Only truly self-driving cars will fix the problem.
Photo: Tom Brandt/Flickr
In the middle of the night in June, 2011, Anthony Dedrick could barely keep awake while driving his freight truck from South Dakota to Los Angeles.
He worried about meeting his fast-approaching deadline. He drove 11 hours straight the day before, and though he tried to sleep he managed only to get in a few hours. He finished his last cup of coffee, kept the air conditioning on and bought No-Doz—anything that would keep him awake. He was tired, and he knew it.
Next thing Dedrick knew, he blew through a stop sign, jumped the interstate and wound up in a ditch. It was the scariest moment of his life, he told me.
"Just thinking about it makes me feel sick to my stomach," he said. "I had to call my company and had to have them call a big-rig to get me out of the ditch. It was terrifying. It was easily one of the worst nights of my life."
I've known Dedrick for almost five years. I met him when he started driving trucks, before he married one of my childhood friends. The man is an inked giant; he's well over 6 feet tall, covered in tattoos and sports a dark ZZ Top beard. He doesn't scare easily, so when he says something was terrifying, I take him at his word.
Trucking fleets have installed technology that monitors speed and automatically applies the brakes if a trucker isn't paying attention or nods off
But Dedrick's experience pales in comparison to other truckers who get drowsy behind the wheel and end up in a fatal accident, such as the accident that injured comedian Tracy Morgan and killed writer James McNair off the New Jersey Turnpike on June 7, 2014.
Though fatalities involving freight trucks in the United States have decreased over the last 20 years, the average number of deaths between 2003 and 2013 hovers around 4,300 per year, according to statistics from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. A third of those crashes were caused by truckers falling asleep behind the wheel.
There are a few gadgets on the market to wake up drivers, such as phone apps that detect when drivers' eyes are closed and earpieces that sound off an alarm when the head dips forward too far. For the commercial freight truck driver, trucking fleets have installed technology that monitors speed and automatically applies the brakes if a trucker isn't paying attention or nods off.
"The whole goal is to get the driver back engaged," said Alan Korn, director of advanced braking systems integration at Meritor Wabco. The company has outfitted thousands of trucks with its Onguard system, which uses radars mounted on the front bumper of a truck to recognize obstructions in the road. It also can spot other cars in front of the truck and the truck's positioning between the lanes. If the truck, for example, approaches a car in front of it too fast, it will sound off two alarms to let the driver take action before applying the brakes.
"The philosophy is people are driving trucks, and they get distracted. A system like Onguard is never distracted," he said.
There are similar systems in other fleets, such as Mobileye's AWS-4000, that compares to Onguard. But company truckers have said that, no matter the system used, they don't work as well as the companies say they do.
"It only really works if you have cruise control, which logically makes sense. That's when a driver's attention turns off," said Jessica St. John, a 26-year-old former trucker who drove with her boyfriend Kyle Cunningham, 29 in 2013. The pair's truck had Onguard installed in the truck they drove for US Express, one of the nation's largest trucking fleets.
"The problem is if you have cruise control and driving on rain, snow or ice, you're liable to completely slide when the brakes activate," she said.
(Korn said that the Onguard system has been tested on icy and snowy surfaces. "With snow and ice, these systems aren't going to make the situation worse, it's going to make it better," he said.)
But technology like Onguard doesn't stop truckers from getting drowsy in the first place. Federal regulations from the Department of Transportation require truckers to take breaks after a certain number of hours driving, but St. John and Cunningham said it's still very possible to get tired. They experienced it firsthand.
While driving through Colorado before daybreak, Cunningham (despite being rested) began hallucinating. He had been driving for a year at that point, and even though he knew the company he drove for allowed him to pull over and sleep, there was pressure to deliver his load on time.
"It was probably like right before the sun came and I started seeing zebras crossing the highway and I just said, 'I've gotta' fucking sleep right now,'" he told me.
As he pulled over, he ended up hitting the guard rail. He was uninjured, and the only damage was to the truck's lug nuts (and maybe the guard rail) but his experience mirrors that of truckers who end up in accident from driving either too long or not getting quality sleep.
