There was a time in the not-too-distant past when cargo vans were uniformly large, powerful and, for applications that didn’t require all the size and displacement to transport contractor-type loads, somewhat inefficient.
Times have changed, and the segment has seen a proliferation of new makes, models, shapes, sizes, and powerplants.
And, along with all those new choices, manufacturers have been adding lifesaving safety technology, including active and passive systems rivaling the safety features now being built into passenger cars.
To learn how far van safety has come in recent years, Business Fleet checked in with experts from Ford, General Motors, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan, and Ram Commercial.
We quickly learned how technology, fleet needs, and government mandates have aligned to drive the implementation of safety features and make optional equipment now standard.
What Matters to Fleets?
Today’s safety technology in commercial vans can be divided into those that are designed to help drivers avoid collisions and those that protect them from harm when an accident can’t be avoided.
“What’s unique to the commercial industry is the focus on minimizing human error,” says Dshamal R. Schoetz, product manager, Sprinter and upfitter management at Mercedes-Benz Vans. “They’re being driven by people who work long hours with a lot of stress and fatigue. The van needs to be smarter than the operator.”
Manufacturers are focusing on features that also make sense to customers. As General Motors’ John Schwegman, director of commercial product and medium duty for the U.S., points out, they are working closer than ever before with fleets to ensure they are offering the right range of features to fit fleet’s needs.
“We’ve been working on an initiative to make sure we have the voice of commercial customers. Just last fall we put together a survey specifically on safety,” he says, noting that GM asked fleet customers to rate their interest in a range of safety features in various bundles and price points before developing their next generation of offerings.
So what features are fleet managers asking for? It’s a mix of old, new, and advancing safety tech.
• Active safety systems: Make no mistake: The light-duty van market is no stranger to the advanced, active, and autonomous safety systems that are becoming widespread in the passenger segment. Of particular interest to van manufacturers and buyers are forward-collision avoidance, blind-spot monitoring, and lane-keep assist.
“How neat would it be if the vehicle just braked on its own?” asks Schoetz. “But I think the Holy Grail is communization of connected vehicles. Mercedes-Benz wants to be the frontrunner on connected vehicles. Once an agreeable standard is reached, vehicles that talk to each other will make huge strides in preventing accidents.”
Schoetz believes that universal vehicle-to-vehicle communication is still five to 10 years out, but the OEMs are developing and testing systems today that will move the industry in that direction.
“Automated vehicle technologies and autonomous vehicles have enormous potential to help our customers drive more safely, facilitate mobility, and reduce the environmental impact of traffic congestion,” says John Cangany, Ford Motor Co.’s safety and sustainability communications manager.
Cangany believes that these systems have the potential to reduce or eliminate traffic delays, thus saving drivers time and money. They could also potentially warn drivers if they are in imminent danger of a collision at an intersection, for example, and prime the brakes for engagement or even apply them autonomously if the vehicle ahead comes to a sudden halt.
In fact, one piece of this puzzle — forward-collision alerts with automatic braking — is something manufacturers have pledged to have available by 2022 in a memorandum issued in conjunction with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
The manufacturers are not waiting for NHTSA to drive adoption, notes Schwegman. “This memo has some of the key OEMs saying we’re going to get forward-collision on the majority of vehicles by 2022,” he says. “That is much quicker than if it were mandated.”
He went on to note that it makes sense to work together with the competition because, at the end of the day, customer safety is at the heart of things. “Sometimes there might not be a strong enough pull for all customers, but we look at the data and see it saves lives, so it’s not negotiable,” he continues. “So we supported this, along with NHTSA, and thought it was the right thing to do for the industry.”
• Rearview cameras: NHTSA already has elected to mandate the installation of rearview (or “backup”) cameras on every new vehicle, starting with the 2018-MY. None of our sources are waiting that long. Our experts say the cameras are indispensable for safely backing up in vans, especially the long and tall models that may not have windows behind the B pillar, let alone any rear visibility. To avoid hitting pedestrians, objects, or other vehicles, they say, rearview cameras are a must-have.
• Air bags: Multiple air bags are just as common in commercial vans as they are in passenger cars.
Nissan now installs a full suite of air bags throughout its commercial lineup. The Nissan NV Passenger model includes dual-stage supplemental front air bags, standard front seat-mounted side-impact supplemental airbags, and standard roof-mounted curtain side-impact supplemental air bags for the second, third and fourth rows in the outboard seating position. Ford introduced the industry’s first five-row side-curtain air bag in the 2015 Ford Transit 15-passenger wagon.
• Seat belts: “The single most important safety device is safety belts,” Ford’s Cangany stresses. “Front and side air bags and the Safety Canopy System supplement the protection provided by safety belts.”
Due to demand from commercial customers, manufacturers are experimenting with different ways to ensure drivers actually use them. Schoetz says Mercedes-Benz has started to produce seat belts made of a bright orange material so they can easily be seen from outside the vehicle. Orange seat belts are also available for Ford Transit and E-Series vans as well as Super Duty trucks.
• Electronic stability control: Today’s commercial vans may be sleeker and more aerodynamic than their predecessors, but they’re still susceptible to precipitation and high winds. Enter electronic stability control (ESC) systems, which aim to automatically assist drivers in keeping the vehicle upright and moving in the right direction.
“Driver control improvement and stability systems are key to commercial vehicles, which spend most of their time on active roadways,” says Nick Cappa, Ram Truck spokesperson, noting that today’s ESCs aren’t just one-size-fits-all: They can automatically adjust to the weight of the load, ensuring the stability controls are always calibrated for the real-world conditions in which the van and driver are operating.
Side Wind Stabilization will be standard on all Ford Transit vans with the 2017 model-year. The technology applies the brakes on one side of the vehicle to help reduce the effect of a sudden side wind gust on the vehicle’s path.
• Bulkheads: Another area where one size does not fit all is the cage that separates the cargo area from the cockpit. The heavier the load, the stronger the bulkhead needs to be to prevent a cabin breach in the event of a sudden stop or collision. Security is another consideration: Some operators may not wish for the van’s cargo to be visible to would-be thieves. With all that in mind, OEMs are now offering a wider range of bulkhead options for fleet buyers to choose from.
In the commercial segment, Schoetz says, the push toward advanced safety is driven by multiple factors, including the rising cost of accidents. But the health of drivers remains paramount, and that’s the message fleet buyers are sending.
“What they’re most interested in is preventing accidents, lowering insurance costs, and reducing wear and tear,” he says. “Anything I can offer fleet buyers in those areas are the things they look for the most.”
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