Tricks & treats

Infrared displays, radar-based lane tracking, automatically adjusting cruise control – such safety systems are chief among the trucking technologies that have been touted in recent years. These systems, as well as other technologies of tomorrow, are here today on Volvo’s state-of-the-art VN 770, which is heading Overdrive‘s 40th Anniversary Voice of the American Trucker Tour.

During my thousands of miles behind the wheel, I found that the systems take some getting used to, but work well. As for the VN 770, its handling, ride and overall comfort level are very high.

“Anybody can get in this truck and drive it,” says lead driver Harvey Zander, who has won more honors in trucking than he can remember. “The automated transmission and the truck’s maneuverability are outstanding.”

The 465 Volvo engine did a flawless job, and the 50 percent wheel cut helped me relax when backing the Great Dane tour trailer that contains the Overdrive historical exhibit. The Volvo is solid; everything in the cab is steel except the fiberglass roof, says Ken Moore at the Volvo factory in Dublin, Va. Of course, all that steel makes the truck heavy. With two drivers and full tanks it weighs 20,500 pounds.

This could be the safest truck in America in a rollover or front-end collision, thanks to cab strength and design that throws the engine under the cab instead of through the dash. While few owner-operators base their buying decision on safety features, safety-conscious buyers of the VN 770 will lose none of the perks of premium truck ownership.

The truck is as pretty as it is safe. The 465 gets to the ground through an Eaton Fuller 10-speed automated transmission, a push-button affair using a clutch to stop and start. This transmission is smarter than your dog. It resets its shifting for changes in weight and learns over the course of a few hours the most efficient shifts to perform. It is, for the most part, quite smooth and sounds just as if you were shifting it yourself. (None of your friends will know!) That’s progress.

A SafeTrac monitor sounds an alarm when the truck drifts from its lane.

One safety device on the VN 770 is Safetrac, by Assistware, installed directly above the windshield. The Safetrac is far superior to painted lines or rumble strips for keeping overworked drivers locked into the lane. Unless a turn signal is being used, the lane tracker emits a loud buzz when the truck encroaches on the left lane or the berm. When the truck leaves its lane, the seat vibrates, sending a painless but effective paddling to the driver’s backside.

The lane tracker must be deployed by the driver, but the Eaton Vorad smart cruise comes on with the engine and must be turned off manually if a driver decides tailgating is more fun than staying alive. This gadget, which costs $3,941, automatically slows the truck down when it is in cruise control and comes too close to another vehicle. Together, these devices create an electronic bubble of awareness around the vehicle. Having both lane tracker and smart cruise issue their alarms at the same time will get the attention of any driver.

The Safetrac readout also rates a driver’s alertness on a scale of 100 by monitoring his lane-centering performance. A number from 100 to 80 means a driver is alert and holding steady. Below 50 means it’s time to get some sleep. My lowest number was 92.

Used properly, the Safetrac system can keep the conscientious but overworked driver right where he wants to be. Costing just less than $2,000, it should help fleets reduce insurance costs and keep drivers on the road.

The safety feature that most interested tour visitors is the Xvision, which gives the driver the ability to see in the dark. Professional drivers struggle more than most in low-visibility situations where a child on a bike or a suicidal deer can suddenly appear. Honeywell Bendix’s Xvision, which sells for $4,000, uses an infrared thermal imaging system to give drivers an early warning.

In Volvo’s VN 770 technology truck, the system’s small, unobtrusive camera is mounted externally above the windshield. A heads-up display directly above the driver’s line of sight folds up out of view when not in use. The driver sees a ghostly image of the road and any objects emitting heat. Headlights are visible, as is the road contour, especially if marked by paint. The liquid crystal display shows objects in 16 shades of gray, an image similar to that of photographic film negatives.

Ardene Prather, a Bendix account manager who toured the truck in Tuscaloosa, Ala., said the Xvision system is not meant to be watched constantly. Its usefulness is its ability to bring objects into sight with a quick glance. It allows a driver to see three to five times farther and react three to four times quicker than the naked eye allows. The image is also focused at a distance precisely measured to keep eye readjustment to a minimum. But the Xvision has limits: Rain and snow weaken its heat-sensing capabilities, making objects more difficult to pick up. On the other hand, headlight glare is nonexistent.

The most noticeable visual prompt in the cab comes from Raytheon’s global positioning system, which uses a 6-inch square screen inset in the dash. This GPS finds the truck by satellite and can be programmed to lead the driver to nearly any address in the country. Truckers can program multiple stops before starting out.

It will even tell the driver how to find where he is if he gets lost. A map shows his position and scrolls out in front of him, leading the way to even the most elusive destination. It describes every turn and constantly gives accurate mileage. It also tells a driver when he has missed a turn and, amazingly, tells him how to get back to the correct route. Drivers who like to fiddle with gadgets while driving are forced to abandon that bad habit because the GPS cannot be programmed on the screen. Instead, the driver has to park and use the wireless keyboard.

A wireless computer keyboard works with a swing-out monitor.

The Volvo has one other wireless keyboard, which is linked to the combination computer, DVD player and LCD television monitor, which pivots out above the sizable table in the sleeper. The GPS can be programmed from this device, as well.

The GPS screen is very bright at night – too bright for some – and would benefit from a dimmer switch. The device pulls a driver’s attention away from the road and may cause eyestrain at night. It’s much less distracting to read hand-held written directions or to listen to them via a voice-activated system.

Many drivers who toured the truck fell in love at first sight with the safety technology. Our curiosity and natural love of gadgets make the array of new toys irresistible. Few voiced skepticism about the effectiveness of these machines. Some of these drivers, having seen the efficiency of these systems for fatigue monitoring and other functions, would probably have a hard time returning to knives under the chin and overdoses of caffeine to keep them alert.

Tim Barton is equipment editor for Truckers News.

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