News last week about Amazon testing AI-equipped cameras in its delivery vans met with some resistance on the grounds of privacy and other concerns. The same controversy arises in on and off-road construction equipment and highlights the challenges of balancing technology's potential to help save lives and prevent serious accidents with concerns around the negative potential uses of that same technology. According to OSHA, about one in five worker deaths (1,061) were in construction in 2019, and while OSHA does not specifically categorize deaths involving equipment in a single category, multiple studies indicate equipment is involved in a significant percentage of those deaths. With so many deaths in construction each year involving equipment, one might think there would be more focus on leveraging any technology that might save lives. However, for the reasons Amazon has experienced as well as other reasons, the construction industry, as a whole, has been slow to adopt technologies that could save lives.
In adopting Cameras, the Amazon Experience Highlights Some of the Challenges
When it comes to vehicle accidents, the construction industry confronts many of the same issues as Amazon. Beyond deliveries, though, accidents in construction occur both "on the road," as people and goods are moved to and from job sites and also "off the road" as trucks, cranes, and other heavy and light equipment navigate job sites that are often congested with workers and limited on space. In recent years, as passenger vehicles have incorporated more technology-enabled safety features and also as judgement amounts against employers for work-related accidents have soared, scrutiny has increased, and more companies in the construction industry have, like Amazon, elected to push incorporation of potentially life saving technology, even at the risk of raising objections.
Cameras are Only One Area of Opportunity to Leverage Tech for Equipment Safety
Back in 2017, we visited with truck-maker, Navistar, to learn about some of the kinds of technology they were developing to help trucks detect and respond to threats of potential collisions and rollovers, both avoiding hazards and protecting drivers. We have seen numerous startups offer various types of safety technology for both on-road and off-road equipment in recent years. In our recent Machines Research Report, we found that more than 80% of the members we surveyed had some kind of equipment management system in place. However, the uses of those systems varied widely, and activities like keeping track of the equipment or tracking fuel and maintenance information were among the more common uses. It was less clear that adoption was focused on the types of safety-related features we reviewed with Navistar.
Alternative Solutions and a Proliferation of Equipment Management Systems
While many systems focus offer solutions to help monitor driver behavior and safety, others focus on the safety of the equipment itself. In the category of monitoring drivers, we see companies like Sober-eye which aims to determine if drivers are impaired before they are allowed to operate equipment. In the tracking and management of the equipment itself, we catalogued a wide variety of these solution in a piece last fall about Equipment Management, and we will again in our Equipment 50 List when we publish it next month. We also have investigated companies like Built.AI that provide autonomous equipment and remove the operators from the equation, entirely.
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While Many Type of Equipment Tech Emerge, Camera Technology is Proving Too Potent to Ignore.
Even as other types of tracking and sensor technology gain acceptance, camera technology continues to find its way to construction sites. Beyond dash cams, in 2019, Jacksonville, Florida-based Haskell announced a partnership with Bay Area tech company, Sixgill LLC, to "provide unparalleled visibility into the orchestration of workers, equipment and supplies." Companies like Versatile and Netarus have deployed cameras on crane hooks while Israeli startup, buildots has deployed a hardhat mounted camera. Increasingly, as in Amazon's case, AI software linked to cameras can identify, flag and even predict a broadening area of issues on and off job sites, relating to schedule, quality, and safety.
The questions of privacy and the appropriate boundaries between people and machines will continue to be critical issues to wrestle with as more and more data is captured, particularly visual data. Whether on the road or off, however, the industry needs to continue to push to address its appalling share of workplace deaths. Advanced technology has a role to play in this effort, and, particularly given the possibilities of saving lives and reducing injuries, technology that captures and interprets images continues to evolve and to offer a potentially powerful tool in the quest to build a much better industry.