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Electronics Economics

By on January 7, 2011
RoadKing Mag

It took place over a generation or more, but think of the wonders electronics have brought us. Just the changes in cell phone technologies boggle the mind. From big, clunky bag phones and cell phones tethered to a car, we now have mini-computers that fit in a shirt pocket.

That same scale of advancement, brought about by the computer revolution, has given us devices for our trucks undreamed of a generation ago. They bring us more convenience, more safety and, better still, save us money.

1. Automated Manual Transmission (AMT)

While fully automatic transmissions similar to those in cars have been with us for years, the idea of adapting a manual truck transmission to computer control is a mere decade old, and what a decade it has been. Eaton’s AutoShift used a computer to analyze vehicle speed and gear position and to initiate gear changes. Rather than use the clutch (needed for full stops and starts), the computer has the fuel system cut torque, then it precisely matches gear and engine rpm and “floats” the gears to the next speed. If the shift can be made, it is. If it will be missed, the computer won’t start. You’ll never be hung out of gear with an AMT.

Eaton followed with computerized clutch actuation in the two-pedal UltraShift. For a while, the ZF Meritor Freedom Line, the first two-pedal transmission, was available but litigation removed it from the market. It was based on fully synchronized European style manual transmissions. Meanwhile, Volvo introduced the synchromesh-based I-Shift, followed by Mack’s mDRIVE AMT. Both shift more quickly than the UltraShift because synchromesh transmissions, like manuals found in cars, don’t require speed matching in neutral.

Computer clutch actuation also allowed hill holding in two-pedal systems and creep control in the latest UltraShift Plus. AMTs save money by optimizing shifts to get the maximum possible fuel economy. Since you’re never out of gear, safety is improved. AMTs virtually eliminate runaway trucks.

2. Stability Control

High-speed computers allow stability control and its variant, roll control. Antilock braking systems (ABS) are the enabling technology for stability. ABS measures wheel speed and if any wheel locks up, pressure is reduced to its brake. That ability to control each brake independently allows more than just preventing brake lock. Add position sensors to steering and lateral acceleration sensors to the chassis, and computers can determine if a skid is starting. Given that input to high speed processors, the systems can not only sense the start of a skid, they can reduce engine power and apply brakes selectively to halt the skid almost before it starts. Often, the correction is done without the driver realizing anything happened.

Add roll sensors that compute the angle of the truck or trailer and accelerometers to measure how quickly the vehicle is leaning, and you now have the ability to either prevent or greatly mitigate the severity of rollovers. They are standard equipment on many new trucks.

According to an FMCSA report, the average cost of a truck crash was more than $90,000 in 2005. If injury was involved, costs approached $200,000, and a fatality raised that to more than $3.6 million. Crash avoidance through roll and skid stability control is as important as insurance.

3. Crash Avoidance

Computers alert drivers and help avoid crashes. Bendix’ VORAD, the Mobileye system and the Eagle Eye Obstacle Detection System all increase a driver’s awareness of what may be in the way. The VORAD uses radar to search the road ahead. If it detects a threat, it alerts the driver and, in extreme cases, applies the Jake Brake. In Mercedes Benz cars, it will apply the brakes and stop the car. Only driver acceptance keeps this feature off trucks.

Mobileye uses image processing to monitor lane positioning. It warns of lane departures except when turn signals are on. Mobileye can be coupled with forward looking radar for Headway Monitoring, an adaptive cruise control system that adjusts vehicle speed to maintain a following interval behind traffic in front.

The final element in collision prevention is near obstacle detection, alerting you to objects in blind spots and behind your vehicle. Side alerts are activated when directional signals turn on, although many systems use lights alone to constantly monitor blind spots. Back up alerts are active with the truck in reverse.

For a while, used truck prices were reduced if there was an AMT. Now AMTs are starting to command a premium. I predict that within a decade, the same will be true of stability systems and collision avoidance technologies.

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