Comment: How do you know?08 August 2023

The philosophy behind the walk-around check is to never assume that a key component of a vehicle is safe. If in doubt, check, to be sure. Safety can only be confirmed through direct observation. This is a longstanding approach to safety of commercial vehicles, and it works – as long as the checklist is a limited (smallish) number.

However, the total number of functional parameters now under digital control on a vehicle continues to rise. Modern vehicles employ ECUs (electronic control units) to manage every major vehicle system (such as powertrain, exhaust, braking), and that continues to grow. Continental has announced that starting this month it is factory-fitting TPMS sensors into its entire range of Conti Urban bus tyres, a claimed first. Partly, this responds to a European directive coming in 2024. But it is also a sign of the times. We are deluged by data.

Fortunately there is a technological solution; one ECU can monitor and/or interrogate others in a systems-of-systems architecture, erroring only when a deviation from the norm is detected. This is known as reporting by exception. At any one time most processes will probably be running within normal pre-set parameters, so they can be ignored, reducing the information overload. Handy.

By no means, however, does this architecture guarantee a safe end result. The effectiveness of rule by exception depends entirely on the quality of integration and installation. The right type of sensors must be positioned in the right place, be set with the correct alarm limits, and so on. Further transmission and processing steps, each with their own configuration settings, can also alter the meaning of the data. Software and hardware suppliers determine which data is important, and which data can be ignored.

On one hand, the complexity of modern safety systems makes it impossible for engineers to run comprehensive technical checks frequently; users of vehicles have to rely on automated systems to some degree. On the other, UK law clearly states that fleet engineers are ultimately responsible for vehicle roadworthiness, no matter how much they delegate to safety systems. How to resolve this dilemma?

A little curiosity, plus education, will turn novice fleet engineers into independently minded intelligent customers. Then, if they don’t know all of the answers, at least they can ask the right questions.

Will Dalrymple

Related Companies
Continental AG

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