Monday, December 14, 2015

Mirror, mirror on the truck

A Michigan company wanted to replace truck mirrors on its 15-vehicle fleet with a camera-based system. But FMCSA rules require that “every bus, truck, and truck tractor” be equipped with rearview mirrors.

So in April of 2013, the fleet operated by Atwood Forest Products of Big Rapids, Mich., applied to the FMCSA for an exemption. The FMCSA ruling came down this month. The answer was “no.”

Is this a setback for the march of progress?

Doesn’t look like it. Cameras are coming on, if not quickly, at least steadily. Last year the National Highway Traffic Administration mandated that all cars built after May 1, 2018, be equipped with rearview cameras – backup cameras like those already standard on some car models.

No mandate yet for trucks, but Daimler Trucks North America last year applied to NHTSA for an exemption from current mirror requirements. Daimler wants to use a camera-based system instead of mirrors for the on-highway Super Truck it featured at the Mid-America Truck Show earlier this year. Daimler says the camera system will reduce wind drag and provide greater safety benefits.

Well, maybe.

A 2007 report from the University of Michigan concluded that 20 percent of all truck crashes involve mirrors. And that in truck turns that restrict mirror view, accidents occur four times more often in right turns than in left turns. Of course the driver’s field of view is less in a right turn. The study considered only mirror configurations, not camera systems.

But will camera systems eventually replace mirrors?

“Yes,” said Matt Van Kirk, communications manager for Pro-Vision Video Systems, a manufacturer of just such video equipment.

“There is no substitute for a good driver,” he continued, obviously aware of Land Line’s audience. “However, these systems are a substantial benefit. A camera will always give you a better view than a mirror, particularly when you also have a rearview camera. That will give you a full view of all your blind spots. And, depending on placement, they don’t have to extend as far out as mirrors.”

Then why didn’t the FMCSA allow Atwood Forest Products to substitute cameras for mirrors?

In its denial, the agency cited comments from Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety as well as from OOIDA. The “Advocates” blasted away at the very idea as if in a shoot-’em-up video game. OOIDA was not nearly as negative.

“This system quite possibly could have additional safety benefits when utilized by a well-trained driver,” OOIDA said.

But there was too little information in the application, and electronic systems are subject to electronic failure, OOIDA said. Mirrors, however, never fail completely. OOIDA suggested it might have had a different reaction if the proposed system had redundancy backup to protect the driver from a sudden loss of vision.

Ironically, the company that worked with Atwood Forest Products in 2013 can provide just such backup. According to Jeff Stoker, Safety Track vice president of operations, Safety Track often installs its cameras on existing truck mirrors.

I wanted to ask about that, so I called Atwood Forest Products. Owner Ron Atwood, who is listed as the contact on the FMCSA application, did not return a call by deadline. But I did speak briefly with Joseph Harper, who filed the application on Atwood Forest products’ behalf.

“They turned it down?” he said of FMCSA. “They didn’t tell me. Maybe there’ll be something in the mail.”