Operators of trucking fleets have been clamping down ever harder on the oft-sung liberty of drivers, most notably with in-cab surveillance cameras. The camera lets remote observers watch for errors and, just important, makes the driver feel that he’s being watching, even when he isn’t.
Big Brother-like cameras make sense for the sake of safety and legal liability. Then again, it also makes sense to get up at the crack of dawn for an invigorating run. You’d rather not do it, and if you did, you’d rather it were your idea and not somebody else’s.
The way it works was laid out this month at a meeting of the Association of Equipment Management Professionals in Orlando, according to a report in Equipment World. First, the trucking company sets out clear policies for compliance. Next it installs systems to record drivers’ behavior, particularly when onboard systems notice anything unusual, like sudden braking. Finally, human supervisors review the records the next day to see whether to apply the carrot or the stick.
The “Cars That Think” magic comes with the onboard system. It loads information from the engine, brakes, steering wheel, even the view from an outward-looking camera, adds the inward-looking view of the driver, and sends it all to the home base. For now, mere machines are not being trusted to study the driver’s face for signs of fatigue or distraction, though AI programs are being developed for just that purpose.
In the United States the leading two systems are SmartDrive and DriveCam, both based in San Diego, Calif. The equipment costs less than US $100 per truck (not counting self-monitoring systems that the truck may already have); the subscription service adds $30 to $40 a month.
It’s no wonder that truckers are the first to benefit (or suffer) from the Big Brother treatment. They have rather little sway in the world nowadays. It’s rather different for airliner pilots, who were able to fend off a 2000 proposal by the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board to install video recorders in the cockpit, alongside the voice and data recorders (a.k.a., the black box).
This year, following the still-unexplained disappearance of Malaysian Air Flight 370, the NTSB reiterated its proposal. The Air Line Pilots Association called that an “overreaction,” adding that the money spent on cockpit cameras might even hurt safety “by diverting limited resources that could be used for more valuable safety enhancements."
Philip E. Ross is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. His interests include transportation, energy storage, AI, and the economic aspects of technology. He has a master's degree in international affairs from Columbia University and another, in journalism, from the University of Michigan.