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Posted on Sun, Jul 11, 2010 : 6 a.m.

Ann Arbor-based Con-way Freight adds $5.4M in safety technology to semi-truck fleet

By James Briggs


Con-way Freight truck driver Larry Potter of Howell talks about the new safety features in the Freightliner cab he now drives for the company. The dashboard monitors are tied into the front collision warning system installed on the truck. Along with the front collision warning system, the cab also features a rollover stability feature, lane departure warnings, and adaptive cruise control.

Lon Horwedel |

A few weeks ago, Larry Potter was driving his tractor-trailer in the right lane of an interstate. Another driver, not wanting to wait behind Potter's semi, swung around on the left side and cut in front of Potter, crossing through his lane to exit the freeway on the right.

"They merged and (braked) to get off the exit," Potter said. "They couldn't wait an eighth of a mile."

Such maneuvers are common frustrations for semi drivers, whose vehicles are seen as nuisances to drivers of more nimble cars. Beyond frustrating, though, such moves also pose a danger to both drivers.

It's usually up to the truck driver to react to the vehicle cutting him or her off — and if the driver can't respond quickly enough, there can be an accident.

In Potter's most recent case, though, he had assistance.

Potter's company, Con-way Freight, an Ann Arbor-based subsidiary of Con-way Inc., has installed $5.4 million of safety technology in a new fleet of 2010-model tractors.

Among the upgrades are cameras that can detect a tractor's position in a lane and send a warning to the driver if it veers too close to the line, as well as a front-facing radar that responds to traffic.

When that vehicle cut in front of Potter, a veteran driver of 33 years, his tractor recognized the threat and responded before he did, automatically reducing his speed.

"If you get real close (to another vehicle), it will take away your throttle," Potter said. "If it gets even closer, it will actually start applying brakes."


Con-Way Freight has purchased 1,300 trucks with expanded safety features so far.

Lon Horwedel | AnnArbor.comThe technological investment seems like a small portion - about 5 percent- of the $100 million Con-way spent on its 1,300 new Freightliner Cascadia tractors.

But Con-way also spent 10 months testing the new technology in partnership with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute.

Eighteen Con-way drivers logged hundreds of thousands of test miles on trucks with the safety technology, and the results were convincing.

"We really only had one minor accident in 640,000 miles of travel," said Robert Petrancosta, vice president of safety for Con-way. "We felt very comfortable we were making the right decision investing in these technologies."

While many of the Con-way's new safety features score big flash points, some of the most basic functions have been the biggest hits with drivers, some of whom began driving the new vehicles in December.

Among the add-ons is an AM/FM radio that also receives satellite radio. That might sound as elementary as automobile technology can get, but radios don't come standard for many trucking companies.

"Imagine going on vacation and driving all day with no radio," Potter said. "Then, come back and do it again five days a week."

Drivers often bring their own radios with them, which can cause a distraction because it's not right in front of them on the dash.

"With the amount of time a driver spends in the cab, it's his office," Petrancosta said. "The more comfortable we can make it for a driver the better, but also it gets safer."

The new tractors feature bigger, more flexible chairs; windows with wider vantage points and mirrors that can be automatically adjusted — again, simple yet crucial upgrades.

The 1,300 tractors are just a start for Con-way, which has 8,500 units overall, including 30 at its Whitmore Lake location. But, for Potter, who drives 150-250 miles a day and is among the first to get the upgraded version, it's a good start.

"It's just an all-around nice tractor," he said.



Thu, Jul 15, 2010 : 5:56 p.m.

I have been driving a truck for about 6 years. I think this technology is a great idea. More companies should invest in it. The money invested is money saved through lower accident rates.


Sun, Jul 11, 2010 : 7:49 p.m.

llspier: Certainly, well-trained drivers are less likely to have accidents than inexperienced drivers. However, not every driver becomes as safety proficient as other drivers and bad driving habits do develop. Also fatigue, illness and distractions can detract from the drivers' capabilities. Having electronic safety-assist equipment can substitute for poor or absent responses by drivers (experienced or otherwise) and prevent accidents and injuries. I find creditable the positive data collected over ten months, from 18 drivers who drove 640,000 miles. A participating driver interviewed for the article, Mr. Potter, has been driving trucks for 33 years and I consider him to be an experienced driver. He speaks positively about the electronic additions to his truck. The studies were not direct by private "for profit" companies with a bias interest in good results but from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute. Furthermore, I expect that Conway will not have spent %5.4 million dollars to have the electronic safety equipment installed on 1300 new truck cabs if the effectiveness data was not convincing. Also, I would expect that Conway will not have installed the electronics if the eighteen test drivers did not like the new system. I consider myself to be an excellent driver but must admit to occasional distractions and other lapses in safe driving that have almost led to accidents. Being imperfect, I am looking forward to having cars with similar electronic safety equipment as are installed in the new Conway trucks. As it is, I will never buy a vehicle without air bags, ABS brakes, stability and traction control. You may not remember how long it took for the public to accept seat belts.


Sun, Jul 11, 2010 : 2:28 p.m.

I'll agree with Bones. But unfortunately, no double-blind studies will be done-and you'll get results of a biased study paid for by the industry that acts primarily as a PR tool. These devices primarily make up for shortfalls in driver experience and training. Having been the guinea pig several times for some of these (not this particular one) systems, they simply cant out-think or out-maneuver an experienced, alert tractor-trailer driver. Speed reduction and/or braking without driver input may SOUND like a good idea in theory. In practice it simply reduces the drivers' ability to fully control their equipment. A computer cannot make the critical judgment that that speed reduction or braking is the best response in any situation as other traffic variables may call for a different action to prevent collateral damage to a third vehicle. That is best done by utilizing only well-trained, highly experienced drivers. Technology can never take the place of a highly-skilled, thinking individual when faced with the unforeseen. Also, the roll-over warning devices record and warn for false-positives continually on rough roads. Likewise, the collision avoidance devices alert constantly in heavy traffic situations as vehicles continually enter and depart the monitor zones. They drive drivers absolutely crazy! But, installing them DOES lower the insurance costs... Better seats, adjustable mirrors and built-in radios are a given-two of the three should have been an OSHA requirement forty years ago! Con-Way has used the old-style rough-rider short-haul tractors for many years, as have most of the regular-route LTL companies. Better seats and better suspension will go a long way toward reducing musculoskeletal injuries caused by years of being beaten up by the cheap seats. Remote adjustable mirrors have been standard in the industry for several years-except in short-haul LTL. And a radio that will hold a station over long distances is invaluable for keeping a driver alert at 3am after 400-500 miles that day. So thank you, Con-Way, for moving into the 21st century. Your drivers will be ecstatic!


Sun, Jul 11, 2010 : 8:48 a.m.

I think it is a good idea in principle. I would like to see a three year study of this system ran by inexperienced drivers versus three years of trucks with experienced drivers behind the wheel. Before I buy into it fully.

Knobby Kabushka

Sun, Jul 11, 2010 : 7:32 a.m.

Good Job and just think they did all this on their own and without wanting millions in tax exemptions, etc...


Sun, Jul 11, 2010 : 6:15 a.m.

More information about these new tractors and their safety features: Great Ann Arbor based company!