Imagine being able to put on a headband that tells you that you’re feeling sleepy. Well, as of last year, such technology is no longer science fiction. A company called SmartCap introduced the concept in February 2020, right on the eve of the pandemic.
Falling asleep at the wheel is everyone’s worst nightmare. But it’s especially bothersome for truckers, due to the sheer size of the vehicles they drive. Crashing a car into railings is bad enough, but doing the same with a 50-tonne semi is devastating.
For years, safety junkies have been calling for technologists to come up with solutions, and now they have.
The SmartCap is the brainchild of Daniel Bonger, chief technologist at the firm, and his compatriots. The device users several biometric sensors that can track things like drivers’ decision-making and reaction time.
The first systems used driver-facing cameras to detect whether truckers were getting tired. But privacy issues prevented this technology from taking off in the way people hoped.
Newer systems tried to get around this problem by enmeshing cameras into the dashboard and making them smaller. But the same problem remained, even if the software could do a good job.
The latest system uses a different kind of technology that doesn’t require any external monitoring of the driver. You simply put the headband around your head, and it measures your brain waves directly, without transmitting the information to anyone else.
The software underpinning the device is complex. It relies on a network of sensors, all feeding information to a central controller. Processing power comes from the truck’s onboard computer which the SmartCap uses to parse all the data it generates.
The hope is that when truckers browse to find loads to ship, the system will tell them if they’re too tired or not.
Remember, truckers themselves experience a lot of stress and anxiety about their own ability to safely haul goods across the country. Many don’t know if they’re properly awake or not. It’s hard to tell from the inside.
The SmartCap, therefore, has sensors that measure the electrical output of the brain – so-called “brain waves.” It then uses software to interpret these and figure out whether the driver is feeling drowsy or not.
What’s great about the headband is that it provides real-time feedback. So, for instance, a driver might feel perfectly alert at the start of a shift. But during the journey, they might find themselves getting drowsy. Interestingly, the headband often beats drivers to the punch, telling them that they’re going to feel sleepy before they even have the conscious sensation of drowsiness. That then allows them to take preventative action.
The ultimate hope is that the system will enable drivers to get back to a more alert state. If they can’t, then it’ll recommend they stop for a nap.
According to the makers of the device, self-driving trucks are still years away. So the best approach is to improve the human part of the equation by making it progressively more alert.