By Christian P. Koop
Fire rescue vehicles are some of the hardest and riskiest vehicles to drive in traffic. Imagine driving with the emergency lights on and sirens blaring!
They are not only large and cumbersome but forced to respond in high-traffic areas where the behavior of drivers is unpredictable. We hear all too often in the news about the unfortunate accidents involving fire apparatus. These accidents happen during emergency calls as well as during normal nonemergency driving. Some of these accidents are very serious, sometimes with fatalities involving the emergency response vehicle drivers and crew members as well as the public. To me, there is an obvious need to try and reduce these unfortunate accidents.
With the current trend toward autonomous and/or connected vehicles, how can we incorporate this technology to make fire rescue vehicles responding to emergency scenes safer? Adapting this technology to emergency response vehicles (ERVs) will make the ERV and its crew members safer, improve public safety, and also significantly reduce costs and downtime associated with collisions-not to mention reduce average departmental response times. The savings alone could pay for system enhancements.
Although manufacturers have been doing an outstanding job of testing their software and improving the quality of their vehicles, gaps will exist in vehicles that are connected. In addition, there is a world full of “bad guys” who will try to exploit these vulnerabilities.
Let’s review some basic areas of these new technologies, excluding any unique equipment used by fire-rescue apparatus. The definitions below are basic and broad for the main purpose of providing some insight into this very large and complex area of ever-changing motor vehicle technology.
In-Vehicle Infotainment. Also referred to as IVI, these are systems that deliver entertainment and information such as audio content and navigation systems for driving that are available from several automobile manufacturers. These systems sometimes incorporate Bluetooth technology and/or smartphones for driver control through voice controls, manual controls, or touchscreen. These systems access the Internet for weather, traffic conditions, breaking news, and other public broadcast information. They also can provide movies, games, social networking, text messaging, and phone calls.
V2V Communication. This system essentially allows vehicles to communicate with those in close proximity to each other for the purpose of knowing exactly where they are on the roadway in distance from each other to provide drivers with warnings to avoid possible accidents. It is considered the next safety improvement for automobiles in the near future for the United States. It could be integrated into automated braking and steering systems as a collision avoidance system to reduce accidents on U.S. roadways.
ADAS. Advanced Driver Assistance Systems are primarily designed as collision avoidance systems for automobiles that will take over control or assist the driver to prevent an accident. Considered one the fastest-growing segments in the automotive industry, ADAS receives inputs from various data sources and vehicle systems including radar, LiDAR (similar to radar but using laser light), automotive imaging systems, in-car networking, V2V, and phones or WiFi data networks.
Autonomous. As the name implies, cars and trucks with this technology can drive themselves without human assistance or input. There is an argument that these vehicles are technically automated and not autonomous because someone (human) is deciding or requesting where the vehicle is going. The advanced technology used in these vehicles receives various sensory data inputs to drive the vehicle and reach programmed destinations. These sensors include radar, LiDar, computer vision, and GPS. There have been several prototypes going back to the 1980s and currently there are several levels of automation. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has come up with a formal classification list that defines five levels or types of vehicle automation. The Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) has also come up with a classification system that has six levels, although they are very similar. The NHTSA levels are listed below:
- Level 0-The driver completely controls the vehicle at all times, includes most vehicles on the road today.
- Level 1-The driver must be ready to take control at all times, includes active cruise control, parking assistance through the steering system, and lane keeping assistance (LKA).
- Level 2-With this system, acceleration, braking, and steering are automated; however, the driver must be ready to take over in the event of a failure and the system deactivates instantly when the driver takes over.
- Level 3-Mainly designed to be used on freeways, the driver can turn his attention away from driving and let the vehicle take over.
- Level 4-The vehicle drives itself at all times with no input from the driver. The vehicle can take care of all functions to include start, stop, and parking and includes unoccupied cars.
Where is all this heading? If a fire apparatus can receive information on surrounding traffic, evaluate road conditions, calculate road stability control, and signal lights, why not take advantage of that information? We already have systems that take control of local traffic signals to assist and expedite an ERV through traffic. We have cameras on streets observing traffic as well. But, how do we tie all this together? It is not farfetched to have technology wrestle control away from the driver of an ERV to avoid a collision. At what point do we feel comfortable enough with technology to permit an unannounced turning of the steering wheel or full application of the brakes?
Consider the following scenario: An ERV is responding code 3 in a highly dense area and is approaching an intersection at a rapid rate of speed. Based on the view of the operator, it appears that the intersection is clear for crossing. However, street-mounted cameras detect a rapidly approaching vehicle that is out of the ERV operator’s sight and on a collision course. In today’s world, we cross our fingers and say our prayers. In tomorrow’s world, how do communicate this to a driver? Or do we allow a system to take control of the ERV within those fractions of a second-perhaps even allow a remote driver to take control as if the ERV were a drone?
Ready or not, the technology is here. Its arrival has not come without a price. A Tesla Model S with auto pilot was recently involved in a crash with fatalities that raised concerns over the auto pilot feature. The ever-increasing industrywide controls over quality and security (hacking) from various industry groups will surely help ensure the elimination of the possibilities of these types of system failures. In the near future, I believe it will be inevitable that different types and levels of ADAS systems will be coming out in the ERV market. It is the future, and it will be crucial that the different ADAS functionalities interact seamlessly with the existing electronic control networks that comprise the modern ERV. For this to occur, the industry will need to do some thorough product testing. I am confident that in the end it will vastly cut down the costly accidents that plague this field.
CHRISTIAN P. KOOP retired as the fleet manager for the Miami-Dade (FL) Fire Department after 35 years with Miami-Dade County and four years in the military. He has been involved in the repair and maintenance of autos, military track and wheeled vehicles, heavy equipment, and emergency response vehicles for the past 40 years. He is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment Editorial Advisory Board. He has an associate degree from Central Texas College and a bachelor’s degree in public administration from Barry University and has taken course work in basic and digital electronics. He is an ASE-certified master auto/medium/heavy truck technician and master EVT apparatus and ambulance technician. He is a member of the board of directors of EVTCC and FAEVT and a technical committee member for NFPA 1071, Standard for the Emergency Vehicle Technician Professional Qualifications.