Buckling up for the Future
Author: Matthias Gaul
"Monster crash on highway”, “Truck crashes into back of traffic jam without braking”, “Family crushed between two trucks” and many more such headlines are regularly found in the media. The causes of accidents are often similar. The fact is that professional drivers are constantly exposed to a wide variety of external influences: tight scheduling, heavy traffic, stress, poor parking and rest area conditions, fatigue, distraction by mobile devices or navigation systems, unfavorable weather and road conditions, and so on. And then, in the blink of an eye, a moment of carelessness can have devastating consequences.
“Despite the tragedy for those affected in truck accidents, we mustn’t hide the fact that, in relation to their mileage, goods road transport vehicles are involved in accidents with personal injury much less frequently than passenger cars,” says Jann Fehlauer, Managing Director of DEKRA Automobil GmbH. Figures like the following from Germany prove it: According to the German Federal Motor Transport Authority, the annual mileage of passenger cars in 2021 was just under 611 billion kilometers, and around 90 billion kilometers of goods road transport vehicles. According to the German Federal Statistical Office, a total of around 358,000 drivers of passenger cars and 25,500 drivers of goods road transport vehicles were involved in accidents with personal injury in 2021. This equates to 586 passenger cars and 283 goods road transport vehicles per billion vehicle kilometers in each category. In Germany in 2021, the mileage-related risk of involvement in accidents with personal injury was therefore about twice as high for passenger cars as for trucks.
Number of people killed in truck accidents falls across the EU
In general, the trend looks positive: Thanks to manufacturers’ immense progress, for example with driver assistance systems, the number of road users killed in commercial vehicle accidents across the EU has fallen significantly in recent years. Where there were 4,186 fatalities in 2010, by 2019 this figure had fallen by around 27 percent to 3,040, according to the EU Commission’s latest numbers. There are major differences between the individual EU member states: While the decline in Poland, for example, is almost 45 percent, and about 30 percent in France, Germany and Italy are only at minus one and two percentage points, respectively.
In other parts of the world – as shown by analyses of the International Transport Forum’s International Road Traffic and Accident Database (IRTAD), which is made up of a collection of various national official accident statistics – the number of people killed in accidents involving heavy commercial vehicles also declined between 2010 and 2019, for example by 16 percent in Chile, 17 percent in Australia, and 21 percent in Canada. The trend in China is also positive – at least as documented by the numbers the Chinese authorities have published in recent years. Here, around 28 percent fewer people died in accidents caused by heavy commercial vehicles in 2019 versus 2016. By comparison, the USA saw an increase of nearly 37 percent from 2010 to 2019, going from 3,686 to 5,032 fatalities in accidents involving trucks over ten tons, according to the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
Back to the EU: The percentage of fatalities in accidents involving heavy commercial vehicles in relation to all traffic fatalities has remained at roughly the same level of around 15 percent for years. The most frequent other parties involved in truck accidents are passenger cars: In 2019, this figure was 51 percent, pedestrians accounted for 13 percent, and the occupants of goods road transport vehicles themselves accounted for 12 percent. The remaining 24 percent were distributed among cyclists, drivers of commercial vehicles under 3.5 tons, and drivers of motorized two-wheelers. The aforementioned 12 percent among fatally injured occupants of heavy commercial vehicles makes one thing clear: Apart from the construction industry, there is probably no other occupational group in the EU that has as many fatalities in the workplace as professional drivers, according to Eurostat, the statistical office of the European Union.
Road freight remains the most important mode of transport
“There’s need for action – despite all the positive developments – particularly considering the fact that in accidents involving goods road transport vehicles, the consequences for the other parties are usually much more severe than for the truck occupants themselves, due to the truck’s size and mass,” Jann Fehlauer points out. In 2020, for example, among the 616 people killed in truck accidents in Germany, 124 were occupants of goods road transport vehicles and 492 were other road users. The risk of being killed in such an accident is therefore about four times higher for the other people involved than for the commercial vehicle occupants.
