Rocky’s Own: operations that are all seeing, all safe

By: Martin Rusis


Good things happen when drivers know vehicle-monitoring tech is about making their job easier, not Big Brother management tactics

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In the age of Chain of Responsibility (COR), when you’re hauling 50 tonnes of high-consequence dangerous goods, everyone up and down the line needs proof that you’re doing it safely. With the rise of digital technologies and satellite connectivity, the ability to monitor trucks operating far from base is nothing new.

Today’s challenge has shifted away from simply attaining vehicle monitoring, to choosing the right kind of monitoring, understanding all the data generated and then using it run make everyone’s life easier.

This is the challenge high-profile dangerous goods haulier Rocky’s Own is tackling with three handpicked technologies: DriveCam from San Diego, California; Seeing Machines from Canberra; and SkyNet Satellite Communications from Brisbane.

REAL TIME TRUCK OPS

Rocky’s Own CEO Bryan Smith and national operations fleet manager Rod Carige have built the business around the pursuit of safety and reliability – and they’re willing to introduce new ideas to further those goals. Provided the promise they offer is convincing, of course.

"Take DriveCam – it uses forward and backward facing cameras on a truck that are always recording. Before we looked at it properly, the technology scared me," Smith, pictured below with Queensland Department of Transport & Main Roads director-general Neil Scales, says.

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"But after a two-day visit to a transport company whilst in South Africa that was utilising DriveCam, I was convinced it was a good product."

It was a similar case with Seeing Machines – an in-cab technology that keeps track of a driver’s eyes. It looks for blink rates (a sign of fatigue) and whether the driver is paying enough attention to the road ahead. It seemed intrusive, yet when used with the right goals in mind, it’s a tool – not a weapon.

Smith is, of course, keenly aware that these sorts of technologies raise the hackles of drivers who think they’ll be used by "over-officious compliance people". He has little time for that approach to compliance.

"Yes, you get this resistance from the drivers that ‘this thing is about me getting my arse kicked’. Our view is that these things help with driver training.

"You don’t use driver monitoring technologies as a big stick. So, when we introduce them, we take a democratic approach with the drivers and use staged trials."

DATA INTO KNOWLEDGE

While DriveCam and Seeing Machines give external and internal monitoring at the ground level, Rocky’s Own needed to put that data into an overall operational context.

This is where the third technology partner, SkyNet Satellite Communications, comes in.

The relationship between the companies extends back many years. Smith uses 2014’s Charleville bridge explosion as an example of what gets both companies brainstorming.

While the incident did not involve Rocky’s Own, it illustrated what the company would be dealing with if everything went very, very wrong.

The explosion occurred around 10pm on a Friday, when a truck carrying 50 tonnes of highly explosive ammonium nitrate crashed in remote central-west Queensland. Following the crash, the vehicle caught fire and, sometime later, this triggered a massive explosion.

The truck, two emergency vehicles, two bridges and the highway section itself were destroyed. Eight people were injured. Miraculously, there were no fatalities as the driver and emergency crews were all just outside the lethal blast radius.

Carige, pictured below, says the truck’s owners didn’t know about this crash for approximately four hours after it happened.

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"This gets to the nub of the problem: a lot of vehicle tracking providers have systems and technology that will send a satellite alert if your vehicle goes past a certain lateral angle," he says.

"The problem is, if your truck blows up, it’s also going to blow up the tracking equipment. No signal is going to go out.

"We recognised we had the same deficiencies with our tracking technologies: if the driver and the equipment have been taken out of the situation, how the hell do we get the alert?"

Smith says the key, and an recurring theme in vehicle tracking, was to think in terms of discrepancies. As Rocky’s Own and SkyNet worked together, they realised that if sending a signal could trigger an alert, so too could stopping a regular "all clear" signal.

"No signal is also an event – a discrepancy. So now, if a vehicle stops sending a signal for any length of time, it will alert us and we have a duress system in place.

"If a duress gets triggered, we contact the driver and also the DriveCams in our vehicles save and transmit the footage they’re recording."

WHEN IT GOES WRONG

Rocky’s Own now uses quite a lot of discrepancy reporting in its monitoring. It basically means when some parameter that is being tracked goes out of bounds, SkyNet’s system automatically flags it and raises it according to company policy.

