The brain game: Truck simulator research

By: Mark Gojszyk


Research at the Monash University Accident Research Centre is exploring, with co-operation from Ron Finemore Transport, how fatigue impacts truck drivers’ performance on the road. ATN takes a look at the truck simulator being used to develop future safety technology

The brain game: Truck simulator research
Jonny Kuo and Michael Fitzharris

 

Vehicle simulators can evoke a bit of childhood romanticism; going to a gaming arcade and sitting in the plush seat of a Nascar game, yanking around some gears and pretending to be a professional driver long before legally allowed to actually take the wheel.

There’s a simulator of a different kind at the Monash University Accident Research Centre (MUARC) in Melbourne – one that a team of researchers and technology providers have devised to develop vehicle safety technologies to help reduce the road toll.

The latest effort is a joint project between transport company Ron Finemore Transport, truckmaker Volvo and technology company Seeing Machines, testing the effects of fatigue on drivers.

ATN’s visit is accompanied by MUARC director Judith Charlton, associate director Michael Fitzharris, Seeing Machines research scientist Jonny Kuo, and driver Brendan.

This particular study involves Ron Finemore drivers (other drivers are welcome to participate) taking part in two separate two-hour sessions – one after a regular night’s sleep, and another after a completely sleepless night – to examine how differently the body functions when drowsy, and what kind of technology can address these symptoms.

For example, current driver-monitoring products can detect when a driver is experiencing a fatigue event and react to it – such as inducing a seat vibration and sending an alert to a company’s control centre to prompt its safety response system. The aim of this project is to make that technology more proactive.

"We’re trying to move beyond just detecting micro-sleep or distraction events. We want to predict when they are going to happen and prevent them from happening, rather than intervening when they occur," Kuo says.

A LOOK INSIDE

Walking through one door reveals a room full of computer screens monitoring the session in progress. Another door leads to a dark room containing the Volvo cabin in Ron Finemore livery, surrounded by a large screen with video game-like graphics. Inside that cabin is Brendan, navigating the course.   

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"In this controlled environment in the simulator, we are able to do all sorts of sensing, including physiological, with the aim of improving our understanding of what it looks like in the immediate onset of drowsiness or distraction-related events," Kuo says.  

"There’s a standard driver monitoring camera with standard head and eye tracker. We also have a webcam to get a contextual view of what’s going on in the cabin.

"A camera on the other side – a time-of-flight sensor – measures the posture [a drowsy driver is more likely to slump forward] and movements of the driver that a front-facing camera can’t detect.   

"We’re exploring a few experimental sensors that might come into truck cabs, such as thermal cameras to take a respiration rate and heart flow to the face to tell how drowsy the driver is."

Driver Brendan is faced with an open road containing some bends, oncoming cars, and a tunnel. But other scenarios can include cars braking suddenly and pedestrians crossing.

"We try to push the levels of distraction to the extreme, such as having drivers respond to text messages as they’re driving," Kuo says.

"When drivers are drowsier, they’re more likely to look off the road and engage with that kind of thing, which increases the crash risk.

"As drivers get drowsy, they deviate from the lane more and adherence to speed starts to vary. We’ve had people crash or run off the road in the simulator."

Around 20 drivers have participated so far. The centre also has a car and motorbike simulator.

Fatigue is just one area of research. For example, the university has had permission to study the effects of alcohol and pharmaceutical-grade cannabis.

Essentially, this simulator enables researchers to conduct studies that are too dangerous for on-road situations.

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ACCEPTANCE AND COLLABORATION

Acceptability is a key attribute of this project. The researchers are aware of the perception from the coalface that academic research may not always reflect the realities drivers encounter on the job.

That’s why, Fitzharris says, it has been important having Ron Finemore on board for industry input and experience. The simulator was built and tweaked to replicate real-life driving as authentically as possible.

Then, from a product view, it’s about seeing how the drivers respond to a particular device, and how it can be optimised so drivers can get on with doing their job.

And while top-end operators already have implemented various monitoring technologies, it’s also about extending it to owner operators – "the rigids rather than the high-end articulated trucks".

"The acceptability side of things is really important. If it’s intrusive and uncomfortable, drivers are going to do things to the system. We want them fully engaged and committed," Fitzharris says.

"The different pathways and engagement have been critical. It’s quite unusual to have that kind of collaboration, where we’ve got actual truck drivers on the road.

"From a research perspective, it allows us to address a whole range of other questions around fatigue and distraction and technology, and that’s the beauty of the collaboration aspect."

Another aspect this research is to change the culture around responses to crashes. Rather than pointing the finger at car or truck drivers, or even company management, it’s about minimising risk – creating a ‘safe systems’ approach on the road.

"In this case, the focus is predominantly on the driver," Charlton says. "But, in a lot of the other work, we do look across the domain.

"It’ll look at management and how that facilitates the drivers being safe, the vehicles, the roads, the infrastructure, travelling safe speeds, and so on.