In its “ITF Transport Outlook 2021”, the International Transport Forum recently forecast a 2.6-fold increase in freight transport by 2050 as compared to 2015. Road freight transport will remain the most important mode of transport. Without a corresponding expansion of infrastructure, the probability of individuals being involved in accidents will automatically increase. “Efficiently tapping into the potential offered by passive and active commercial vehicle safety is therefore even more important than in the past,” the Managing Director of DEKRA Automobil stated. At the same time, it must be ensured that infrastructure, including factors such as road conditions, are suitable, that the networking works, and that the person at the wheel does their job reliably.
Efficient protection at the tail end of traffic jams and in right-turn accidents
If you take a closer look at truck accident statistics, you will see that collisions in longitudinal traffic account for a high proportion. These occur when a freight vehicle collides with a preceding or stationary vehicle, often at the back of traffic jams, as a result of distraction, insufficient driving distance, or inappropriate speed. Optimizations in the area of compatibility of vehicle structures – in this context, compatibility means, among other things, that occupant protection is also ensured in small vehicles in an event like a frontal collision between large and small vehicles – can help to a certain extent. But as the speed difference increases, there are of course physical limitations.
By using driver assistance systems, effective improvements can be achieved primarily in accident avoidance or reduction of accident severity. This involves, for example, bringing distracted drivers back to the reality of the traffic situation in a suitable, well-timed manner, as well as initiating automatic braking immediately before a collision becomes unavoidable. The efficiency of the Advanced Emergency Braking System (AEBS) in particular was once again demonstrated in a study published in March 2021 by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the Highway Loss Data Institute. According to this study, the system reduced the number of rear-end collisions on US highways by an impressive 41 percent between 2017 and 2019.
Nevertheless, there is still room for improvement of the AEBS, as Erwin Petersen, Ph.D., of the Lower Saxony State Road Safety Association in Germany pointed out at the 4th DEKRA Future Congress for Commercial Vehicles in Berlin. It is true that all current AEBS clearly exceed the ECE/EU requirements, yet there are differences in quality – in the detection of collision-relevant stationary and decelerating vehicles, as well as in collision avoidance or at least speed reduction. In addition, he said, drivers are able to disable or override systems. Current AEBS also have system limitations, according to Petersen: For example, they do not necessarily detect situations taking place “in the radar shadow” in front of the preceding truck, do not initiate emergency braking until after the warning phase, and do not or insufficiently take wet road surfaces into account.
It is also a great challenge for professional truck drivers to be driving in city traffic on sometimes narrow roads and complex or confusing intersections. Turning maneuvers in particular are among the most unpleasant tasks: The driver has to pay attention to traffic lights, signage, oncoming and cross traffic, and at the same time keep an eye on pedestrians and cyclists. Other road users are usually unaware that they are in the truck’s blind spot and that the truck driver has no chance of seeing them.
The problem: Despite extensive mirror or camera systems, there are areas that cannot be seen from a truck whether directly or indirectly. Even short-term visibility in one of the mirrors is not necessarily sufficient for detection, given the complexity of a truck turning maneuver. Effective measures are necessary, for example in the form of a turn-off assistant with person detection. Last year, Daimler Truck was the first manufacturer in the world to launch “Active Sideguard Assist”, a system that no longer only warns the driver of cyclists or pedestrians moving on the passenger side; if the driver does not react in time, it can also initiate an automated emergency braking maneuver when driving no faster than its turning speed of 20 km/h.
Seat belts remain important
So it is not without reason that the EU Commission has indeed, in several phases, made various safety relevant driver assistance systems for the new types of motor vehicles on Europe’s roads mandatory, as part of the General Safety Regulation adopted in March 2019 (see box). But no matter what driver assistance system may be installed: From an accident research point of view, there is no doubt that the tried-and-tested seat belt significantly increases the road safety of commercial vehicles and, in doing so, serves to protect everyone involved in accidents.
