Truck safety is a controversial issue in politics at the moment. On the one hand, there are calls for more stringent laws, on the other there is a push to ban the manual deactivation of assistance systems. In an interview Dieter Schoch, responsible for Commercial vehicle safety in the Department for Politics and External Affairs at Daimler, talks to us about the political framework and the technical challenges.
In the past few months, the media has been reporting an increased number of serious collisions with stationary traffic or accidents between trucks and cyclists or pedestrians. Why is it that these accidents are happening so often? Or are these reports misleading?
Recently, there has been a greater public awareness of these kinds of accidents, even though year-on-year the actual numbers in Germany within inner city areas have remained more or less constant, and have actually gone down on freeways. Statistics don't really help us here though. Every accident is one accident too many for us. We therefore continuously work with our accident research and development teams on systems for the prevention of accidents and on the continuous improvement of those systems. Daimler Trucks & Buses has been setting the pace in this area for a long time. For example, when you look at our Active Brake Assist or at our Sideguard Assist, which we are currently offering fully integrated as the only manufacturer worldwide. However, public debates at the moment are often – understandably – very emotional; this can sometimes make it difficult to have an objective discussion.
What measures is the EU planning in order to improve safety in those situations mentioned at the start of the interview?
The EU sets its road safety policies over the long term: ten-year programs with objectives and proposals. Half way through the programs, the situation is assessed and adjustments are made. As part of the current revision, a package of more than 20 measures have been drafted in order to address vehicle safety in general. The objective is admittedly ambitious: To halve the number of road traffic fatalities within ten years. This applied to the ten years between 2001 and 2010, and still applies between 2011 and 2020. Therefore a systematic approach has lead, for example, to the requirement from November 2015 that all new trucks and coaches are equipped with automatic emergency brake assist systems – in November 2018, the technical requirements for such systems will become more stringent. In the current revision of the directive, one of the EU Commission's recommendations is that from 2024 all trucks and buses will be fitted with sideguard assist systems. As soon as the technical requirements for the conformance testing of sideguard assist systems has been approved, all other manufacturers will have to follow Daimler's example. This is a welcome contribution to the improvement of road safety throughout Europe.
And what is happening nationally?
The German government often has a somewhat different view to that of the EU. The EU sets the framework for all new vehicles. The Federal government draws up the technical framework conditions. The Federal Council has encouraged the Federal government to campaign in Brussels for a further tightening of the requirements for automated emergency brake assist systems. Similar requirements have also been adopted in the coalition agreement. The German government has a separate course of action for vehicles that are already on the roads. In mid-July, German Transport Minister Andreas Scheuer initiated a German-wide action for the rapid introduction of sideguard assist systems for trucks. This supports vehicle retrofitting in particular and forms the basis for financial funding. The state government in Baden-Württemberg will also contribute financially to vehicles being retrofitted with sideguard assist systems. We explicitly welcome both initiatives. The acquisition of sideguard assist systems in new vehicles will be supported through another Federal program.
That all sounds like a very long-term objective. In Daimler's opinion, what concrete measures do we need to make the streets safer now?
The improvement of road safety is more like a marathon than a sprint. The installation of emergency braking assist systems in new vehicles has been a mandatory requirement since November 2015. To date, approximately 50% of all long-distance vehicles on the road have emergency braking assist systems. The actual number of accidents shows very clearly that automatic emergency brake assist systems have a very positive impact: Ongoing studies in Lower Saxony and Baden-Württemberg prove that trucks fitted with these systems cause considerably fewer accidents that those without such systems. We are convinced that the rapid mandatory implementation of a sideguard assist system would achieve the same outcomes.
That being said, we must look very carefully at how the accident happened, in order to identify further potential improvements. The basis for these improvements come from our Accident Research. These results not only influence the further development process for our systems, they also guide discussions with the legislature regarding future legal requirements. The development dynamic at Daimler is particularly high. And our claim is clear: We want to remain ahead of the competition with our technical solutions. There is clear demand from our customers. In addition, we try to market the systems actively and with attractive conditions by using package options.
In the future, the linkage between vehicles, information from the road infrastructure and automation will become more important. That is why we at Daimler support the development of an integrated road safety strategy. This will include the vehicle, the driver and the infrastructure.
One of the concerns being discussed at the moment is that the best systems do nothing when they can be manually deactivated by the driver. The Federal Council is now calling for a ban on the manual deactivation of assistance systems. Why is it possible to switch off these systems at all? And are they in fact frequently being turned off by drivers?
That is indeed a discussion that we are now having – and from a variety of different perspectives: one from the effectiveness of the systems in the field and secondly in line with future legal requirements. The first question is not that easy to answer. An assistance system consists of an interaction between sensors, algorithms and actuators. This interaction ultimately serves the purpose of recognizing potential serious situations and only in these instances will they warn the driver, or take action, such as carry out an emergency brake. At the same time, sensor technology continues to improve, algorithms become more effective and the system design becomes more sophisticated. Today's systems have been developed under the legal requirements that state that the driver must have control over the vehicle at all times. Therefore, the law stipulates the ability to manually deactivate such systems. In our opinion, this also makes practical sense if, for example, the sensors are covered by a front-mounted device, as is the case when the highways department uses vehicles as snowploughs, or if there are highly complex traffic situations in the city. It is possible that a increased number of warnings could in some cases even distract the driver.
In answer to the second question – whether the systems are in fact being frequently turned off by drivers – one simple answer: No. The results from our Accident Research shows that at least with the Mercedes-Benz systems, there were only very few situations that resulted in an accident where the systems had been switched off. As you can see, we are not always of the same opinion as the government. Daimler places very clear emphasis on explanation and acceptance by the driver, and not on bans.