Pedal to the megabyte

Pedal to the megabyte
Daniel McGehee is driving me around Atlanta in the 2016 Volvo XC90. We’re chatting and he is pointing out different sights while the car’s lane keeping system prevents him from drifting into another lane or off the road. (This helps stifle my urge to yell “Eyes on the road!”) When he switches on the full-range adaptive cruise control, the car basically drives itself, keeping him at a set speed and stopping perfectly at stop signs when there are cars ahead — McGehee’s foot doesn’t touch the pedals at all. I’m both in awe and kind of freaked out. When it’s time to parallel park, the car does it for him. (I officially decide I need this technology in my car.) And if a pedestrian were to suddenly run into the road, he tells me, the car would brake automatically, avoiding a potentially fatal incident.

McGehee is at the forefront of new car technologies as director of the transportation and vehicle safety program at the University of Iowa. The National Consumer Survey of Driving Safety Technologies conducted by the university last July found that while new safety technologies are appearing in cars every day, consumers are unsure how these advanced features work.

Nearly two-thirds (65.2 per cent) of the 2,015 Americans surveyed said they least understand adaptive cruise control, followed by tire pressure monitoring systems (45.3 per cent) and lane departure warning systems (35.6 per cent). They are also confused about features that have been standard in cars for years, such as anti-lock brakes.

“We are seeing multiple technologies popping up over night into vehicles… All these things have been pushed into the market very, very quickly and we have not had the chance to understand them,” says McGehee. 

Whether workers are driving a company-owned vehicle or their own vehicle for work-related purposes, it’s in the employer’s best interest to ensure they are driving safely as employers can be liable for any crashes that occur.

“Driving is their workers’ greatest risk and it doesn’t matter what they do. They could be a fireman, a policeman, they could be in the oil and gas industry… their greatest risk at work is driving and a lot of companies overlook it,” says Grant Aune, president and CEO of Advantage Fleet Services, headquartered in Chilliwack, B.C.

McGehee and his team have launched a campaign called to help people become familiar with the safety features in their vehicles. The website has videos of 28 different technologies — with more being added regularly — that demonstrate exactly what each feature does. The videos are quirky with a cute dog to draw in the viewer and the explanations are clear and easy to understand.

Top safety technologies

Anti-lock braking systems (ABS) have been standard in cars for many years — they became officially mandated in 2012 — yet many workers are still confused. Twenty-five per cent of survey respondents were unsure how to properly use ABS and 10 per cent said they work best when the driver pumps the brakes, which is incorrect. ABS works best when the driver firmly applies and holds the brakes. 

“ABS brakes in my opinion, from a hazard avoidance perspective, is one of the most incredible technologies that’s out there and I would venture a guess that 90 per cent — probably even higher than that — don’t understand how it works and how to use it,” says Aune.

One of the more common safety technologies on the market today is adaptive cruise control. Unlike its predecessor — cruise control — adaptive cruise control not only maintains the speed set by the driver but a following distance set by the driver as well. Advanced versions can even slow and stop the car in traffic jams then accelerate. The University of Iowa survey found 14.3 per cent of respondents have this feature in their vehicle.

“If you are in an urban area, every time you hit the freeway there is frequently stop-and-go traffic. These systems will brake and accelerate for you down to a stop. It can be really fatiguing to be constantly putting your foot on the brake, accelerating, you need to pay a lot of attention and that’s where these slow speed rear-end collisions occur,” says McGehee.

The backup camera is another increasingly popular technology. The camera provides a view of the blind zone directly behind the car while backing. Some systems incorporate lines to show the backing path in the display. Depending on the vehicle, the display screen may be found on the centre console, in the rearview mirror or even in the sun visor. But it is still important to look over the shoulder and in mirrors when backing up. Nearly one-fifth (17.9 per cent) of respondents in the University of Iowa survey have this feature in their vehicle.

“Most organizations get nickeled and dimed on employees backing into stuff — fixed stuff like buildings other parked vehicles. Backing is a huge problem in most fleets,” says Aune. “People don’t usually get seriously injured but it’s usually under the deductible so the fleets are paying right out of their profit margin for those types of events. With a backup camera, the driver immediately sees what’s behind him because we tend to get lazy and not check before we backup.”

