Do we really need a mandate for automatic emergency braking?

November 19, 2021

John Bendel


We’re on the road to mandated automatic emergency braking systems on trucks. They’re supposed to be a great boon to safety. Sometimes they are, I’m sure. But automatic braking has a downside that needs to be carefully considered. Very carefully.

When it comes to legally mandated braking systems, we have been through it before. That time around things didn’t work out so well.

It was 45 years ago when the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration first mandated anti-lock brakes for trucks. The brakes worked on airplanes, and their highway safety potential was obvious. So, in 1969, NHTSA began a regulatory process. Anti-lock brakes were required on new trucks as of Jan. 1, 1975.

It was too soon.

We know now that anti-lock brakes are a good thing. But they were new then. The basic technology worked. It had been impressively demonstrated many times. But anti-lock brakes had never been mass produced and had not been put to work on thousands of trucks operating in all sorts of conditions. Trouble surfaced right away.

New trucks with anti-lock were an understandably hard sell that year. Many fleets were wary.

But some wanted anti-lock brakes in their fleets for the promised safety benefits.

One belonged to Mason-Dixon Lines of Kingsport, Tenn., a big, East Coast LTL carrier (that would go bankrupt in 1984). The company bought more than 200 new Macks equipped with anti-lock. Mason-Dixon drivers were not happy with the new brakes.

Some of the drivers shared their experiences with The New York Times in a Sept. 28, 1975, story.

“Some of the men found themselves catapulted into the steering wheel in short stops. A number of trucks pulled hard to one side, then veered suddenly to the other, sometimes crossing entire lanes of traffic,” the Times said.

“If you’re in a curve, and you have to stop quickly, there’s no way you can hold your lane,” one driver explained.

Later, Consolidated Freightways, one of the largest carriers in North America, reported 65% of its anti-lock systems had malfunctioned.

Paccar Inc. and the American Trucking Associations sued NHTSA over the anti-lock mandate. They claimed the agency had overstepped its bounds and was “using public highways as a testing ground for an unproven system,” the Times reported.

In April 1978, the court decided against NHTSA. The anti-lock rule was overturned. NHTSA’s mandate was a costly, dangerous debacle.

NHTSA would not mandate anti-lock for trucks again until 1997, 19 years later. By then, of course, anti-lock manufacturing, maintenance and functioning had come a long way.

Automatic emergency braking hasn’t been around that long, and drivers that have used it tell OOIDA they experience problems.

The sensors that are supposed to warn of vehicles, people, or objects in the road sometimes react to things as inconsequential as a blowing garbage bag.

I spoke with a driver for Marten Transportation about automatic emergency braking a few years ago. It was part of the crash mitigation system in the Kenworth T-680 he drove. He said the system sometimes braked approaching a bridge. It activated when a car or truck in the next lane got close to the line, and it braked frequently in construction zones.

“I mean this thing picks up a mosquito in Iowa and it wants to put the brakes on,” he said.

The chances of a deadly rear-end collision are obvious.

Even so, the government wants to mandate automatic braking. A provision in the recently passed infrastructure package gets the process in motion, OOIDA’s Washington, D.C., office reported.

According to the law, “the Department of Transportation must conduct a review of current automatic braking systems in use and address any identified deficiencies. As part of the review, DOT would need to consult with representatives from the trucking industry – including drivers,” OOIDA’s Jay Grimes said.

The actual rulemaking for the mandate would come from the FMCSA, Jay noted. OOIDA opposes such a mandate and lobbied against its inclusion in a new highway bill.

True, many drivers have driven units equipped with AEB. In fact, it’s standard on some trucks now, including Freightliner Cascadias, new Internationals, and certain models from Volvo, Peterbilt and Mack.

You can be sure the drivers who have responded to recent OOIDA Foundation surveys drive some of these trucks. As the FMCSA does its consulting in the regulatory process, it needs to listen closely to what these drivers have to say.

Automatic braking is not a passive safety system, like seat belts.

It’s active in the most dangerous highway situations. Before we put them on every truck in the country, we need to know the automatic emergency braking systems and their algorithms are smart enough to tell a garbage bag from a stopped car and that same stopped car from one that has changed lanes in front of the truck while maintaining its speed. We need to be sure the hardware is durable enough to work properly every time.

It’s a lot to be sure of, yes. But as the court noted in 1978, we weren’t really sure when we mandated anti-lock brakes. Let’s not repeat that sad episode in trucking history. LL



John Bendel is Land Line’s contributing editor-at-large. A former trucker, former editor at National Lampoon and two trucking magazines, John is an author, photographer, and freelancer. His work has appeared in the New York Times, The Washington Post, and many U.S. newspapers.