Can a computerized in-cab coach make you a better driver?

As with most things in trucking, even how we coach drivers has been transformed by technology. Computer-generated driver scorecards allow fleets to identify drivers who are at the greatest risk of being involved in a wreck, and to coach them on fixing risky behaviors before it’s too late.

Taking it a step further, some telematics and camera providers use artificial intelligence (AI) to immediately recognize a dangerous maneuver – such as distraction, fast cornering or hard braking – and warn the driver in real-time to pay attention, back off the throttle or increase following distance. A report is also fed to management for follow-up later, but the driver’s attention is brought to the risky behavior as it occurs so it can be rectified immediately.

Then there’s the next level. Emerging technologies, integrated with the truck’s existing hardware, will actually take control of the truck and slow it down, for instance, when the truck is exceeding the posted speed limit.

But do any of these systems really create a better driver?

The fleet perspective

Deryk Gillespie, vice-president, IT and innovation at Trimac, is a believer in the technology. His fleet used the implementation of an electronic logging device (ELD) as a springboard into more advanced driver behavior monitoring.

“We wanted more than an ELD. We wanted a platform that could do a number of things for us,” he says. “We wanted feedback to the operator at the time and place they could do something about it, not a week after the fact when someone tells him he could’ve done better last week.”

Using the Isaac Coach from Isaac Instruments, Gillespie claims the fleet has seen tangible benefits from the real-time in-cab coaching. But first, the coach was slid into the cab without fanfare.

“We [initially] let the coach be silent,” he explains. “We didn’t push it in the early days. We accumulated a baseline of what our performance would be so we had something to compare to when we pushed the coach.”

Results didn’t come overnight. Trimac deployed a pilot of 150-200 trucks and collected data for nearly a year. Once it had established a baseline, Gillespie says fuel economy began to improve thanks to the real-time coaching and smoother driving. Some trucks were suddenly getting 7-11% better fuel economy. The fleet average, attributed to the in-cab coaching, was about 2-3%, he adds.

“It’s meaningful.”

Cody McClain is director of safety and human resources for U.S.-based Tucker Freight Lines. He also treaded softly when introducing the Isaac Coach to drivers. The fleet first went to drivers and asked them what they felt made an efficient driver, before pushing the technology. New hires are given a couple weeks to work with the coach simply to become comfortable with it, before scores are scrutinized.

“Miles per gallon actually improved close to 1 mpg overall,” McClain reports. “That comes out to almost $200 a week, and on a lease-purchase that’s $10,000 a year.”

There have been safety benefits, as well. Derek Gaston, supervisor of trucking operations with CN, says his fleet has achieved its best carrier safety profile ever after adding in-cab coaching. “It has really changed the lifestyle here at CNTL over the past year,” he says.

And Gillespie says Trimac has seen its DOT-reportable accidents decline “pretty significantly,” which helped it secure the honor of the safest tank truck carrier in North America last year, as awarded by the National Tank Truck Carriers.

Woman looks at Isaac tablet in cab
(Photo: Isaac Instruments)

Maintaining the human element

Ward Warkentin is a proponent of in-cab coaching technologies, even though his company, Markham, Ont.-based Fleetmetrica, has taken a different approach to improving driver behavior.

“I picture it like a map, where left-to-right is hardware to software, and up-to-down is active to passive,” he says of the array of driver behavior monitoring technologies available today. “We are in artificial intelligence and predictive analytics, not necessarily real-time information. Not, am I speeding right now? More, has my behavior really changed?”

A Fleetmetrica dashboard
(Photo: Fleetmetrica)

The Fleetmetrica platform is device agnostic, meaning it works across any fleet’s existing telematics system to produce scorecards that identify risky driving behaviors and trends. Human follow-up is then required to coach and correct those behaviors. Warkentin says fleets taking this approach have seen similarly impressive safety improvements, and names John Deere’s private fleet as a prime example. It went from an already impressive CVOR violation rate of 3.5%, down to less than 1% when implementing driver scorecards, he says.

Fleetmetrica recently participated in a study that concluded consistent drivers are safer drivers. While the conclusion is hardly surprising, Warkentin says “It’s never been studied.”

He says fleets need to be mindful that their safest drivers will be those capable of driving in a consistent manner, including controlling their emotions in frustrating circumstances. A sudden spike in harsh braking or speeding should be treated as a major red flag and potential precursor to an incident.

Taking the driver scorecard approach to improving driver behavior does require resources. Someone needs to analyze those scorecards and follow up with drivers who need coaching. Some systems require more analysis than others.

