The global pandemic has put HGV drivers under pressure like never before. How can AI technology help support road safety and keep supply chains moving?

Driving heavy vehicles is a challenging occupation, demanding skill and concentration whether operating on worksites, built-up urban areas or rural roads.

Despite rigorous driver training and improving safety standards overall, it’s a tragic fact that road accidents continue to blight lives across the globe. According to the UN, every 24 seconds another person is killed in a road traffic crash somewhere in the world.1 This equates to over one million lives lost annually in road collisions.

A global shortage of drivers entering the commercial trucking sector means that supply chains are under threat at a time when demand for deliveries is increasing.2 The additional pressure this creates for existing drivers is clear to see. And when drivers feel stressed, human error is more likely to creep in.

While the UN rightly sees speed management as a key method of reducing accidents – calling for a 30km/h speed limit in cities worldwide – accidents at low speeds can also be deadly, especially when involving commercial vehicles such as HGVs and mobile plant.

Often these accidents are caused by blind spots around heavy vehicles, where their sheer size and design make it impossible for drivers to obtain 360 degrees visibility.

Cyclists, motorcyclists and pedestrians are at particular risk of ‘disappearing’ into a vehicle’s blind spot. The consequences can be devastating.

Research in Britain shows that HGVs are much more likely to be involved in fatal accidents per mile travelled than other vehicles.4

Eliminating blind spots with technology-driven solutions

What can be done to eliminate hazardous blind spots? Extra mirrors have been a traditional solution, but many drivers find them cumbersome. The time it takes to check various mirrors on both sides of the cab can create dangerous split-second delays.

Increasingly, fleet managers are opting to fit on-board safety devices to their trucks, delivery vans or construction plant. Vehicle CCTV camera systems offer wider viewing angles, while radar detection and ultrasonic sensors can alert drivers to an obstacle even in adverse weather conditions where heavy rain, fog or snow may obscure visibility.

Reversing alarms are another key safety system, with modern iterations such as Brigade Electronic’s award-winning White Sound range offering instantly locatable alarms that cause less noise pollution because they are only heard in the danger zone.

Safety upgrades such as these can all be retro-fitted to a vehicle in a matter of hours. The improvement they can make to road safety is incalculable.

Ultrasonic obstacle detection – minimise vehicle damage and maximise road safety

The size of modern commercial vehicles means they are potentially highly dangerous machines, often driving on narrow streets packed with parked cars where there is limited room to manoeuvre. The risk of accidents is even greater at night or in wintry weather conditions when cameras may struggle to provide a clear picture.

Ultrasonic obstacle detection systems alert the driver to the presence of obstacles close to the vehicle, whether moving or stationary. An audible and/or visual in-cab warning is triggered, while external speaking alarms can be added to warn cyclists and pedestrians in the vicinity.

Brigade Electronic’s latest ultrasonic obstacle detection range was developed using artificial intelligence technology, and supported by the Knowledge Transfer Partnership initiative with Cambridge University. The result – Sidescan®Predict – was extensively trialled in 2020 with impressive results.

Through the use of AI, the Sidescan®Predict sensor constantly gathers object detection data such as the speed and distance of a cyclist or pedestrian in the vicinity. This data feeds into an algorithm created by Brigade to accurately gauge the risk of collision. When danger is detected, the driver is instantly alerted in time to take avoiding action.

Sidescan®Predict is always switched on, including at speeds below 30km/h. And crucially, the collision protection is active with or without the indicators on. This is particularly important as it is recognised that some drivers become irritated by false alerts, even avoiding use of indicators so their system does not trigger alerts, potentially putting vulnerable road users at risk.

Emily Hardy, a vehicle safety expert at Brigade Electronics UK, said:

“The global pandemic has put HGV drivers under pressure like never before. It’s vital that we protect them and other road users, keeping supply chains moving without suffering the horrendous consequences of road accidents.

“Vehicle safety systems are game changers when it comes to accident prevention. As AI develops apace, we are able to design increasingly sophisticated devices that drivers can use without the need for extensive training.

“As a company, our stated mission is to deliver zero lives lost in collisions with commercial vehicles and mobile machinery. We truly believe that with the right technology and driver support, this mission is achievable.”