Aune recalls one of the saddest fatal crashes he ever investigated where a large commercial vehicle backed up over a nine-month old baby. Had the vehicle had a backup camera, this tragedy would not have occurred, he says.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in the United States has made backup cameras mandatory in all vehicles manufactured after May 1, 2018.  Transport Canada works closely with the NHTSA and it is considering similar regulatory action for new vehicles that will be sold in Canada.

Lane departure warning systems are becoming more common in vehicles. This technology alerts the driver using a visual, vibration or sound warning when he drifts into another lane when the turn signal is not activated. Only 4.6 per cent of respondents in the University of Iowa survey currently have this feature in their vehicles.

The more advanced version is the lane keeping assist where the car gently steers itself back into its lane if the driver does not respond to the warnings. These systems are going to be standard in the next five years, says McGehee.

“The most common fatal crash in North America is single vehicle lane departure, where you are on a country road and you drift out of the lane and lose control and wind up in a ditch or hit a tree,” he says. “Lane keeping systems won’t let you depart the road. It’s sort of like in a bowling alley when you throw the ball and it bounces off the bumper and comes back in.”

Both of these features use lane markings to operate, so they will not work on unpaved roads, roads without markings or roads covered by snow, leaves, fog or debris. The next step — and the technology is already there — is to have a metallic compound in the paint itself that the system can detect even if the line is obscured. 

Forward collision warning is something that will be coming soon to lower-end vehicles. This feature warns a driver when she is closing in on the vehicle ahead too quickly. Warnings can come in the form of sounds, visuals, vibrations, a quick brake pulse or a mix of warnings. Just 4.7 per cent of respondents in the University of Iowa survey have this feature in their vehicle.

Paired with forward collision warning are automatic emergency braking systems (AEB). If the driver does not react in time to the warning system, automatic emergency braking slows down the car — allowing the driver to steer to safety — or brings the car to a stop. In March, NHTSA and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in the United States announced that 20 major vehicle manufacturers have committed to making AEB a standard feature on all new vehicles by 2022.

“One of the systems is passive and the other is active, so the forward collision warning systems warns the driver, ‘Okay, maybe you’re a bit too close and if you don’t do something, there’s going to be an impending collision here.’ And with the automatic emergency brakes, the vehicle would brake itself without intervention from the driver,” says David Adams, president of Global Automakers of Canada in Toronto. “A lot of technology is moving from these passive warning systems to more active intervention by the vehicle.”

High speed alert is another safety feature, which emits a sound when the driver is speeding. This feature co-ordinates the car’s position, via GPS, with a database of speed limit information. Newer versions may use a camera to read speed limit signs. And a more advanced version of this feature, called intelligent speed adaptation, would be capable of slowing down the car automatically if a driver passes the speed limit.

Worker education

To educate workers on the different technologies, employers can start by pointing their workers to They could even make it a requirement for workers to watch certain videos to better understand the various technologies before getting into a new vehicle, says Adams.

He would also like to see more involvement from the manufacturers. For example, if a company is buying a fleet of cars, that manufacturer could host a training session for workers to show them exactly how the technology works and give workers the opportunity to ask questions.

“That’s the challenge. I’m not sure the manufacturers themselves have wrapped their head around that. Whether or not they would have dedicated people at their dealerships that would say, ‘This is going to be an area of focus for us where we dedicate someone’s time to do these types of educational sessions.’ Maybe that will be something that emerges as more time goes on,” says Adams.

But new technology should be paired with behavioural change to ensure the best results, according to Aune.

“Things that we do when we drive get ingrained in us, we do them automatically, that’s why most crashes happen; we are in automatic mode, we’re not thinking about the drive, we are simply driving, we’re thinking about everything else for that matter,” he says. “Driving becomes second or third nature.”

The first step in changing behaviour is creating awareness. For example, the driver has to be aware that rolling through a stop sign is dangerous, and this can be done through information sharing, statistics and concrete examples. The second step is for the driver to assess herself as to whether or not that issue is a problem for her.

