Unless you’re scanning the web for this kind of information, you’re probably not aware that on a fairly regular basis huge trucks with no driver inside the cab roll away from where they were parked. This usually happens because the driver neglected to engage the parking brake or because someone either purposely or inadvertently released it. The so-called rollaway accidents that result are often both costly and deadly. In April, a tractor trailer rolled across 10 lanes of expressway traffic in Columbus, GA and plowed through a store, causing $200,000 in damage. In 2006, an eight year-old girl was killed in New York City after being pinned on the sidewalk by a runaway school bus. Witnesses saw an eight year-old boy entering the empty bus prior to the tragic accident.
Now a mechanic with just a year of community college under his belt has unveiled a system to prevent rollaways. 44 year-old Tom Accardi (right) managed to create the system and bring it to market without the help of venture capitalists or companies that prey on aspiring inventors.
Accardi lives in the village of Yaphank, New York in the suburbs of Long Island. He spent close to six years working on his device, which sells for $2,500, and comes with a lifetime guarantee. A patent is pending.
Here’s how it works: less than two seconds after the driver has gotten out of the seat, a sensor in the seat sends a signal to the system’s controller box, which also receives data on the truck’s speed. If the controller detects motion of between 2 and 3 mph, it sends current to a solenoid that has been installed on the supply line to the air brake, cutting off the air. That, in turn, causes the parking brake to kick in.
Accardi parks a truck in the driveway of his home in Yaphank, opens the driver side door, releases the brake and the truck starts rolling in reverse. He sits in the driver seat for a moment with his legs hanging outside the cab, watching the truck roll down the driveway, then quickly climbs out of the moving truck. A second or so after his butt is off the seat, we hear the air brakes hiss and the truck stops rolling. In another segment of the video a truck with the anti-roll away system is seen rolling down a steep suburban street. Then Accardi opens the door and jumps out of the moving truck, which quickly brakes seconds after he is out of the driver’s seat. It’s dramatic stuff.
In the video Accardi makes reference to the personal injuries, deaths, property damage and resulting insurance claims from rollaway accidents and then declares: “The system we have is going to put an end to all of that.”
A self-taught mechanic who says he never had the money to go to mechanics school, Accardi has worked on trucks since he was 15 years old. He worked his way up from mechanic to administrator at Waste Management, the giant private carting firm. While he was there, Accardi says, he got weekly safety updates that indicated between two and five rollaway incidents took place almost every week. In one, a Waste Management employee was crushed to death between two trucks, causing Accardi to remark, “There’s no need for this to happen. I can make something to prevent this.”
When a colleague dared him to go ahead and try, Accardi spent the next two nights in his garage making a tabletop model of his anti-rollaway system. The Craftsman tractor he sat on as he mowed his lawn was something of an inspiration.
“Look at your standard garden tractor,” Accardi said in an interview. “They all have a seat switch so that if you get up out of your seat, it shuts the motor off.”
Which is why he pulled the seat off the lawnmower and attached it to a used beer delivery truck he bought for $5,000 solely for the purpose of perfecting his anti-rollaway system.
Accardi resisted the overtures of a firm that describes itself as America’s leading inventor service company. He says it wanted him to cough up $10,000 before it would help and took months to return one of his calls. He also spent many months doing a dance with venture capitalists, who he says “wanted almost the whole company. If I would have given every VC what they wanted, I’d be working for them for the rest of my life.”
Accardi says he had some promising meetings with the giant auto part manufacturer Delphi but there were personnel changes and no deal was reached. So he reluctantly decided to market the device himself. They key engineering challenge was an electronic one: programming some sort of controller with a microprocessor that would use inputs on the truck’s motion and absence of a driver to make the air brakes go on.
“Everybody wanted large amounts of money to do engineering before they got involved and did anything,” Accardi recalls.
Initially he was told there would be between $200,000 and $500,000 in engineering costs to launch the business. But eventually Accardi found a firm called Electro Motive Designs on Long Island. The firm does work turning garbage trucks and buses into hybrids, so Accardi’s project was right up their alley. Instead of a six figure tab for programming the controller box, Accardi paid Electro Motive Designs in the low five figures.
“They told me they would hack right into the truck’s computer, and then bing, bang, boom, they did everything we wanted,” Accardi recalls.”They had already done the hard work on their previous jobs.”
Dana Demeo, Electro Motive Designs’ VP of Engineering, says, “I was impressed with Tommy from the get go. He understood the problem and how to solve it.”
Demeo says Accardi can now connect the controller to his computer with a USB cable and program it on his own. Thus, the amount of time that the system allows before engaging the brakes can be varied. Because the box has flash memory, it can record incidents where the anti-rollaway system was activated and store the data for later download to a computer. Future programming and hardware tweaks would enable truck owners to get a GPS reading on exactly where such incidents took place and either email or text the data to management.
The 3″ X 4″ programmable controller box is about an inch thick and was purchased “off the shelf.” The controller can be installed in either a truck’s cab or under the hood, as long as it’s no more than four feet from the vehicle’s diagnostic port. Accardi says that installation takes between two and four hours and can be done by truck manufacturers, companies with a fleet of trucks or “anyone who can fool with air brakes.”
A volunteer fireman for more than 20 years, Accardi’s day job is supervisor of a waste transfer station. He is clearly proud that all but one part of his anti-rollaway system was manufactured in the US.
“It’s a great country,” he says. “I want everything made here.”
With a $2,500 price tag, the system may seem pricey for the prevention of accidents that are somewhat rare, but as HTK Engineering’s marketing director, Victor Yannacone III, points out, a rollaway accident can be quite costly for an insurance company: a single accident involving a fatality can result in millions of dollars of liability and injuries or property damage can cost hundreds of thousands. HTK expects insurance companies to offer premium reductions around 5% to 10% to truck owners who install its anti-rollaway system. For owners who shell out $20,000 to $30,000 a year for insurance, such savings would pay for the cost of the unit in two or three years.