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration requires truckers driving with property as cargo to not drive more than 11 hours within a 14-hour time period, and limits the work week to 70 hours a week with a 34-hour break in between weeks.
"If you stick by those time periods, there should be no fatigue," said Kyle Kouhout, a 25-year-old trucker that drives with his brother Michael. The two have been driving together for just under a few months and said they haven't had any problems with fatigue despite being on the road sometimes days at a time.
Similar to Kouhout and his brother, St. John and Cunningham were able to keep the truck moving constantly. Sometimes, they said, weeks at a time. But during those long hauls, sleeping on the bed in the back of the truck—also called a sleeper—was next to impossible for them.
"In my experience, I don't see how you can possibly have healthy sleep patterns as a team driver," said St. John. "It's hard to imagine what it's like to be in one. It's like sleeping on top of a washing machine in spin cycle. You're not getting quality sleep unless you're one of those people that can sleep very well."
The incentive to make money is what kept the couple going through the long hauls. At one point, they said, they had worked 21 days straight without stopping outside of food and gas.
"We were getting 48 cents for every mile that truck ran. So as long as that truck is moving, you and your partner are making money," Cunningham said.
Companies that rely on truckers driving for long stretches of time are looking to a new technology that could mitigate drowsy drivers: self-driving trucks. However, that possibility is still a few years away.
"The vehicle is not refined yet to recognize if the other object is a car or van or school bus full of children."
"The technology, as advanced as it is, is still about five to seven years from its full potential," said Stephan Keese, a partner at Roland Berger in Chicago, a consulting firm that has clients within the automotive industry.
At the forefront of this technology is Daimler Trucks North America. The company is the designer of the Freightliner truck and in May last year unveiled its autonomous truck at the Hoover Dam.
The truck, named the Freightliner Inspiration, combines current radar and camera technology to drive long-hauls on freeways and a truck driver can essentially kick back and let the system take the wheel. There are only two trucks like it in the country and are both currently being tested in Nevada without federal oversight on the technology.
The federal government's Department of Transportation in 2013 released a policy that it wouldn't interfere with development of autonomous vehicle technology, but rather guide states on how they should draft regulations, such as test vehicles only on highways or in low-speed environments.
Nevada is one of sevenother states and Washington D.C. that adopted autonomous vehicle regulations. Arizona's regulations were enacted by executive order.
But Keese said the state regulations are vague, at best, and the biggest technology barrier with automated cars and trucks is their ability recognize certain objects and make decisions where a crash is unavoidable. In an unavoidable accident, recognizing the difference could mean saving one life versus a handful.
"While we have optic detection in the car, the vehicle is not refined yet to recognize if the other object is a car or van or school bus full of children," he said. "In those situations, are the regulators going to define what a car does? Or is it up to the software developers?"
For example, in the event where an accident is unavoidable, and the truck has to hit both an SUV and a motorcycle or swerve and hit only one, what does the car do? Keese explained the rational decision would be to swerve and hit the SUV because it's stronger. But if the car made a fair decision it would essentially make a coin toss on what vehicle to hit.
"There are endless driving situations which need to be defined as well as algorithms to detect and solve situations," Keese said, and he said it's not clear what regulatory body will be in charge of those decisions.
As of now, the Department of Transportation hasn't filed new rules or regulations with Congress, and both calls and emails to the department weren't returned for comment on when, if ever, regulations will be made in the near future.
Until autonomous trucking becomes more of a reality, truckers are still needed across the country, especially as young truckers like St. John and Cunningham continue to leave due to the stress of the job.
In the end, Dedrick left for the same reasons.
When Dedrick crashed his truck that night in 2011, he was only two months in on the job. He lasted for almost another year, but told me that the long hours and restless nights of trying to sleep in a truck just weren't worth it, so he walked away.
"I had this awesome responsibility over this 80,000 pound vehicle, and it was great," he said. "But after a while, it's just too much."
You'll Sleep When You're Dead is Motherboard's exploration of the future of sleep. Read more stories.