
More immediate feedback from monitoring is provided by driver alert systems which track eye movements or head nodding, or detect behaviours such as erratic steering wheel movements and lane deviations, providing warnings to pull-over and take a break.
Lane Departure Warnings (LDW) alert drivers if they start to drift across line markings or if the vehicle detects abrupt corrections after steering. Lane Keep Assist takes LDW one step further, by steering the car away from the road markings.
Reverse Collision Warnings (RCW) use sensors to warn when there is an obstacle (or person) behind a reversing vehicle. Following Distance Warnings (FDW) alert drivers when the gap behind the vehicle in front is reducing too quickly. When combined with Emergency Brake Assist (EBA) the effect of the driver’s foot on the brake is amplified if FDW detects that the vehicle isn’t slowing down quickly enough.
Autonomous Emergency Braking (AEB) goes a step further than EBA by slowing a vehicle down, or bringing it to complete stop even if the driver has not started to brake. These Collision Avoidance Systems (CAS) are becoming standard in some cars, and options in others.
Adaptive Cruise Control (ACC) takes the more familiar cruise control to a new level. Instead of fixing your speed when driving, you can fix your distance from the car in front, and your vehicle will adapt its speed (up to a set maximum) to maintain the same distance. Intelligent Speed Adaption (ISA) takes account of speed limits on the road to further limit your speed.
With the technology above, drivers know they must remain vigilant, sober and awake. In the future, autonomous vehicles might allow drivers to catch up on their sleep, leaving the vehicle to navigate and negotiate other traffic. Such vehicles might not even have steering wheels and pedals. The first autonomous vehicles are likely to operate only in a mapped area, in conditions of good visibility. This could be useful in cities, for example for deliveries or service calls where distances are short. The vehicle could act as an autonomous taxi, dropping the worker near the next call, and then taking itself somewhere else to park until re-called. The long-term plan is for vehicles which will be fully autonomous, even on unmapped roads, in all weathers. One US start-up is even working on driverless trucks which could be monitored by an operator at a desk, able to step-in remotely if there is a problem.
In considering this technology we must not forget the organisational issues. Returning to our example of whether to fit hands-free mobile kits in fleet cars, the real question was whether managers expected staff to respond whilst on the road. If fatigue is the problem, perhaps rescheduling jobs to avoid long days would be more effective than systems that warn when a driver is falling asleep.