For commercial truckers and fleet owners, communications between vehicles could improve both fuel economy and safety. While the benefits can be significant, regulators question whether the technology will be adopted if it’s not required.
For roughly a decade, government researchers and transportation companies have been working on dedicated short range communications (DSRC). DSRC will let vehicles talk to other vehicles as well as to infrastructure equipment, increasing awareness so drivers know what’s going on even in nearby areas they can’t see.
In 2014, the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is scheduled to decide whether to mandate DSRC in heavy vehicles. This decision will follow a 2013 statement that will determine whether passenger cars will have to adopt the technology. While U.S. Department of Transportation staffers cite safety as a primary factor for passenger cars, commercial fleet owners are focusing more on fuel economy.
“In commercial vehicles, safety can be a second- or third-level factor,” said Cristin Paun, Manager Advanced Engineering, NAFTA, for Daimler Trucks. “Fuel economy is the first area of interest. For example, there’s a lot of benefit to knowing when a light will turn red. Stopping a truck and accelerating requires a lot of fuel.”
In many instances, fuel economy and safety are closely related. For example, when a hidden car three or four vehicles ahead hits its brakes, drivers will get an alert telling them to slow down so they don’t have to slam on the brakes. That can help smooth traffic flow, reducing the need to accelerate when traffic clears.
“Anything you can do to avoid stopping a truck moving at high speed, or to help it stop, would really help improve fuel economy and safety,” said Mike Brown, Principal Engineer at the Southwest Research Institute. “Additional warnings at railroad crossings could lower the high number of trucks hit by trains. Providing warnings before a truck hits a low bridge underpass would also be a huge benefit.”
If fleet owners can cut fuel costs and increase safety, they will be able to justify the cost of aftermarket communications equipment. However, there is concern that without a government mandate, fleet owners won’t want to purchase equipment because there aren’t many vehicles or stoplights to communicate with, so benefits will be small.
“We feel that without a government mandate, the trucking industry may not implement this,” said Alrik Svenson, Research Engineer / Program Manager at NHTSA. “We’re doing research to see what might entice owners to implement DSRC on their own.”
Both mandates will rely in part on a large field test set to begin in Michigan in August. Scores of trucks, buses, and trailers will be equipped with communication devices, augmenting cars for a total of around 3000 vehicles.
For several months, they will traverse around 75 mi (120 km) of roadways equipped with stoplights and other infrastructure products that also have DSRC links. Real-world data collected during the test will help regulators determine whether the benefits of this communications architecture provide the benefits touted by proponents of the concept.