Alertness cams, trucking apps and chat bots

By John Bendel, editor-at-large

An Australian tech company called Seeing Machines Ltd. is out to make you safer on the road with a technology called Guardian. It won’t let you doze off or remain distracted behind the wheel. Associate Editor Greg Grisolano encountered the company at MATS in March. Guardian, he said, features a driver-facing camera.

“The camera monitors a driver’s eyes to make sure they’re on the road, and also their eyelids to make sure they’re not closed,” Greg explained. “If the eyelids are closed or eyes averted for a set amount of time (programmable by the company), the camera sends an alert to a rumble box under the seat and gooses the driver. The alert can be sent back to the fleet HQ and can be logged for driver training purposes.”

Nobody wants to fall asleep behind the wheel, and I’d rather be nudged back to attention with a vibrating seat than a siren or a bucket of cold water. But in some cabs at least, Guardian would be joining a host of technologies, including lane tracking, collision mitigation, and driver-facing camera systems. Each emits warnings of its own, sometimes producing more aggravation than safety value.

No reason to think Guardian is anything but great at the job it’s made to do. But general questions remain. How many driver-facing cameras do we need, and how much driver monitoring is enough?

Talking to algorithms

Facebook is launching chat bots on its Messenger service. Facebook Messenger is the instant messaging program used mainly for texting. It uses data rather than text transmission so the cost shows up in your bill as data use, not as traditional texting. You can use Messenger without being in Facebook.

Chat bots are software robots you can actually have text conversations with – or so Facebook claims. I talked briefly with a chat bot named Hi Poncho, the Weather Cat. It was only a step or two above an automated phone system that replies “invalid entry” to anything you say or enter. Hi Poncho was more polite, of course, but you get the idea. Facebook’s chat bots will certainly grow more sophisticated over time, and then they’ll be able to do what Facebook wants them to do: sell you stuff.

You’re going to encounter more and more nonhuman communicators in the coming months and years. In fact I’ll bet the big trucking software companies are already thinking about chat bot (or maybe we should call them robot) dispatchers. No kidding. It’s only a matter of time.

Here’s a gizmo that’s small but handy

What do you want in a charger? You want fast. 1byone of Ontario, Calif., offers a selection of USB chargers that plug into your DC power outlet, the old cigarette lighter, and provide from two to four USB ports. You can plug in virtually any mobile device, including your dash-mounted smartphone. The chargers come in different materials and colors, not to mention electronic specs. The least expensive is right around $7; the most expensive is approximately $30. That last one is the most powerful of the bunch for what 1byone calls “high-speed, powerful charging.” They’re nifty, and you can find them at the company website, 1ByOne.com.

News from the world of trucking apps

In the coming months could we actually have fewer of them?

I’m talking about those apps that let you conduct your entire trucking business on a smartphone: find a load, book a load, track a load, send proof-of-delivery for a load, and bill the load, all on that gizmo in your pocket. There are lots of such apps these days. The latest batch comes from the technology/logistics companies that compare themselves to Uber, the on-demand ride service. Like the real Uber, each Uber for trucking offers a smartphone app for users – in this case, drivers.

Besides apps, the trucking Ubers share other characteristics. All claim incredible business success from the outset; of course, most startup businesses do. Maybe one or two really are successful, or soon will be. The others will be burning through investor money for a while, although none will admit it. It’s difficult if not impossible to know what’s going on behind the smiley face they all project.

But that smiley face may be developing a crack. Turns out Cargomatic, a Los Angeles-based Uber-for-trucking, has been laying off people. According to the business press, they’re operating with half the staff they had at their hiring peak.

To be fair, there can be many reasons for staff reduction that have little to do with business potential. And one of Cargomatic’s backers is Volvo’s investment unit. Besides, you may be thinking, Cargomatic is for local freight, not interstate truckloads, so why should I care?

If you don’t use any of those Ubers, maybe you shouldn’t. But if you do, you might want to keep that smiley-face crack in mind. All those Ubers won’t survive, and when some companies die, the first their business partners learn of it is when they stop returning emails – or worse, when payments fail to show up. LL