NHTSA asks for assist

March 1, 2008
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) doesn't want to be the Lone Ranger

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) doesn't want to be the Lone Ranger.

That was the message delivered by NHTSA associate administrator of rule making Stephen Kratzke in his presentation, “Heavy-Vehicle Priorities and Supplier Opportunities.”

Kratzke said that with the heavy-duty commercial vehicle industry moving into more sophisticated technology involving electronics and computers, NHTSA isn't enamored with the idea of making rules without getting input from manufacturers and suppliers.

“I believe the government has gotten a lot smarter about what it can do and what it can't do,” he said. “We'd like to think that as long as we are the ones that Congress has charged with delivering safety and fuel-economy benefits to the public, we can come up with a way of achieving that. And I know for a fact that we don't have the expertise or resources to do that by ourselves.

“The people in this audience have a lot of expertise. You guys know about the technologies, you know about the costs, and you know about the market acceptance and rejection for some of those technologies. We need to plug into you. I hope we can develop some way so that we have a lasting model to work together to produce regulations that are smart and make sense for the regulated parties and make a difference for the people on the roads.”

He said that model is centered around safety.

Kratzke said the percentage of total highway deaths resulting from large-truck crashes is steady — 11.68% in 1980, compared to 11.99% in 2005.

“If you compare 1980 to 2005, the proportion of highway deaths that are attributable to large-truck crashes is pretty much the same,” he said. “If you factor in VMT (vehicle miles traveled), the rate has gone down. We don't take a great deal of pride in saying we haven't moved it all that much.

“We have come to some conclusions. We believe there have been tremendous accomplishments over the last 25 years, but we absolutely need to come up with some ways in addition to what we currently are doing, because the returns on what we're doing seem to have leveled off.

“Technologies now — particularly in microcomputers, electronics, and sensors — allow us to do things that were absolutely unthinkable 30 years ago. In 1975, if you said a vehicle could calculate the input that's being sent to the steering mechanism and measure the vehicle's track relative to that and make adjustments by braking one of the wheels on an axle, it would have sounded like Buck Rogers' flying spaceship. But those systems are now offered widely.

“We know that the deaths that happen when large trucks hit smaller vehicles are because of the series of laws Sir Isaac Newton discovered. If an 80,000-pound truck hits a 4000-pound vehicle, it's not going to be good, so we would like to see if we can help with technologies that aren't now in place on all vehicles to see if that technology can help prevent the crash. That seems to us to be the best way to move ahead. It can't be done by just the government in a wand-waving method to create, ‘You should do this.’

“We need to work closely and cooperatively on projects. It can't be done by regulations that aren't justified and bought into by the heavy-vehicle industry, including suppliers. NHTSA had a mandate for ABS on heavy trucks that took effect in 1975, and it was overturned by a court in a lawsuit filed by PACCAR and ATA (American Truck Associations). Rather than have the heavy-vehicle industry spend money on lawyers and having the government spend money to rewrite, re-change and retest things, I believe there really is a way collectively to say, ‘We can do better, and we can do better intelligently.’ It's more efficient to find areas of common interest and spend resources cooperatively.”

A look at projects

He said NHTSA is involved in a number of near-term projects:

  • Reduced stopping distance.

    He said the current heavy-vehicle stopping-distance requirements were adopted in 1995, along with the requirement for ABS, and they are generally less stringent than those invalidated by the court in 1978. In December 2005, there was a proposal for a 20-30% reduction in stopping distance that was intended to reduce the large disparity in braking performance between light vehicles and tractor-trailers.

    He said there have been 47 docket comments, and most support the goal of a reduced stopping distance.

    “There has been disagreement about the level of reduction that should be set,” he said,” but most supported less than a 30% reduction.

    “We've looked at current technologies out there, and we think we can do better. We aren't picking technologies. We don't want to tell you — largely because we don't know which is better — how to get the reductions. So we've looked at, ‘What if you use bigger S-cam brakes or disc brakes?’ The disc brakes cost a lot more. There are other reasons you might want to look at them, but for safety, you can do this simply by putting on S-cam brakes. The benefits are reducing by 5% the total number of deaths from large-truck crashes if we can get to a 30% reduction in stopping distance. Even if we only get to a 20% reduction, we still can save more than 200 lives every year by preventing crashes without any major technological advances.”

    A final rule is expected in the middle of this year.

  • Updated brake hose standard.

    He said the final rule was published in December 2004 and was set to take effect in December 2006. It was postponed an additional year to December 2007 in response to industry requests.

    “We have accommodated most of the technical concerns,” he said. “The thorniest has been whether to continue specifying nylon as the sole material for air-brake tubing. There are lingering petitions for reconsideration and a petition for rulemaking. We expect to finish our responses in the first part of 2008.”

  • Upgraded tire standard.

    In June 2003, NHTSA published a rule upgrading tire standards for cars and light trucks (including load range C, D, and E LT tires), effective June 2007. NHTSA began looking at a tire standard for large vehicles. There was no high-speed test in the federal standard, and the endurance test was run at 35 mph. He said there was a question about the continuing validity of these test conditions for heavy-vehicle operation, so NHTSA began testing of large vehicle tires in 2003 and also began analyzing data on large-vehicle tire failures to determine the size of the safety problem and potential benefits of action. He said NHTSA has been looking at the need for a high-speed test for large-vehicle tires and a more demanding endurance test. A decision is expected in first half of 2008.

