General Motors believes that for far too long, the trailer has been viewed as this mystery black box that’s just linked up to the truck, and off the two of them go, with no understanding of each other.

So GM has formed partnerships with the National Association of Trailer Manufacturers (NATM) and the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA), tested trucks and trailers together, and developed focus areas for future products to make it a smarter experience and provide more safety and security for customers.

“We know that trucks are important to GM, and that trailering is important to our customers, so trailering is equally important to us,” said Jaclyn McQuaid, chief engineer of the next generation full-size heavy-duty truck at General Motors. “At GM, we put the customer at the center of everything we do. We know that in order to put them there, we need to understand how they’re using their vehicles and what they want out of their trucks.

“We have formed partnerships with NATM and RVIA, and we want to continue to build those relationships because we share customers. We know not every truck customer is a trailer customer, but pretty much every trailer customer is a truck customer.”

She said that when GM talks to its work truck customers, fleet and commercial buyers, and luxury pickup buyers, the conversation invariably turns to towing.

“They want to be able to hitch easier and want to see better,” she said. “We constantly hear frustration from customers relative to hitching. They need a second person with them to direct them as they’re trying to hook up the unit. Now you probably think GM is a vehicle manufacturer. And we are. But we’re also in the business of saving marriages. How can we make hitching for one man or one woman operational?

“Customers also say they want to be able to see behind and around the trailer. We hear this from novice trailer owners and very experienced towers. It’s consistent regardless of experience level. They want to be able to see better. So what can we do, working with you, to make it happen?

“They want to be more confident with their towing. We recognize that oftentimes what a customer is pulling is more valuable to them emotionally and financially than the truck that’s pulling it. We get that. They have boats and horses and campers. They may be towing tools necessary for their livelihood and want to make sure that is being kept secure. They want to know, ‘Is that noise I’m hearing normal? Or is that an indication that something is going wrong?’

“Above all, most users want to feel safer. They want to know they’ve hooked up the unit correctly and can drive with confidence. They want to know all systems they consider to be safety systems on that trailer are functioning properly. Are the brakes wearing thin? Is a tire blowout imminent? What’s the status of the sway-control unit? This is a fundamental and primary concern of our customers.”

She said that in order for GM to truly take the safety of truck customers to the next level, it has to look beyond just the truck and look to unit of the truck plus the trailer.

She presented data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reporting system that shows that the number of fatal and serious injuries between 2011 and 2015 as a result of trailering hasn’t varied by more than a few percentage points.

“It’s constant,” she said. “There has not been any reduction in the number of trailering serious injuries or fatalities since 2011. We wanted to ask ourselves, ‘Is that OK?’ We said, ‘No, we don’t think that’s OK.’ We want to be part of the solution to drive that improvement. We know what to do, that we need to invest in making a change and invest in the safety of our systems so we can drive it down, because it won’t happen on its own. We believe now is the time to be proactive.”

Todd Brinkman, a GM systems engineer focusing on trailer braking and vehicle dynamics, said GM took a look at trailer braking regulations by state, and learned that just five require brakes on all trailers: New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Pennsylvania. Some have unique regulations, but most require brakes at between 1000 and 5000 GVW, with 29 requiring them at 3000 GVW.

“NHTSA doesn’t have requirements for non-commercial trailers,” he said. “There are no federal requirements, so we did some tests. We developed a mathematical line for stopping distance to make sure the truck is performing and that we’re getting enough current to the trailer brakes, that the brakes on the truck are as authoritative as we want. So we towed the trailer by the vehicle brakes alone and then applied the trailer brakes alone with a manual slider switch on the truck. Trailer brakes are not nearly as strong as the truck brakes.”

They tested a Chevrolet 3500 crew cab at 8133 pounds and a conventional cargo trailer at 14,000 pounds GVW, and the stopping distance was 148 feet alone, 262 with all brakes applied, 321 with just the vehicle brakes, and 984 feet with just the trailer brakes.

They also tested a Chevrolet 3500 dually at 8250 pounds GVW with a gooseneck trailer at 23,200 pounds GVW, and the stopping distance was 169 feet alone, 311 with all brakes applied, 398 with just the vehicle brakes, and 1653 feet with just the trailer brakes.

“Anybody can figure out you need to be more careful when you have a trailer, but what’s hard to figure out is just how much more difficult it’s going to be” Brinkman said. “When I got my first trailer, my dad said, ‘Your goal is to go through life and never have to do a panic stop when towing a trailer.’ Unfortunately, I have had to do two panic stops. That brings some perspective that stopping distance is quite a bit more difficult with a fully loaded trailer.

