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New Tech, Old Roads, and Big Rigs

Photo: Courtesy of Caleb George

Trying to tell an engaging story about highways and freight transportation can be challenging, but when you have someone who can tell that story intelligently, passionately and with a little side eye, it’s a bit easier. We have that champion in Steve Williams, Chairman and CEO of Maverick USA, a mid-sized trucking company based in Little Rock, Arkansas. His fleet of 1,600 trucks average about 650,000 miles per day. As he likes to say, that’s “To the moon and back, and then back to the moon again.”

Steve is an early adopter when it comes to equipment and systems that can help his trucks run cleaner and more safely. Most of his trucks have collision mitigation (most with active braking), lane departure warning, stability control, tire inflation monitoring, electronic logging devices and a variety of other systems.

His trucks have more systems than are required, and that’s for a reason. “We operate within three feet of the American citizens at all times. There’s a lot of stress associated with that,” Williams says. “Collision avoidance systems in that environment reduced our rear-end accidents to only three last year. Three accidents, and only one of those had disabling damage. The technology is so powerful and so practical. It’s just unbelievable.”

Autonomous trucks? Not just yet

Don’t expect to see Williams’ trucks on the road anytime soon without drivers behind the wheels. “We want drivers in our trucks and we want pilots in our airplanes,” says Williams. “If autonomous trucks to people mean there’s not going to be any driver in it and it’s going to be operating on a smart highway, and it’s just out there like a robot — that isn’t happening.”

The problem isn’t so much the autonomous truck technology. After all, we have similar tech in most new automobiles. The problem is the state of our highways. Autonomous technology largely relies on cameras reading lane striping and other markings on roadways. Faded paint, patched asphalt, potholes and other damage make it hard for cameras to process the input. Until our roads are consistently maintained and upgraded, truly autonomous vehicles just aren’t practical.

“If you had all the smart technology and you had a wad of money, it’d just be done,” says Williams. “But we haven’t been able to figure out how to pave an exit ramp without diverting revenue from other needs.”

But well-placed cameras could finally eliminate the blind spots that plague tractor-trailers. Williams’ company has been involved in some beta testing to eliminate a truck’s huge side mirrors while improving visibility around the truck. “The technology really works,” he says. And he believes that eventually, “Mirrors will go away.”

Practical solutions that work

The smaller, less flashy stuff that already exists is the type of innovation that holds the most hope as far as Williams is concerned. One app allows drivers to save time by legally bypassing weigh stations based on their carrier’s safety record. More importantly, this technology will enable “virtual inspections” to ensure that drivers and equipment are compliant with safety regulations that protect the motoring public.

Analyzing driver data has really helped Williams improve overall safety and driver retention. “We’re using all the data on how the driver is driving in real time. It’s all behavioral,” says Williams. His team receives alerts when a driver’s normal driving patterns change, such as when he or she is driving faster or slower than expected in an average situation. “We can then use that predictive modeling and know that something is going on in that individual’s life and we talk to them and find out that, yeah, they’ve got something else on their mind other than safely driving their truck. That’s been very, very meaningful.”

The best safety app is a safe road

At the end of the day, it’s all about the roads. Better roads are more cost-effective, more efficient and above all, safer. “It’s not rocket science, it’s pretty practical stuff. It can be done,” says Williams. “We don’t have to have any new technology. We don’t have to have any new science or any new medical discoveries. We as Americans just need to go fix it before another 40,000 people needlessly die.”

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