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High-tech steering wheel sensor closer to launch

Being ‘a bit tired’ is now being identified as a major killer of truck drivers and is raising concerns in Australia’s road transport industry.

Last year’s National Transport Insurance (NTI) Major Accident Investigation Report highlighted fatigue as the biggest single cause of truck driver deaths, accounting for almost 35 per cent of fatalities.

It is a chilling realisation that, in 2020, some 18 drivers lost their lives in fatigue-related crashes with many seriously injured, making fatigue a hot button issue for transport companies now and into the future.

Safety bulletins and in-cab reminders may help manage the issue but are basic at best, hit and miss at their worst.

Canberra-based tech company Augmented-Intelligence, however, looks to have a handle on driver fatigue management with a system called FatigueM8 (pronounced ‘Fatigue Mate’), an electronic “driver’s mate in the cab” monitoring an individual driver’s physiological state.

FatigueM8 is a quantum leap beyond the simple driver alert found in so many cars and does way more than simply flash a coffee cup icon on the instrument panel every couple of hours.

Initially proposed in 2018 as a way of saving lives, equipment, freight loss and time, it promptly won the Australian Trucking Association’s FatigueHACK competition.

Augmented-Intelligence co-founders Andrew Hammond and Doctor Kelvin Ross believe the best way to solve the problem is to monitor fatigue levels using the driver’s own biometrics and, once baselined, use them to predict fatigue levels across a one to two-hour time horizon.

Simply put, FatigueM8 runs an operator systems check every couple of hours and lets drivers know if they need to take a break.

It does so by recording each operator’s baseline data, checking the resting heart rate and factoring-in the Circadian Rhythms – individual physical, mental, and behavioural changes running a 24-hour cycle and responding primarily to daylight and darkness – to work out what is right and what might be problematic.

With FatigueM8’s sensors built into the steering wheel, the check-up is carried-out by drivers doing nothing more than simply holding the wheel for a short period of time – 30 seconds every 30 minutes. Complete data capture to establish the full driver baseline takes about two weeks.

“The whole concept is that we want FatigueM8 to be super passive,” Hammond said. 

“Our core thesis is that individual drivers generally know their own signs of tiredness, such as sore shoulders or aching knees, but all too often, once they’re fatigued, the places to stop and rest are limited, especially for something like a B-double.

“So, our solution is to predict driver fatigue levels over a one-to-two hour horizon and then recommend a set of rest options that will help drivers to proactively manage their fatigue.”

Factors used to determine fatigue include driver heart rate, vehicle speed and travel time and even data from the NTI Accident Report. 

Armed with that information and the supplied driver details, FatigueM8 uses a traffic light system to determine operator health.

A score of 60 or less gets a green light, 60 to 80 registers an amber alert and 80 or more kicks the warning into the red zone with drivers getting an alert in a variety of ways, from a simple dashboard warning to a base controller call. 

Augmented-Intelligence started its data collection trials on three vehicles in the Canberra area; a concrete truck doing short hauls around the ACT, a light commercial van city-hopping and a B-Double running between Canberra and Sydney.

It has since added a number of long-haul rigs to its ‘fleet’ with semis running out of Brisbane and Toowoomba, a B-double out of Warwick and a Mt Isa-based quad-trailer roadtrain all adding to the data bank, speeding FatigueM8’s development 

Hammond says that, in all the testing carried out so far, there has been no operator pushback and the hardest job has been to remind drivers to keep both hands steadily positioned on the steering wheel for the necessary 30 second periods.

“Habitual training is what we’re trying to get to,” he says.

FatigueM8’s installation is simple. Fitting it to a Kenworth steering wheel, for example, takes about an hour. The electro-cardiograph (ECG) unit is placed under the horn cover and the onboard computer unit connected via a spare USB port and mounted securely on the vehicle dashboard, its camera positioned to capture traffic density and road condition information as well as get a visual on the driver – although Hammond is quick to note this is not a ‘Big Brother’ scenario but simply to match the person with their records.  

An added benefit of Augmented-Intelligence’s focus on driver fatigue is its ability to monitoring cardiac health, Hammond suggesting FatigueM8 will be able to assist driver health in a holistic manner.

Unfortunately, with the average driver age at just over 47 years, generally poor diets and limited exercise opportunities, operators are in the high risk category for cardiovascular disease.

FatigueM8’s assessments are made using Food and Drug Administration-approved ECG monitoring devices and its recordings can be reviewed by cardiologists attached to the FatigueM8 team. 

Hammond suggests the first production examples of FatigueM8 could be on the market within 18 months.

And while Augmented-Intelligence has its eyes fixed firmly on Australia’s roads Hammond concedes it has the potential to go global.

“Quite frankly, there is nothing like it in the world,” he says with pride.

How much will it cost? “We have to tailor it to be affordable for the single vehicle operators because they will probably need it more than the fleets and it has to be at a competitive price point.

“We think at this point that it will be sold on a subscription plan at around $50 per month, per vehicle.”

That could just be some of the transport industry’s cheapest insurance.

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