NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Federal regulators are turning up the heat on the heavy-truck industry to install cutting-edge safety technologies.
That could be a rich new field for suppliers of safety components and systems. Except for one problem: Many heavy-truck customers are not interested.
Unlike the passenger-vehicle market - where consumers embrace safety technology - the trucking industry appears skeptical about the cost and benefits of safety devices.
While big rigs are five to 10 times as expensive as cars, they trail passenger vehicles in many technologies. For example, most trucks lack cruise control. Tens of thousands of buses do not have seat belts.
In fact, some industry leaders believe mandating seat belts for buses would have the unintended effect of rendering all of the nation's public buses uninsurable.
But fueled by a public outcry for truck safety, the industry is under pressure to catch up. That could mean that a government mandate could force the adoption of more safety components.
'It may take that,' said William Leasure Jr., executive director of the Truck Manufacturers Association, which represents eight North American truck producers.'I'm not sure that it wouldn't be a good thing. If antilock brakes hadn't been mandated by the government, we still wouldn't have them on trucks.'
IT'S OUT THERE
At a Nashville hearing on truck and bus safety sponsored last week by the National Transportation Safety Board, government officials sought ways to push more safety technology into the truck market.
The federal government is being pressed by a stubborn statistic: Even though heavy trucks represent only 3 percent of the vehicles on U.S. highways, they are involved in 11 percent of all traffic fatalities.
At the hearing, suppliers described potential life-saving gadgetry such as night vision, infrared sensors to monitor overheated brakes, driver fatigue detectors, electronic braking, lane-shift sensors and crash-avoidance systems.
But truckers are skeptical.
'The technology is being way, way, way oversold,' declared Todd Spencer, executive vice president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, a trade group that represents 44,000 truck buyers.
'Some of these things have the potential to help, but they're being sold as a panacea. They're not.'
Even some suppliers added a note of caution to the push for new technology.
'Fleet operators are much more financially focused than they used to be,' said David McInnis, director of OEM sales for Charlotte, N.C.-based MGM Brakes.
'You won't find people buying trucks with expensive options just because the technology is good. It has to have a financial payback.'
Cost is a key obstacle facing the potential technology shift in trucks. The typical heavy-duty truck sells for around $100,000. A promising new anti-rollover technology being tested by Raytheon Commercial Electronics would add another $2,000.
A set of more powerful European-style disc brakes might add another $3,000. An onboard 'black-box' data recorder - a device similar to a flight recorder that federal regulators would like to see in truck cabs - might add another $3,000.
Mack Trucks Inc. has just begun offering an optional crash-avoidance sensor system developed by Eaton Vorad that alerts a driver when other vehicles are too close. The sticker price: $6,500.
The passenger car industry copes with the same issue. Installing mandated airbags in the early 1990s added another $1,000 to $1,500 to the price of a car. Antilock brakes and the new generations of ride control are not cheap.
And yet automakers pushed ahead - in part because they had to, but also because safety has proven a good selling point for consumers. For example, the new Cadillac DeVille will offer night vision commercially at a time when the safety board is needling the truck industry to consider it.
'The technology is out there,' complained Jim Hall, chairman of the safety board. 'And it was developed by American tax dollars. It's already paid for. Let's get it out onto the highway.'
Raytheon's new anti-rollover system is a case in point. The company first developed it for military use on big top-heavy army trucks, plus aircraft and ships. The supplier now is adapting the technology with the help of Oak Ridge National Laboratories in Tennessee, with help from academic researchers from Michigan, Texas and Tennessee.
A fleet of Volvo trucks owned by a Chattanooga, Tenn.-based trucking firm, U.S. Xpress Enterprises, will test the technology over the next year. Mack is watching the Chattanooga trials to see whether it will also go for anti-rollover options.
But even as suppliers survey their opportunities, truckers appear resistant. At one point in last week's hearings in Nashville, a leading European highway official touted Europe's mandated use of various safety components on trucks. Norman Littler, vice president of government affairs for the United Motorcoach Association, challenged the European approach.
'I have a problem with mandating a solution across the board to correct a problem that involves 10 percent of the people,' Littler said. 'It's like swatting a fly with a baseball bat.'
The International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which represents 1.4 million truck drivers, is equally troubled by some of the safety features being discussed.
Among the offending technologies: video monitoring of truck cockpits, global-positioning monitoring and trip data recorders. The union believes all of these devices could be used to keep drivers under surveillance for disciplinary purposes.