“This is where we come in,” says Warkentin. “We automate the process of not just setting up the scorecard, but analyzing the data so there isn’t a need for additional resources, which is one of the biggest drawbacks to a lot of these systems. Fleets don’t have to invest in additional technologies or resources to get results – they’ve already invested in the telematics or the in-cab video. We are just helping making sense of the data.”

Some fleets, he adds, are seeing savings of $2,000 to $4,000 per truck each year, split evenly between safety and fuel consumption benefits.

Image showing truck complying with speed
(Photo: E-Smart)

Taking control

Taking in-cab coaching across the threshold into in-cab control is E-Smart, assisted by Canadian AI company Deeplite, which has been working with it on a system that will not only warn a driver when they’re speeding, but also intervene to slow the vehicle down to the posted speed limit.

Rather than taking data collected from in-cab video and sending it to the cloud, Deeplite is looking to increase response time by making its AI calculations on-board the truck itself. Charles Marsh, chief commercial officer with Deeplite, says speed control allows fleets to reduce crashes and fines, even in construction zones. Traditional GPS-based speed control systems may not recognize temporary speed limit changes in construction zones.

“According to the U.S. DOT, 30% of all accidents are speed-related, ad 70% of fatal crashes happen on non-interstate roads,” reasons Mathie Boivin, president and CEO of E-Smart. “While basic governors can limit top speeds to 60, 65, or 70 mph, we wanted a proactive system that could recognize and not exceed the speed limit of any road.”

The system can also identify truck/car split speed limits, where they exist. AI will be the driver of future interventive technologies, Marsh explains.

“AI is being able to make decisions that are as close to what a human could achieve themselves,” he says. “A lot of truck fleets, for example, want to have real-time decision making with a high level of accuracy, from a computer vision perspective, that’s about equivalent to what a human could do through their eyes and ears. As long as we are achieving that, then AI is going to be a success.”

The insurance perspective

Insurance companies love driver behavior monitoring technologies. Just don’t expect them to give you a discount on your premiums. John Farquhar, risk solutions specialist with Summit Risk Solutions, says fleets will have to take the longer road of proving their driving coaching system is leading to reductions in claims in order to see their insurance costs reduced, or in this market, more likely held steady.

“Yes, they’re very useful,” he says of the technologies. “The problem lies in the fact the carrier has to use them.”

He said too many carriers will install a technology and do nothing with it. “Unless you can prove you are utilizing the service and the device to improve operations, they don’t see any advantage,” he says of insurers. “A lot of clients have driver scorecards or telematics in their trucks, but are not utilizing it to their full capability.”

But why, when so many car insurance companies are willing to provide discounts for those who install a data reader in their car, has the same trend in trucking not taken hold?

“The biggest reason,” explains Farquhar, “is that you have so many different manufacturers and vendors of that product [in trucking].”

Fleets are reluctant to install yet another piece of data-reading hardware into their trucks, and insurers don’t have the resources to familiarize themselves with every telematics and driver coaching platform already in the market. Warkentin agrees.

“It can work nicely with cars. The insurer can force a device on you. They can’t force a device on a fleet, so they have to be able to make sense of all the telematics devices on the market, and we’re pushing 500 different products,” he notes.

Distracted driver looks at phone
(Photo: iStock)

What do drivers say?

Don’t let the name fool you. ‘Killer,’ who requests to go by the nickname bestowed on her by folksinger Arlo Guthrie when she drove tour bus for him – in reference to her diminutive stature atypical of a tour bus driver at the time – is a safety conscious driver.

She uses LinkeDrive’s Pedal Coach for real-time feedback on her driving. Each day, she achieves a score, reviews her performance, and shares it with other drivers in the fleet – some of whom she’s never met. A friendly competition has resulted.

“I’m out there by myself, and it’s almost like a game I can play to get a better score,” she explains. “I find it very entertaining.”

In fact, the system has bolstered her confidence in her own driving ability to the point where she’s about to make the switch from company driver to owner-operator. Maybe it’s because the Pedal Coach makes a ch-ching sound when she’s driving efficiently.

“I want to hear that ch-ching,” she laughs. “You know you’re making money. It’s like being at the casino.”

View of scorecards from LinkeDrive
(Photo: LinkeDrive)
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James Menzies is editor of Today's Trucking. He has been covering the Canadian trucking industry for more than 20 years and holds a CDL. Reach him at or follow him on Twitter at @JamesMenzies.

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