Camera systems taking a lead in data harvest

Road-facing and driver-facing camera systems such as those of the SmartDrive and DriveCam companies have enjoyed big tailwinds in recent years because of their powerful event capture and review capabilities.

With such strong momentum and expanding uses for cameras, the technology could well follow the same path as that of electronic logging devices: widespread early adoption by large fleets and an eventual federal mandate industrywide.

Dual camera systems “will at some point be required,” says Don Osterberg, formerly a senior vice president of safety with Schneider National and now a member of SmartDrive’s board of advisers. He believes that the “granularity and clarity that video monitoring” offers to fleets, accident investigators and drivers could yield great safety benefits.

Private industry will outpace regulation by a long stretch, Osterberg says, and company drivers can expect multiple-camera systems to be common before any potential mandate might take effect. He believes camera technologies will ultimately become a factory-installed truck option.

These predictions could be accurate, given the strong customer growth both DriveCam and SmartDrive have experienced. DriveCam this year received a cash infusion through the $500 million buyout of its parent company, Lytx, by private equity firm GTCR. Lytx spokeswoman Gretchen Griswold reports 2015 subscriptions were up 80 percent over 2014, with half a million drivers now in DriveCam-equipped vehicles.

Fleets are drawn not just to the crash evidence value of video in court, but also to applications such as crash review, driver coaching and performance incentives. 

Drivers can generate massive amounts of video, mostly triggered by actions such as swerves or hard braking, for review by SmartDrive and DriveCam personnel. They cull notable events for the fleets, who often coach drivers around the issues raised.

More ambitious use of video, primarily for real-time fatigue management, is on the horizon. That’s “absolutely the direction of our technology,” says DriveCam Senior Product Manager Todd Birzer. “We’ll continue to evolve to pursue that aggressively.”

By reading lane striping, a system can trigger a driver alarm. Add a driver-facing camera, able to monitor length and frequency of blinks and nods and other movements, and the fatigue application is even greater. Research and development at DriveCam, illustrated in part by its recent ActiveVision product that combines its basic dual-camera service with lane-departure and collision warnings, is coalescing sensor and communications technology around the so-called “missing link” inside the cab: the driver.

The ActiveVision system is looking at technology that would capture events beyond those now gathered by the obvious triggers. It’s using what Birzer calls “machine vision technology” to detect “lane markings and vehicles around the truck – we can give in-cab warnings if [a driver is] weaving inside a lane,” for instance. “From patterns of movements, we can then decide when to take a video.”

This focus and related research “has really allowed us to take drowsy and distracted driving detection to the next level.”

For example, “If the driver’s head is nodding, if they’re doing something with their hands and arms,” Birzer says, the camera’s underlying software will recognize signs of fatigue or distraction. Alarms can be sounded in-cab and, if so configured, in the back office.

As autonomous trucks become common, fatigue detection technology could be key in ensuring safety, Birzer says. This could mean allowing the truck to seize control when a driver becomes too fatigued or, conversely, ensuring the driver is ready to assume control, for example, to exit an interstate highway.

As autonomous driver-assist systems advance, says SmartDrive President Jason Palmer, not only will the company be measuring driver performance, but also “the performance of that assist system.”

Video insights will be key to understanding “how drivers react to those automated systems,” says SmartDrive Chief Executive Officer Steve Mitgang. Fleets will be better equipped to focus on the problem areas of human-machine interactions.


A potential upside for camera use is that its event review information can be incorporated with vehicle data to make for more dynamic performance-pay options.

While fleets can fairly easily track average miles per gallon to chart a driver’s fuel-mileage performance, “they don’t know where the best place for improvement is,” says SmartDrive CEO Steve Mitgang. A particular driver might do better to have a goal to “improve in-city driving” rather than to focus on areas where he already excels, such as reducing idling. “This will help them set up a performance-pay target to help them get there.”

Mitgang points to the company’s new SmartIQ big-data platform that integrates truck systems’ data with video evidence of driving events to produce useful intelligence.

“Video in combination with telematics and other data is the game changer,” he says.

— By Todd Dills

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