"We need to devise a system where if a driver makes a mistake – and they do make mistakes – it doesn’t cost them their life or causes serious injury.

"We’re trying to move everybody’s thinking away from ‘blame the truck driver’, ‘blame the car driver’; invariably there is a way we could have designed that system so that even if they did make that mistake, everybody would still be alive and be able to go home."

HEADGEAR

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This Cognionics EEG Headset can detect changes in brainwave patterns, and researchers hope to link that to changes in heart rate, respiration, face temperature and eye blink, to detect fatigue earlier.

"Once those brain ‘fatigue waves’ kick in, you’ve got no chance to stay awake. The thinking then is it’s better to stop and rest while you still can, before it’s too late," Fitzharris says.

LONG-TERM FUTURE

It’s only natural that conversation around this topic directs towards the seeming inevitability of autonomous vehicles in the future and how technology developed from research such as this will shape it.

As Fitzharris explains, the current issue with autonomy is the time it takes the driver to take over in case of an emergency.

"In a lot of autonomous vehicles, at least at the moment, they let the driver take over because the system can’t handle the human threat.

"The reactions can range from seven to 15 seconds based on various studies, depending on your alertness levels, by which time the crash has already happened. That’s a major technical issue that needs to be overcome."


Fatigue technology trials underway at Brisbane Port. Read more, here


There will also be the inevitable teething issues associated with wider uptake of autonomous technology and its relationship with older vehicles.

"Most people in Europe would now say there was a lot of commotion and expectation around autonomous vehicles, but now most people have recalibrated their expectations – especially in Australia, where the fleets are older on average. 

"One of the major issues is it takes 25–28 years for any technology to get through to all cars. For example, not all cars have frontal airbags in Australia, and they were introduced commercially in Europe in the late 1980s.

"So, for example, if the United Nations regulates that a driver-monitoring system has to be fitted to all new vehicles, and the Australian government follows that lead, by the time it goes through every vehicle – if we’re talking a level 5, or fully autonomous, vehicle – by 2030, it then might be 2060 by the time we have autonomous vehicles everywhere.

"In that time, we have a conflict between old technology and new.

"So this won’t be an overnight success story. But this is just the start of the start, in a sense, of having technology like this."

Therefore, the value of research like this is the development of incremental but necessary steps to take towards the eventual uptake.

"My future view of autonomous vehicles is this driver-facing technology will be really important to link with other systems such as the braking systems.

"For example, a pedestrian may be crossing in front of the vehicle, the vehicle may detect that now, the onboard camera knows the driver is looking away and has no chance because we know that it takes so long for the driver to resume control, the vehicle then slams on the brakes, the pedestrian goes home happy.

"Drum brakes turn into disc brakes, which turn into ABS [anti-lock brakes], which turn into ESC [electronic stability control], which turn into AEB [autonomous emergency braking] – platforms that build on and on."

WATCH THIS SPACE

For now, though, MUARC hopes to continue its program and release some findings about its studies midway through 2019. There’s also movement on research around the causes of heavy vehicle crashes that industry associations have long called for.

"One of our colleagues is looking at truck crash research that will really underscore the number and type of truck crashes that are happening and the vehicle movements – and, from a population perspective, address the anecdotal stuff the truck driver has to confront every day," Fitzharris says.

"The takeout message is truck crashes are not very well understood and that is a key theme that is emerging as a major issue from a personal and economic perspective."

INDUSTRY PERSPECTIVE

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Ron Finemore managing director Mark Parry explains why the company agreed to partner the research project:

"I have been to Monash and seen the equipment. It’s impressive.

"If you go back, Ron Finemore was looking for a solution to help manage the risks with fatigue. As a result, we ended up putting Seeing Machines’ Guardian [eye-monitoring] technology in all our vehicles. We then got a whole system and process that ties in with the telematics in the trucks, the cameras and the safety mechanisms on board.

"If you drive one of our trucks, you can’t drive it without the Seeing Machines technology. That’s not voluntary. We have very good feedback from our general workforce, including people who would have initially been sceptical. But we have enough evidence of events now where we believe the technology has helped avoid an incident, and drivers now say they wouldn’t drive without that technology. 

"Seeing Machines knew enough about us and invited us in for this latest project, and we were more than happy to participate given the importance of this study and its potential benefits.  

"If you look at Finemore Transport, and Ron in his 50-plus years in the industry, we are continually looking at ways in which we can protect our employees and other road users. 

"If a car or truck driver has a fatigue event, that can have repercussions beyond the individuals or company involved. So this is very much around our core values.

If you can improve the technology and the predictability behind the system so you don’t get a fatigue event, clearly that’s a benefit to all road users.

"We’re very excited about how the technology sits today and we’re very happy to be involved with something that will continue to improve that technology, not just for us in Australia, but around the world."

 

 

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