Thursday, April 23, 2015

Are Swift driver cams a game changer?

The decision by Swift Transportation to install driver-facing cameras raises both short-term questions and long-term concerns.

The company recently announced the deployment in a video broadcast to drivers. The DriveCam system, as it’s called, includes both forward-looking and driver-oriented cameras. According to the company, the forward-looking camera will help determine fault in an accident. The inward-facing camera will detect and help correct poor driving habits. Few drivers have a problem with forward-looking cameras. Cameras aimed at them are another matter altogether.

So the immediate question arises: Will those driver-recording devices have an impact on Swift's efforts to recruit and retain drivers?

The dearth of willing drivers, a major concern for more than a decade, has taken on near hysterical status in recent months with logistics experts predicting serious bottlenecks at least and at worst something like chaos in North American supply chains.

Virtually every carrier regards driver recruitment as its top priority. At Swift, for example, if you dial the company’s main number in Phoenix, a recording advises drivers to press one and customers to press two – a small but telling indicator of priorities.

Of course, Swift, with the largest truckload fleet on the highways, needs to recruit more drivers than its competitors. Will those competitors and their recruiters use Swift’s driver cam deployment against the big carrier? Will the cameras prove to be a deal breaker for would-be Swift drivers?

On the other hand, Swift’s competitors might see this deployment as a precedent to follow. Major carriers did not follow the lead of truckload giant Werner Enterprises when that company deployed automated log technology in 1998. Anticipated driver reaction was likely a factor then. But in 2015 when cameras seem to be everywhere, driver cams could be a different story.

Swift’s move raises other concerns for drivers across the board. It’s hard to argue against the often stated safety justifications for driver cams. Driver cam providers claim they help fleets remediate poor driving habits and offer glowing statistics in support. But we’re used to seeing sparkling stats for new technology products – fuel cost routing comes to mind – that turn out to be far less effective than originally claimed.

More to the point, the driver cam systems as they currently exist represent an opening wedge. They do not at present send live video over Omnitracs, PeopleNet, or any other popular mobilecom system. But that will very likely change over time, and not very much time at that.

And there’s a more immediate worry. Swift claims its DriveCam system saves and sends only video when triggered by hard braking, swerving or other incidents detected by sensors. They cannot trigger a save-and-send remotely, they say. But there is no technological reason a remote trigger can’t be made part of the system right now.

Such a remote trigger would enable management to request a 20-second video of the driver at virtually any time. It’s not a live view, but it’s pretty damn close.

There can be no doubt that at least for company drivers, the days of unobserved independent driving are winding down.