Enterprise Mobility & the Connected Worker Blog

Awake at the Wheel – Innovations in Fatigue Monitoring

by Emily Gove 10/12/2022

Amid extreme weather and record port congestion, smooth supply chains have come to feel like a distant memory. The need to navigate new challenges is more urgent than ever, and shippers are pushing much of their urgency onto logistics providers: the truck drivers, maritime crews, and aviators operating in ever-shorter timeframes.

Truck drivers in the US face a number of restrictions around driving time and mandatory rest periods, which were implemented in an effort to protect drivers from work weeks that can surpass 60-100 hours. However, drivers still find themselves in impossible time crunches: drayage and long haul truckers must wait at a port or delivery center for hours – a period that does not count as “on time” (active time being recorded as work hours) and can lengthen a ten-hour driving day into 14-18 hours.

Thus, while there are protections in writing, the lived experience of truckers can still entail long days, taxing work, scarce breaks, and low pay – all contributing to the astronomical 90%+ worker turnover rate of the trucking industry. Due to pressure caused by the nature of the job and the demands of shippers, a driver will push to complete a delivery rather than stop to rest. In the event that the driver is feeling fatigued, they risk crashing the vehicle, jeopardizing their life and the lives of others on the road. Fatigue monitoring and driver risk management systems (DRMs) have emerged to combat the issue and make rides safer, launching technology that tracks drivers’ awareness in order to avoid crashes.

Solutions for driver fatigue
Innovation in technology offers a different approach to fighting fatigue. Dashboard cameras are becoming more common in fatigue monitoring, and wearable devices have undergone testing and launched in some countries. Below are three developing innovations that may become more widely used in the trucking industry in coming years.

Safety cameras were the first fatigue monitoring technology to emerge, and are programmed to monitor drivers’ eyes. Optalert has become a prominent fatigue monitoring brand in Australia, and partnered with GE to improve safety in mining operations. Cameras monitor and flag driver “events” such as distractions, fatigue, and obscured view. Each event corresponds to a formula of minutes and camera vision: for instance, a distraction event occurs when a driver’s head is not facing forward for 4 seconds when driving at 40km/hr or faster. A fatigue alert occurs when a driver’s eyes have closed for 1.5 seconds while travelling at a speed of 10km/hr or faster. Either might result in an audio alert or device vibration.

A downside to safety cameras has been their low accuracy, with error rates as high as 72% in some trials. For instance, cameras’ programming has equated closed eyes with fatigue, so false positives occur when drivers need to squint in the sun.

Wearable hats, in both beanie and baseball cap style, are another option for driving monitoring, and may have a lower error rate than safety cameras. Hats like SmartCap, which has launched in Australia, have bands that monitor wearers’ brain waves, and can sense when a driver is drowsy or drops beyond a threshold of alertness levels. Hats may also be equipped with technology that senses head movement, and can trigger alarms when a driver’s head begins to nod.

Wearable vests are the newest innovation in fatigue monitoring, and are undergoing testing in Australia for use in the trucking industry. Biometric vests created by Catapult have been used to monitor athletes’ performance, and feature both biometric and GPS capabilities that could be useful in transport, construction, and mining contexts. Vests created by Hexoskin have been used in healthcare, research, and space expeditions, and can monitor vitals ranging from heart to temperature, to blood oxygen levels.

Continued challenges and debate
Trucking companies in the US and Europe are watching new technology trials in Australia closely, and some are already using inward-facing cameras. Whether fatigue monitoring technology will become required for drivers remains a question, although growing US government regulations around driver on time and sleep hours could suggest that it will be embraced by lawmakers as a solution to the problem of driver fatigue.

Another lingering question is whether driver fatigue is really a symptom of a much larger problem. Companies are promising customers fast delivery times, but infrastructural issues and supply chain disruptions make even “normal” delivery times difficult to meet. Truckers, who in the US have called themselves “the last cowboys,” gravitated toward the profession for the ability to choose their hours and take long solo trips. In reality, drivers feel the brunt of deadline pressures, must immerse themselves physically in supply chain issues, and face monitoring from companies when deadlines are missed. Combining a subculture that values freedom and individualism with an economic system bent on precision and control has created a powder keg in the trucking industry, and has been cited as a catalyst of the February 2022 US/Canada border protests over vaccine mandates.

Wearables manufacturers must develop nuanced marketing strategies if they wish to gain the trust of mobile workers who likely consider themselves over-monitored already. Convincing truckers that wearable caps are in the interest of personal safety, rather than a corporate punishment, will be a challenge – truckers already report inward-facing cameras being used punitively, and have found ways to subvert the monitoring (putting hats over the cameras, for example). With trucker buy-in and a thoughtful approach, fatigue monitoring companies have the potential to reduce roadway accidents and ensure that drivers stay in control.