“You might have half the people in the room who don’t roll through stop signs but the other half do. You might have half the people in the room who consistently go over the speed limit where half don’t. The individuals themselves have to sit back and say, ‘Yeah, that’s a problem for me,’” says Aune.

The third step in the behavioural change model is to give people the tools to fix the behaviour, such as technology. The last two steps are motivation and support. 

“We all too often use discipline. We wait until someone screws up and then we punish them instead of taking those individuals who were trying to change their behaviour and supporting them and motivating them by telling them they are doing a good job — make it a positive experience rather than a negative experience,” says Aune.

Incorporating these features

When choosing what technologies they want in their fleets, employers need to look at what’s causing their incidents and, more importantly, their near misses, says Aune.

“Once they get a handle on what those issues are then they can look at the technology that will help the employee, and the employer for that matter, manage those types of events,” he says.

For companies with big fleets, forward warning systems, automatic braking systems  and backup cameras should be a priority because the most common scenario that employers are paying out is a rear-end collision, says McGehee.

Most employers will experience these new technologies as they replace their old fleets with new vehicles. McGehee hopes the campaign will show employers what’s possible when it comes to new safety technologies.

“We hope it will inspire them to look beyond trying to keep the simplest car with just an AM radio in it and take a look at what other technologies will be possible,” says McGehee. “The more of these technologies you have the less risk you expose yourself to down the road.”

The cars with more safety features might be a bit more expensive, but safety professionals can get management buy-in by crunching the numbers.

“When you can show them $1 over here will save $4 down the road and maybe $10 back on that investment long term… It’s the all-mighty dollar, I hate to say it, but that’s what it boils down to,” says Aune.

In December, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced high-tech changes to the NHTSA’s five-star safety rating system for new vehicles. The new system will, for the first time, encompass assessment of crash avoidance and advanced technologies, such as automatic emergency braking, as well as pedestrian protection. The ratings under the new system will be seen in model year 2019 vehicles.  (This system is only for vehicles sold in the U.S.)

“It’s really exciting,” says McGehee. “Twenty-five years ago our prototypes were in $200,000 test cars and now they’re in $25,000 Subarus.” 

Of course all of these technologies lead up to cars that drive themselves. Google has been testing self-driving cars since 2009 and several prototypes are being tested right now. Google plans to make these cars available to the public in 2020.

As of Jan. 1, Ontario became the first province in Canada to allow driverless cars to be tested on its roads. The University of Waterloo has a lab dedicated to self-driving vehicles.

In May 2015, the first self-driving semi-truck hit the road in the U.S. The Daimler 18-wheeler takes over on the highway, maintaining a safe distance from other vehicles and staying in its own lane. The driver reads a newspaper, drinks his coffee and monitors the system. The truck is currently in the testing phase.

The Volvo McGehee and I were driving around Atlanta was a semi-autonomous vehicle and the predecessor to a fully automated version. In 2017, Volvo will put 100 self-driving cars on the streets of Gothenburg, Sweden, with real customers in the driver’s seat as part of the Drive Me project. The company says it’s a part of the journey towards a crash-free future.

“We know (these technologies) are much better than the human driver,” says McGehee. “Ninety-five per cent of car crashes are driver error and for employers, that is really the main thing: Crashes are due to driver error not due to bad maintenance, not due to blown tires, brake failure. Mechanical systems are very reliable today and driver error is really the issue you’re battling.”

Here’s a sample of of the technologies available in cars on the market today.

• Drowsiness alert: Alerts you if you’re drowsy and suggests you take a break.
• Traction control: Works in the background to help accelerate and prevent wheel slippage when driving on slippery surfaces.
• Curve speed warning: Warns you when you’re approaching a curve or exit on the road too quickly.
• Electronic braking assistance: Adds additional braking power to your car during emergency stops.
• Obstacle detection: Can sense slow-moving or stationary objects when driving at low speeds. Some may even brake for you to avoid obstacles.
• Pedestrian detection: Uses advanced sensors to detect human movements.
• Road surface warning: Provides you updates about upcoming roadway conditions such as black ice.
• Automatic parallel parking: Helps guide you into a parallel parking spot.

This article originally appeared in the April/May 2016 issue of COS.