This can be quite powerful for good ops when it’s not so much used to "manage by exception" (aka "tonne of bricks" compliance), but for seeing patterns of unwelcome vehicle and driver behaviour and nipping them in the bud.


How Rocky's Own's tech push received industry kudos, here


Smith explained that while, early monitoring technologies could record all the data, they didn’t have tools to sieve through it to find, for example, a vehicle over-speeding by a certain amount of kays for a certain number of seconds.

This is why Rocky’s Own first turned to SkyNet. The tech company built software to go through the data to automatically flag and notify certain people when this, and all manner of other relevant discrepancy events, occurred.

"We work with SkyNet’s system from the point of view that we don’t want to assess when a truck or driver is going well, we want something that will alert us when there is a discrepancy. That’s what SkyNet helped us set up and we’ve been working with them for over a decade," Smith says.

In effect, what Rocky’s Own did was get SkyNet to integrate GPS/satellite vehicle tracking with the off-the-shelf Seeing Machines and DriveCam systems to create an instant living picture of whether anything in the overall fleet was not operating properly.

USING TECH CONSTRUCTIVELY

Smith is very clear that coming down hard on drivers when they trigger discrepancies is not the way to use the system.

"We have built a lot of discrepancy reporting. When certain ones go off, it sends an SMS to my phone and some other people within the business who see what is closely controlled. For example, every depot manager gets their own alerts for their vehicles, but not those from other depots.

"David Robinson, our compliance officer, gets them too. When an SMS comes up, you can check what’s going on from your phone immediately. It is all very streamlined."

Getting to this point has been challenging. As these kinds of technologies rolled out across the industry, some people were using them in a reactive way – the "tonne of bricks" approach to getting driver compliance.

"Actually looking through the data to find what you want and then using it in a proactive way – to see problems and prevent them before they happen – that helps with driver training.

"You don’t use this sort of technology as a big stick."

INTEGRATING THE NEXT SYSTEM

Rocky’s Own’s compliance officer at its Helidon, Queensland, depot, David Robinson, says that the next system being rolled out alongside the video recording, driver monitoring and tracking/comms solution is remote reporting of tyre pressure and temperature monitoring.

"We’re seeing tyre pressures and temperatures in about 150 prime movers and all our trailers around the country," Robinson, pictured below, says.

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"This info, like everything else, all gets fed back through the SkyNet tracking system and you can monitor it on your PC or your phone or an iPad."

This convenience of access is something David has chased in developing systems that suit what Rocky’s Own wants. Why? Because a large part of his role is working alongside the technology providers to build new capabilities and then training the Rocky’s Own team to use them.

"All this technology helps drivers learn what they need to know and do differently. It helps get rid of bad habits," Robinson says.

"If you trip the Seeing Machines fatigue management camera, it might be that you were looking away from the road for more than four seconds. Every driver knows you don’t do that, and now we know if it is a bad habit that is cropping up."

One instance cited is of an otherwise extremely conscientious driver who, on a regular run across the Nullarbor Plain, would continually be looking away from the road for longer than was safe.

"When something like that happens, the buzzer goes off in the cab. The driver soon realised that they had this tendency and they did something about it.

"Use the systems right and drivers get on board because they realise it makes them a better driver. Of course, drivers get competitive about how often they get alerts. The gear gets looked after a lot more too."

TRAINING, NOT TROUBLE

If it all seems a bit Big Brother, Smith doesn’t agree.

"Our industry collectively just kind of accepts that accidents will happen – I don’t subscribe to that view," he says.

"Look at the airline industry: six million people in the air at any one time around the world, and how many crashes happen? Aviation is remarkable and it tells me we can always do better."

He says so much of aviation’s safety comes down to the training, monitoring and maintenance processes it follows. And, when there is an accident, the investigation and response process is thorough in its focus on avoiding a repeat, not in assigning blame and just carrying on as before.

"Some sectors of the transport industry have more of a mentality that accidents are going to happen. Together, we need to change that."

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LIVING THE CHANGE

It’s tricky to pull off, but mentalities do shift. Internally, Rocky’s Own spends a great deal of time training and educating its drivers, and doing so in a way that suits them rather than the manage-by-spreadsheet approach of some compliance managers.