“Customers really care about how fast the truck can stop. I know from talking to you guys that we don’t have the same level of customer pull on trailer brakes, but there are good opportunities to make some improvements on stopping distance.

“NHTSA figured out we can save some lives if we require tire pressure monitors on trucks, so that becomes a law. They figured out we can save lives by putting cameras on the back, so that becomes a law. It seems like everybody I talk to agrees that at some point they will start focusing on trailer brakes and how good they have to be, so our thought is, ‘Let’s put some thought into that ourselves and try to drive that change for something that works for the trailer and truck industry, rather than wait for them to come along and tell us.’

“Consistent brake performance will help put everyone on an equal playing field. Right now, a lot of folks say they put some good brakes on a trailer and then other people are putting on the cheapest brakes they can find. So let’s find requirements that make it fair for everyone.”

Brinkman said GM wants to guide the change together with others, champion the advantages of improved standards, and improve safety. GM’s focus is on the SAE trailer brake task force.

“The focus will be on what our recommendations are for what weight trailer brakes are required, how authoritative the brakes have to be—with the focus on stopping distance—and finally, what kind of testing would be done,” he said. “The idea is to come up with something that works well for the industry.”

Talking about trailer sway control, Brinkman said, “Right now, the StabiliTrak system on a truck has the ability to apply brakes to individual corners and then apply a riding moment to the truck and get a truck under control and dampen out the sway. If you have an integrated brake-control module on the truck, you can apply both brakes left and right at the same time. I think five suppliers are making trailer-mounted sway-control modules. The advantage is, when you’re measuring sway, you can measure it a lot faster than trying to measure what it’s doing to the truck.”

What are the potential issues?

“We have a truck system that’s been designed and a trailer system that’s been designed, but they’ve been designed separately, so there’s the possibility that can interfere with the diagnostics of the truck, or dynamically we haven’t gone out and tested these systems together under all conditions. Trailer-based systems do not know driver intent in terms of steering input.

“So in optimizing systems, what do we do next? We have reached out to suppliers about the display-control systems, and as a first step, let’s test parts together and see how they communicate and see whether they interfere with each other and whether any design changes are made. The thing that has come out of all of this is that in almost every case, the sway-control manufacturers have said, ‘If we knew somebody at GM, we could have been talking to them a long time ago.’ In one case, they said, ‘We called somebody a year and half ago and they never called back.’ Now is the time to get those contacts in place so we can start being proactive.

“The second thing is that we joined the RVIA Vehicular Components Subcommittee, a group looking at standards for electronics. The idea is to pull together all of the truck OEMs and sway-control OEMs and work together. We started looking at possible combinations of trucks with and without brake controls. There are about 120 possible combinations. If you think about multiple model years, it could be hundreds of combinations of trucks and components. So we need some kind of orchestrated strategy to make sure these all work together.

“Right now, we’re working on our software for 2019, and working on testing and validation, so if we find out about things, we have to be making changes out into the future, so the sooner we can work together, the better chance that things will work out well together.”

Drew Camden, a GM systems engineer who works on making trailers smarter, listed these focus areas for next-generation products that will provide a smarter experience and give customers safety and security:

•  Vision. “Initially, we want to start with visual aids. Moving forward as autonomous vehicles are realized, we want to start doing some of the work for them. We already have systems on vehicles that give a full 360-degree view. Wouldn’t it be great if we could do a 720-degree view—truck and trailer together, with no uncertainty about what’s around you?”

•  Making it smart. “Provide more information to the driver. Start eliminating some of those things they’re uncertain about, so they can know they’ve done things right and that they’re safe on the road. It doesn’t have to be such a white-knuckle experience when you go into the campground.”

•  Trailer control. “We’re looking at improving our vehicle systems and how those various systems can work together, not just for sway.”

•  Trailer configuration. “Every trailer is different. We want the truck to adapt to the trailer, the truck to begin to understand what’s actually attached to it. We’ve for too long treated trailers as this mystery black box that’s just linked up, plugged in, and you’re good to go. The truck needs to start understanding what you’re towing and how your experience and demands for each trailer is different.”

•  Autonomous driving. “There’s a future where the truck is going to be driving itself with the trailer attached. Maybe it’s down the road, but we need to think about it now. Our vehicle cycles are very long, so we’re always thinking five years in the future and more.”

Security. “With the trailer attached to the vehicle or not, no one is tampering with it. We want to leverage OnStar to provide alerts to your cellphone if there’s an issue.” ♦

For more information on National Association of Trailer Manufacturers
check out NATM.com.