Thanks to a constant stream of new developments and innovations in car and truck safety systems, the number of road fatalities in western nations has been declining ever since the 1970s. Seat belts are still the most effective passive safety feature for preventing deaths and serious injuries in accidents.
Vehicle technology has made huge strides over time as well, and the abilities of active safety systems have evolved in tandem. Not only do these active systems serve to minimize the consequences of accidents, but they also work to prevent accidents occurring in the first place. Collectively known as driver assistance systems, one of the first was ABS, or the anti-lock braking system. Nowadays, it and brake assist (BAS) are part of the electronic stability program (ESP), a package which is mandatory for newly certified trucks and cars in Germany. The example of ESP shows how we can arrive at greater safety in the future – by networking and integrating individual assistants to form larger, overarching systems.
Safety-critical driver assistance systems were developed to counteract mistakes that drivers can make at the wheel as, ultimately, the greatest source of risk in every vehicle is the driver himself/herself. To provide the driver with the best possible support, the assistance systems need to obtain data of their own from the vehicle’s surroundings, collecting it via sensors which function as their “senses.” The evolution of sensor systems and, in particular, their integration with each other and further assistance systems results in vehicles that are increasingly capable of becoming autonomous, i.e. being self-driving. The merging of ABS and BAS to form ESP is really just the start. As more data from sensors and systems is merged, the more autonomously these systems can work and the better their predictive abilities become.
Since the end of 2015, newly registered trucks in Germany are required by law to include predictive emergency braking and lane departure warning systems. In the long term, these are not just intended as a means of supporting drivers, but they could also replace them – at least on certain routes. Alternatively, they could also enable a single driver to steer an entire truck convoy consisting of several vehicles in what are known as “platoons”.
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From June 2017 to January 2019, DB Schenker will perform tests of the real-life applicability and system security of platooning technology. This is part of a joint undertaking with MAN and the Fresenius University of Applied Sciences. Mini-platoons consisting of two trucks will travel on the A9 freeway between Nuremberg and Munich. The German government is providing EUR 2 million in funding to support these field tests. Today, the technology is so advanced that partially self-driving trucks are no longer accompanied by safety convoys as was the case in 2016, when the first large-scale platooning test took place in Europe. Naturally, there are still drivers in the cabs, and they can intervene whenever necessary. DB Schenker’s platooning project reveals the company’s ambition to lead the way regarding digital business models in the transport and logistics sector, as CEO Jochen Thewes stated in an interview with German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.
Digital guardian angels: Driver assistance systems cut the number of road accidents
Driver assistance systems make it possible to reduce the number of fatalities among car occupants whose vehicles are involved in serious accidents with commercial or utility vehicles. Emergency brake assistants have led to a drop of over 30% in rear-impact collisions at the end of backed-up traffic. However, this requires drivers to be unable to deactivate their vehicle’s assistance systems before setting off, something that many observers have been demanding for years. These include German automobile club ADAC, and BGL, the country’s national association for motorized cargo vehicles in the logistics and waste disposal sector.
One of the most recent driver support features is the turn assistant, intended primarily to protect pedestrians and cyclists from injury. Developed by Mercedes-Benz, this radar-based system was rolled out in December 2016, and it permits the blind spot that truck drivers have to be under constant surveillance Making right-hand turns within urban areas is a particularly hazardous situation for drivers. Time and again, accidents occur at traffic lights involving pedestrians or cyclists who were within the driver’s blind spot and who frequently suffer severe injuries.The new radar technology constantly monitors on-road traffic to the sides of a vehicle. It functions perfectly regardless of light conditions, and it can identify stationary and moving objects alike. In the event of danger, it activates visual and auditory warnings. This system is also able to perform a partial braking maneuver. Mercedes-Benz expects the turning assistant to result in a major reduction of accidents within towns and cities.
Developments in commercial and utility vehicles are a particularly good illustration of how partial vehicle autonomy is currently increasing apace due to the combination of individual safety systems. For example, the lane departure assistant automatically turns on when the attention assistant registers that the driver is not concentrating on the road enough. Or cruise control and the distance controller work together to create a semi-autonomous function for stop-and-go traffic: At the press of a button, a driver’s truck follows the vehicle in front of it and maintains a constant distance, which is one of the basic requirements for platooning. All of these high-level functions are created when two more basic systems work together. In the future, even more of these subsystems will be linked, making autonomous driving an increasingly real proposition.