Outside the company, Smith says COR laws have also brought far-reaching improvements in the culture of the industry.

"It has achieved an enormous amount of change over the past 25 years. I don’t see drivers being pushed by clients anymore," he says.

"On the road, things change: weather, stuck behind wide load, nowhere to stop… If you have given your driver a prescriptive plan, that can be very dangerous.

"Instead, you give your drivers an appropriate time to get from A to B, you educate them and you give them the power to make their own professional decisions."

NEW TECH, NEW TRUCKING

Since the cultural changes Rocky’s Own has witnessed, such as clients no longer demanding unrealistic deadlines, Smith says one of the biggest barriers to improving the trucking safety has started crumbling.

Perhaps increased vehicle and driver monitoring technology used for training – not punishment – will speed up that erosion.

Those technologies might look like what Rocky’s Own has – various off-the-shelf systems that are tailored and integrated by a local technology expert – or maybe it will take another form.

However it happens, trucking culture is changing, the technologies exist, the freight still needs to get moved and the rigs are out there making it happen. It all just needs to be put together.

A DRIVER’S POINT OF VIEW

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Name: Mathew Wright

Company: Rocky’s Own

Job: Linehaul general freight driver

Route: Nightly 920km round trip Rockhampton-Murgon-Rockhampton

Experience: Eight years

Truck: Kenworth K200 B-double

What effect does the tracking technology Rocky’s Own uses have on your work?

From a driver’s perspective, it is keeping us accountable. You can’t fudge anything, so you do everything correctly. It also helps the office sort things out if we mess up something. They can help work it through. For all intents and purposes, it really isn’t too impactful to what drivers do.

Are there a lot of new technology and systems to understand and get training on?

There is a bit, yes. The information we get given is through toolbox meetings and whatnot, but my overnight shift means it is hard to get to a toolbox meeting. When I come in and ask about something and how it works, the management is open and honest about it. The information is there if you want it. I will say that management does make sure you know what technology is coming well before you get it.

For Seeing Machines and DriveCam, technologies that closely monitor you and the vehicle, has it changed the way you drive?

When the Seeing Machines system was put in, I was very self-conscious, but over time I have become used to it. I am aware of it and I believe it makes me more attentive, but overall it is not really intrusive. But it will make a noise at me if I’m looking in the rear-view mirror for too long!

I think it might help people take better care of the equipment. I am not an erratic driver, but the cameras do go off on occasion – if you go over a bump or take a corner too fast, for example. You can see when the system is recording, so that makes you a little self-conscious. But our operations people also know you are not doing the wrong thing. They’ll review the footage and the data: if they see it was nothing, I don’t hear about it.

I have found management are pretty good. They understand that we all mess up sometimes - we are all human.

Any challenges with using it?

Not really. When you get in your truck, you log in, the cameras turn on and then you forget about it. There is a god-awful beeping if you don’t log in, though. But that’s pretty much all you need to do.

There is also a button on the dash to manually set off the cameras. You might want to do that to record incidents when I don’t have to brake or swerve, say I am overtaken by a car on double white lines. That gets flagged and sent to my depot manager to review. They can take it from there it if they want to.

Have there been any technical hiccups in how it all works on your end?

Not really. We log in through a GPS system, at first there were a couple of units that we had trouble logging in to. Those were swapped out.

Being out on the open road is a big part of what drivers like about trucking, does all this technology means there is too much control?

To be quite honest, I don’t have any trouble with tracking. I think it is better for our records, it is covering us as well. These systems keep an eye on everything.

I remember one thing that balked me at first – but I got used to – was the Seeing Machines system has these little red lights on the dash and they are looking back at you at night time.

It can be distracting, but now I don’t even notice them.

This is an issue I can see from both sides of the fence too. Some drivers do think it is an intrusion. I was apprehensive at first. I haven’t had a doze while I’m driving, but I know that if I did, it’d be there looking after me.

Setting it off is not a hard thing to do, to be honest: we get that many car drivers cutting us off. You react, it triggers and it can see what we are doing in the situation. So it covers us. It gets us out of so much potential trouble because usually if you have an accident, the investigation looks at the truck being at fault. But 9 times out of 10, it is the truck driver who is innocent. The tracking, recorded videos and monitoring is a big bit of evidence for that.

 

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