Voice technology, sensors aid precise backing, object detection

Updated Nov 11, 2013

“The bigger the vehicle, the bigger the blind spot,” says Shawn O’Connell, president of Collision Avoidance Systems.

The company sells a sonar-based backing system that features voice distance indicator (VDI) technology. As O’Connell explains, he was familiar with the technology a decade or so ago, but the manufacturers hadn’t developed a commercial-grade product suitable for trucks. When Poron, the manufacturer he now represents, came out with a system aimed at the commercial fleet market, O’Connell seized the opportunity.

There are now “tens of thousands” in the field, and O’Connell says his market includes anyone who has a fleet of vehicles, whose vehicles have blind spots, and whose vehicles have backing accidents because of blind spots or driver inattention – so that’s about everyone. Among his customers, he names fire chiefs in SUVs, fleets with city transit buses, P&D box trucks and tractor-trailer rigs.

VDI comes in especially handy in a commercial setting, O’Connell explains.

The four backing sensors are installed in the bumper and wired to a speaker in the cab.The four backing sensors are installed in the bumper and wired to a speaker in the cab.

“Everybody’s familiar with the system that beeps, then gets faster when it senses something behind you. But in a commercial market, those tend not to work because there’s so much distraction, so much noise – other systems are beeping when you’re backing.  Just a lot of chaos and confusion going on in a commercial setting.”

With VDI, there is no beeping during backing.  As O’Connell explains it, it’s just like a spotter communicating with the driver in the vehicle with a walkie talkie. The spotter waves the driver back until a voice comes over the speaker, and that voice will count down the distance: 12 feet, 9 feet, 6 feet – all the way down to 12 inches.

“It tells the driver exactly how far he can without having an accident,” O’Connell says. “There’s something about when you hear that voice command – as opposed to repetitive beeping where you have to decipher the pattern – that’s just more simple for the driver to understand and recognize. If someone says you have four feet to go, you know exactly what that means. It takes all the guesswork out. Our drivers can back up with confidence.”

The learning curve is one or two weeks, he adds, as drivers take a little time coming to trust the voice directions rather then their best guesses as to distance from a side view mirror.

Enabling drivers to back with confidence was important to Phil Kline, who owns West Coast Mattress in Port Charlotte, Fla. His small fleet includes Isuzu 20-foot box trucks.

“When we’re installing mattresses in people’s homes, in apartments – working in tight spots in driveways and parking lots – having the VDI system tell us how far we are from an object helps out a lot,” Kline says. “We’re working in neighborhoods. We’re working in people’s homes.  We’re on people’s personal property. We don’t want to make a mistake close to a house or a garage, or car or mailbox.”

Beyond safety, the voice unit provides some operational advantages.

“We have trucks where the doors swing open instead of roll-up, so we know if we get within five feet the doors can’t open,” Kline says. “We’re a pretty busy operation. Our trucks runs every day except Sunday. We push our trucks pretty hard. They’re continuously backing up the warehouse to load merchandise, or backing up to other trucks when we do transfers of pallets of heavy bases and frames. My drivers have had no problems at all.”

Kline describes the installation of the system as “fairly easy.”

“We just drilled right into the rear fender and put the sensors in and wired everything into the cab,” he says.

He also notes the units have proved to be durable, with his trucks left out in the Florida sun, heat and rain,

And as with many local businesses, fleet vehicles on city streets are an important symbol of the brand.

“Our truck is our rolling billboard,” Kline says. “In an environment like I’m in, the last thing I want my driver to do is run into a customer’s mailbox as they’re trying to back into a driveway to install a mattress set.”

The system is based on multiple sonar sensors, and can be appropriately configured during installation for the particular needs of a fleet, O’Connell explains. A garbage truck frequently backing down tight alleys with cars on both sides would set the sensor field of view differently than a P&D fleet that commonly backs onto open docks.

“It’s really a custom application. We go over the operating environment for each fleet,” O’Connell says. “Vehicles in the same fleet may even need some installed differently.”

Or some fleets might have a unique problem that needs to be addressed. For a snack vendor who runs vans with tall boxes – and whose drivers were continually bumping into low overhangs – O’Connell installed sensors across the top, as well as along the bumper. Problem solved.

About half of sales are through original equipment manufacturers and upfitters who handle the installation. For fleets with in-house vehicle maintenance teams, CAS will train technicians to do the work. Otherwise, O’Connell will do the installation.

Additionally, the system can detect a moving object.

“As soon as the system senses there’s movement going across from sensor to sensor, it will announce in the cab, ‘object in blind area, object in blind area,’” O’Connell says. “It’s an alert to the driver that there’s something moving and he’d better stop.”

The price of the system can range from $399 to $799, depending on the complexity of the installation, with small vans and SUVs on the lower end, and the hardware for larger commercial vehicles costing more, he adds.

While such systems don’t earn any automatic discounts of insurance premiums, O’Connell says the savings come quickly from fewer accidents – and fewer claims.

And that’s a load off the mind of Kline, with his company’s many visits to area neighborhoods and busy apartment parking lots.

“We want to make sure if some kid does run up behind our truck, we know – and the system let’s us know immediately,” he says. “If you make one mistake like that, it will ruin your business completely. There’s just some things in life you don’t take chances with.”