Medium-term projects

  • Electronic Stability Control (ESC).

    NHTSA published a rule in April 2007 to mandate ESC on all vehicles under 10,000 lb GVWR by 2011.

    “We estimate this technology will save 5300 to 9600 lives each year once it's on all the fleets, and reduce SUV rollovers by 84%,” he said. “When we went in to brief our administrator, she congratulated us and said, ‘Can you explain to me why this doesn't work on heavy trucks?’ We said, ‘We have a testing program.’ She said, ‘Good, can you accelerate the testing program?’

    “We are looking at a full ESC system or just roll-stability control for truck-tractors. It's possible the roll stability alone would get most of the benefits, and if it does that, we're certainly willing to consider that as a way to go forward. We have been working closely with heavy-truck manufacturers and suppliers. The Heavy Duty Brake Manufacturers Council has been involved in this and we hope we can continue to have this kind of interaction because our administrator has directed us that we will have a decision one way or another - an explanation of why the technology doesn't work or a decision to propose this — by the end of this year.”

  • The Energy Independence and Security Act.

    Section 108 of the bill, signed by President Bush in December, requires NHTSA “as soon as practicable” to execute an agreement with the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) for a report evaluating medium- and heavy-duty truck fuel-economy standards, such as the light-vehicle fuel- economy standards that have been in place since 1977.

    The NAS report must include: an assessment of technologies and costs to evaluate fuel economy for medium- and heavy-duty trucks; an analysis of technologies that could be used to improve the fuel economy of those trucks; how such technologies can be incorporated into the manufacturing process; the costs and benefits of using such technologies to meet fuel economy standards, including congestion.

    Section 102 then requires that NHTSA implement a fuel-economy program for medium- and heavy-duty trucks that is “appropriate, cost-effective, and technologically feasible” within three years after the NAS report is published.

    Kratzke said that assuming the NAS report is issued in 2009, fuel-economy standards for commercial medium- and heavy-duty trucks will be required by 2012.

    “This really is an opportunity for people who know much more about this than the government to get involved sooner rather than later, because it's really moving quickly,” he said. “At this point, the EPA doesn't have a test procedure for these trucks. I know you have ways of measuring their fuel economy, but the government doesn't have a way to measure the finished vehicles. So we do have a lot of work to do.”

Long-term active projects

  • Lane-departure warning and forward-collision warning.

    He said they are currently offered on high-end European and Japanese vehicles, and will be offered in US light vehicles for 2009 model years. The National Transportation Safety Board has open recommendations to NHTSA saying it should require these in heavy trucks.

    “We have conducted field operational tests and are getting reports on drivers' experiences and crash involvement of those, but information from truckers and truck manufacturers or suppliers who have any experience or knowledge would be really useful to us,” he said. “Most of the truck-tire failures we see are because of tires under-inflated or overloaded. Under-inflation really affects fuel economy and safety, and interestingly, since trucks have a large air reservoir, if you could safely tap into it, you could actually inflate the tire.”

  • International harmonization.

    NHTSA attends all meetings of WP29, the group that oversees Global Technical Regulations (GTR) under the 1998 agreement, and all subsidiary bodies that consider actions. Members of the 1998 agreement include the US, European Union, South Africa, Japan, Korea, China, and India. A global technical regulation must be initiated in all member countries that vote for it. NHTSA was elected chair of the 1998 agreement group until March 2010.

    “All members have to agree on the program of work — the standards for which the member countries agree we will try to develop GTRs,” Kratzke said. “Right now, nothing related to safety standards for medium- and heavy-duty vehicles is currently on the program of work. If the industry wants to do it, it's much easier than if it doesn't want to do it. Up until now, there has been no engagement from the medium- and heavy-duty vehicle industry or suppliers in safety-standard harmonization efforts.

    “Is it because the medium- and heavy-duty vehicles are fundamentally different in different regions so that harmonization of safety standards cannot be achieved? There is a global technical regulation on heavy-duty engine emissions — the measurement procedure, not the limit. The engine manufacturers have been very involved in efforts to get this done. It's possible that the engines are the same and that the trucks are fundamentally different in things such as braking.”

  • The heavy-duty vehicle suppliers' relationship with NHTSA.

    “When I started a long time ago, we thought General Motors and Ford knew everything,” he said, “and it's really clear now to everyone in my agency that suppliers are the ones who are pushing forward all of the technology and the manufacturers are serving as integrators. That's not a trivial role, but that's different than actually developing the technology. In medium- and heavy-duty vehicles, we know there have been a lot of innovations also driven by suppliers, especially brake suppliers who have been enormous in making us aware of things they have developed. We have had interaction from the heavy-duty industry, but I'd like to see if there is some way we can strengthen that relationship.”

About the Author

Rick Weber | Associate Editor

Rick Weber has been an associate editor for Trailer/Body Builders since February 2000. A national award-winning sportswriter, he covered the Miami Dolphins for the Fort Myers News-Press following service with publications in California and Australia. He is a graduate of Penn State University.