“To reduce the risk of serious or fatal injury to vehicle occupants, the consistent use of seat belts is still the most important measure,” says DEKRA accident researcher Stefanie Ritter. She adds that studies have shown that seat belts reduce or even prevent occupant injury in up to 80 percent of all serious truck accidents. In addition, installed active safety systems only develop their full effect in interaction with the worn seat belt. “Technology is an aid for emergency situations, but the responsibility still lies with the driver,” Stefanie Ritter cautions.
Hazard source “over the air”
It is also obvious that whenever a vehicle has systems for assisted and automated driving, it must be ensured as far as possible that they – like safety-relevant mechanics – function reliably for the vehicle’s entire life. Periodic vehicle monitoring will therefore become even more important than it is today. This is also in view of the systems’ increasing complexity and the risk of electronic manipulation from outside the system. “However, given the growing importance of electronics in vehicles, including a large number of control units and sensors, it will soon no longer be sufficient to only check the state of technology every couple of years,” says DEKRA Managing Director Jann Fehlauer. In the medium term, it will be necessary to monitor vehicles on an ad-hoc or even continuous basis. Particularly since the vehicle manufacturers’ updates for firmware and software will no longer be carried out via cable in workshops, but increasingly wirelessly “over the air”.
Testing organizations such as DEKRA are therefore campaigning for clearly regulated, non-discriminatory access to a vehicle’s original safety and environmentally relevant data. One conceivable option is a so-called data trustee model, according to which the data that the vehicle sends to the manufacturer is simultaneously stored in a “Trust Center”. This data is then made available to relevant stakeholders for their tasks, according to legally regulated roles and rights.
Implementation of a cybersecurity management system
Thomas Thurner, Head of Cyber Security Services at DEKRA DIGITAL, points out that “we need to start much earlier to close the gates of entry that are open to cyberattacks and that result from vehicles’ increased networking with manufacturers, with each other, as well as with traffic technology in cities and on highways.” This is because, since July 2022, manufacturers have to ensure that all new vehicle types are tamper-proof in terms of connectivity and data transmission. As of July 2024, this requirement will then apply to all new vehicles in the EU. This is based on a set of rules developed in 2020 by the United Nations World Forum for Harmonization of Vehicle Regulations (UNECE WP.29). According to this, manufacturers must operate a certified management system for both cybersecurity (UN-R 155) and software updates (UN-R 156) throughout the entire development and service life of a vehicle. These management systems must be reviewed by audits and verified by the manufacturer every three years.
For this purpose, the German Federal Motor Transport Authority designated DEKRA as “Technical Service” in August 2021. “This means that we can not only offer services to accompany the development process, but also serve customers independently during type testing,” says Thurner. In addition to checking whether the used safety measures are appropriate, the company processes and the entire supply chain are also audited, among others. As part of so-called penetration tests, DEKRA’s experts take a close look at, for example, how susceptible the systems are to external attacks, to what extent the vehicle detects manipulations, how it deals with them, and what it reports back. Thurner says that “this way, we make our contribution to ensuring that vehicles cannot be led astray or that hackers cannot steal corporate data from vehicles and, in the worst case, take remote control of an entire fleet.” According to Thurner, cybersecurity must be viewed holistically and the testing of security-critical components is a key factor in ensuring the vehicle system’s overall security.
Software also under threat
The extent to which cyberattacks can specifically affect software programs used by freight forwarding and logistics companies is demonstrated by the example of Bay & Bay Transportation, based in Minneapolis in the US state of Minnesota. The company fell victim to a massive ransomware attack in 2018 that crippled the systems used to manage its 300-truck fleet. After a failed recovery attempt, the transportation company eventually had to pay a five-figure ransom. Including the further recovery attempts and the damage caused by the loss of time, the incident ended up costing the company a high six-figure sum. Evidently, a lack of investment in cybersecurity can be very costly for transportation companies. At the same time, the number of cyberattacks will likely continue to increase in this industry. Globally, the number of attacks on companies in the transportation sector increased by 80 percent in 2021, according to Check Point Software Technologies Ltd.’s annual security report. The associated financial damages are immense. In 2020 alone, the experts at strategy consulting firm Oliver Wyman estimated that this figure was around six billion euros worldwide. So there is an urgent need for action here, too.