Here’s looking at you: new tech to monitor driver fatigue, distraction

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Updated Apr 6, 2016
Maven Co-Pilot uses a hands-free wireless headset to detect head motion.Maven Co-Pilot uses a hands-free wireless headset to detect head motion.

You can learn a lot about truck drivers by watching their head and eye movements. Are they looking ahead but frequently scanning their mirrors and gauges? Or are they distracted and perhaps drifting off to sleep?

Telematics systems and video event recorders can already monitor the inputs from sensors and controls on the vehicle to detect risky driving behaviors. Now, a new set of technologies is able to directly monitor drivers themselves.

PGT Trucking, a 1,100-truck carrier with flatbed operations based in Monaca, Penn., is currently testing such a technology from Maven Machines.

About 25 drivers at the company have volunteered to use a high quality Bluetooth headset as their hands-free communication device, paired with their smartphones. Drivers can make phone calls, listen to music or get voice commands from their navigation apps.

The safety benefit is not limited to hands-free connectivity. Inside the headset are sensors that detect subtle head movements as drivers look side to side at mirrors, down at gauges, or at objects inside and around their vehicles. The sensors and algorithms can also detect head bobs, or a lack of movement, as early signs of drowsiness or fatigue.

The headset communicates with an app called Maven Co-Pilot. The app gives drivers feedback on their safe driving with scores that indicate if they are checking their mirrors in a timely manner, following the speed limit, and more.

Soon, the product will have the option to actively warn drivers and fleets of fatigued or distracted driving. As an option, drivers can use their own voice recording as an alert, says the founder and chief executive of Maven Machines, Avishai Geller.

An MIT graduate in computer science, Geller worked for large and small software companies before starting the company in May, 2015.

The Maven Co-Pilot driver app shows safe driving scores using data collected from the headset.The Maven Co-Pilot driver app shows safe driving scores using data collected from the headset.

“I fell in love with trucking,” he says. “I thought this is the best place for the technology to make an impact.”

Fleets use a web portal to assess driver risk and skill levels. To provide added context for the results, Maven Co-Pilot includes temperature, speed and location data in its reports and visual map displays. It can also bring hard braking and lateral acceleration (swerving) events using data captured by phones and third party telematics systems, he says.

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Fleet managers can use the web portal to see if drivers are properly checking their mirrors in traffic or while going through an intersection, among many possibilities.

Gregg Troian, president of PGT Trucking, says the fleet is in the process of evaluating how to use the information “to tell if drivers are developing the kind of habits they need to drive effectively and without accidents.” Drivers currently use the technology on a voluntary basis, but Troian says it may become mandatory for those with a higher risk profile or for retraining purposes.

Here’s looking at you

Another approach to detect driver fatigue and distraction is to use a camera. Seeing Machines’ Guardian fatigue management system has a small, dash-mounted camera and small infrared units, placed left and right of the camera, to enable the camera to work in the dark and when the driver is wearing sunglasses.

The camera feeds data to an onboard unit with algorithms that detect certain movements, such as eyelids closing or the head nodding. An alarm is triggered when these movements cross a certain threshold.

The alarm consists of seat vibration and audible alerts, such as low rumbles, beeps and a whistle.

The Guardian system is currently being tested by six small and large U.S. fleets. It was initially launched in the mining industry, says Chris Sluss, vice president of business development.

During the fleet tests, Seeing Machines monitored fatigue and distracted driving events for a 30-day period without activating alerts to the driver or fleet to establish a baseline. The testing then continued for a 30-day period with the alerts active.

The statistics from the six studies show that alerts, when activated, reduce fatigue and distracted driving events by 30 to 90 percent, he says.

The Guardian fatigue management system from Seeing Machines gives drivers instant alerts when it detects risk due to distracted or fatigued driving.The Guardian fatigue management system from Seeing Machines gives drivers instant alerts when it detects risk due to distracted or fatigued driving.

While some drivers may feel uncomfortable with a camera pointed at their face, “it’s not about big brother,” Sluss says. “We’re not here to watch you; we are here to protect you.”

The system only sends reports to the fleet when critical events occur, he says. Otherwise all of the data stays onboard the vehicle.

The adoption of systems like these will largely depend on how drivers perceive being monitored by more technology. Will they see it as a tool to keep them safe or as something they would rather do without? PGT Trucking’s Gregg Troian sees both attitudes at play among drivers.

“My guess is that it will be a part of PGT in some way shape or form, but we will probably not force all drivers to use it. I think that is a little drastic.”