Falling asleep at the wheel is a trucker’s worst nightmare. Fatigue comes with the job of driving an eighteen-wheeler, even with rules requiring rest stops and limiting driving hours. Now, new technologies are becoming available to alert drowsy drivers, sometimes even before they feel tired.
Such tech has been slow to enter big rigs’ cabs, but that may be changing. “The trucking industry is more of a wait-and-see group than an early adopter when it comes to technology because they run on thin margins,” said Daniel Bongers, chief technology officer at SmartCap, an Australian company that makes a number of industrial safety products. In addition, the industry, which employs 3.5 million people in the United States, has been focused on a new law requiring the installation of electronic logging devices on most commercial trucks that is meant to help ensure drivers don’t drive more than the legally allotted hours in a day and that they take required breaks.
Biometric sensors are getting lighter, cheaper and more accurate, and new software systems can connect driver and vehicle data. The feedback loops these systems create could make the roads safer for everyone.
Fatigue is highly underreported as an accident cause, said Dr. Bongers, who has a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering. For example, he said, a crash might officially be attributed to roadwork, but fatigue may have slowed the driver’s reaction time and decision-making.
At National Transportation Services in Kent, Wash., Juan Ochoa, an 18-year industry veteran, manages a fleet of about 80 long-haul trucks. He believes most accidents are caused by fatigue. “I’d estimate 70 percent,” he said.
One of the first drowsy-driving monitoring systems to appear in the truckers’ cab was a driver-facing camera that alerted the driver when it registered eyelid and head droops. Privacy concerns kept this technology from going far.
New wearable technology monitors the drivers but in a more subtle way, and comes in a variety of forms including caps, vests, wristbands and eye wear.
Glasses made by Optalert measure the driver’s eye blinking with an LED light monitor. Eyelids that stay down too long might point to a sleepy driver. The real-time measurements are displayed on a dash-mounted device with alarms and notifications.
A headset made by Maven Machines detects if a driver is looking forward through the windshield, up, down or sideways, and measures mirror checks, which can decrease in frequency if a driver is getting tired. The headset detects head bobs and jerks, signs the driver is falling asleep.
This system also notices and can deliver notifications on “coachable” behaviors that can be improved, like hard braking, and delivers audible routing, weather and other messages as well.
The software behind these devices is complex, with data from a variety of sources, said Craig Campbell, vice president for marketing at Maven Machines. His company’s headset, for example, pulls data from accelerometers embedded inside, sensors in the truck’s onboard computer and GPS data from nearby cellphone towers. The system can then discern whether a driver is driving at an unsafe speed, or perhaps just passing someone, going down a hill or crossing a highway overpass that runs above a surface street with a lower speed limit.
“It’s easy to drown in a sea of data,” so driver-monitoring systems must pick out the important events to report, Mr. Campbell said.
The SmartCap device is a headband that fits into trucker caps, beanies or other head gear. The band measures electronic brain waves and translates them to a measure of alertness or fatigue. It notifies the driver and a central monitoring system if the wearer appears drowsy.
The alerts sent to drivers are meant to encourage them to find their own best way to get back into a more alert state, such as stopping and walking around the truck, having a snack, drinking some water or taking a nap, said Dr. Bongers. The company says its case studies have shown that over time the number of drivers’ alerts lessens, meaning they are changing schedules or learning to recognize their own drowsy warning signs.
Some truck drivers do have cameras watching them from dashboard mounts. The Guardian from Seeing Machines, a black cylinder with a camera in it, is mounted on top of the dashboard. Face- and gaze-tracking algorithms monitor the driver and send audio alarms, vibrate the driver’s seat and notify the monitoring station if safety parameters are not met.
Mr. Ochoa’s company uses a camera and software system connected to both the truck and the insurance company for driver safety and monitoring. The system stores 10 seconds of driver and front-facing video before and after any unusual event like harsh acceleration or braking or sharp turns. “The front camera is important because it records what is happening on the road at the time of the accident and helps determine whose fault it was,” Mr. Ochoa said.
Some devices try to predict a driver’s drowsiness.
Software sold by Fatigue Science analyzes sleep data from wearables, such as the quality and quantity of a driver’s sleep plus their sleep history or sleep debt, in order to project when they will feel tired. This works as a predictive tool, as well as a personal alert system, said Robert Higdon, Fatigue Science’s vice president for product and corporate development. The predictions help drivers to be more aware of fatigue risk before it happens, and companies to adjust shift schedules and provide sleep help resources based on the information provided by the software, he said.
Karen Levy, a Cornell University professor who is writing a book on truckers and technology, said that while she appreciated the safety goals of wearables and cameras, they were “just a Band-Aid” for the wider problem of truck driver fatigue. Changes in the industry, including how drivers are paid and the efficiency of the system, would do more to help, she said.
Drivers sometimes need to wait hours at warehouse facilities for their cargo to be loaded or unloaded, Dr. Levy said. They don’t always get paid for that waiting time, “but it does increase their fatigue.” Companies should be given incentives to get drivers in and out of loading bays more quickly, she said, and drivers should always be paid for waiting time. “It’s a complex system,” she said, noting that this was just one example of how industry operations might be better optimized to benefit both drivers and businesses.
In the meantime, self-driving trucks are still years away, so “it’s a good bet” companies will continue developing monitoring technologies for drivers, Dr. Levy said. “We’re going to need an alert human for the foreseeable future.”