The year 2032. A truck stop outside of Tucumcari, New Mexico. 2:00 a.m.
It’s been one of those days that just go on forever. Still, Jake is unusually tired – has been since Amarillo, in fact. But now he’s in Tucumcari and it’s time for some much-needed rest. As he shuts his tractor down and signs out on the electronic log, the truck’s driver information center pings and a soothing, familiar female voice says, “Jake, your body temperature is elevated to 101 degrees and your blood pressure has dropped a bit in the past hour. Your breathing is elevated as well. I suggest you see a doctor.”
Jake nods grimly to himself and climbs out of the driver’s seat. The seat is a wonder in and of itself, a smart-ergonomic design that automatically changes its contours throughout the day to keep him feeling fresh and reduces joint and lower-back pain while constantly isolating and limiting vibration and road shocks. It’s also a biometric design, lined with advanced “smart” fibers that track Jake’s vital signs throughout the day – much like the Apollo astronauts on the moon missions almost a century earlier (although Jake doesn’t have to attach sensors to his body or deal with wires running under his clothes to transmit data the way those brave men did).
Wearily, Jake clambers into the back of the cab and flops down on his bunk. Reaching up, he taps the sleeper wall beside his head and instantly, a video screen flares into view. “Doctor, please,” Jake tells the onboard computer. Within seconds his personal, online physician comes into view. The doctor isn’t real, of course. Not at this hour. She’s a virtual physician on an interactive website designed to help patients deal with health emergencies.
Jake describes his symptoms to the virtual doctor and taps the screen to answer a few follow-up questions. The healthcare site has full access to Jake’s entire medical history, as well as a download of the biometric seat’s record of Jake’s health snapshot for the day. At the appropriate prompts, Jake holds his palm on the touch-sensitive wall screen for another check of his temperature, then opens his mouth wide and says “Ahhh” so the “doctor” can get a photo of his throat to analyze.
In a few minutes, the doctor is back with a diagnosis. “Jake,” she says, “We obviously can’t get a throat culture at the moment, but based on your symptoms and the presence of white, ulcerated areas in the back of your throat, it looks like you have strep throat. I’m giving you a prescription of amoxicillin to start on and made an appointment with Dr. Rivers at the driver health clinic at your truck stop at 10:30 a.m.”
A text message arrives with a passcode on it. In a few minutes, a wheeled drone pulls up outside his truck with a prescription filled at the 24-hour drug store in the truck stop. Jake taps the drone’s video screen to authorize payment from his bank account, then enters his passcode. The drone’s secure cargo door pops open, and Jake takes his antibiotics and climbs back into his cab to rest and recover.
A few short years ago, Jake’s diagnosis and treatment would’ve seemed like science fiction. Today, even the most cautious tech-watchers would admit that such a scenario is already possible given the current state of our technology. It’s just a matter of time before Big Data, drones, wearable computers, smart fibers and advanced audio-visual computing technology bring capabilities like virtual physicians into mainstream use. The changes will be profound throughout society, particularly in how we deal with overall health and healthcare. But they will be highly evident in the over-the-road trucking industry, where drivers have historically had extremely limited healthcare options available to them due to the nature of their job.
Health, safety and sleep for all
But according to Dr. Bertalan Meskó, medical futurist and author, the current revolution taking place in portable diagnostics, algorithms, and sensors, is allowing the measuring of health parameters and vital signs to become more convenient, mobile, and affordable. In very short order, he says, these trends will combine with advanced driving technology to transform society in stunning ways. In fact, Meskó believes that autonomous vehicles will quickly evolve to become “healthcare enablers.”
“Do you remember the medical tricorder from Star Trek?” Meskó asks. “We won’t have tricorders per se, but the overall concept will become a reality soon, as such devices as Viatom Checkme [health monitors] already have hit the market. Artificial Intelligence is already beginning to redesign medicine and our whole understanding of healthcare.”
Add the growing number of healthcare wearables and tiny sensors that are already available to the public, Meskó says, and you quickly realize the first-rate, primary care like Jake received, at any time of the day or night, could become normal for Americans in just a few years. “The wearable devices already measure blood pressure, heart rate, or whether your food contains gluten,” he says. “And that list is getting longer day by day, making it easier to ensure a healthy lifestyle.”
Vehicle OEMs are already in a race to identify the best technologies to help drivers be safer and healthier on the road. For Daimler Trucks North America, this means leveraging the work being done by the company’s Mercedes-Benz automotive family. Many of these technologies will start out as luxury features that will eventually find their way into North American truck cabs.
Anke Kleinschmit is head of Group Research at Daimler and tasked with exploring the future of human-vehicle interaction. She says Mercedes-Benz and Daimler designers are already working on features designed to assist drivers and passengers, while actively reducing stress in the car and improving concentration.
“The project is called Mercedes Me,” Kleinschmit explains, “and will in the future merge information from inside the vehicle with data collected beyond the car. Such data can be generated, for example, from the vehicle via the vehicle back-end or from mobile devices such as fitness trackers or smart watches with heart rate monitors, or it can come from weather apps, electronic diaries or ‘smart home’ applications such as a smart kitchen.”
Daimler engineers are breaking new ground in other areas, as well, Kleinschmit says. This includes developing all-new comfort systems in the vehicle, including one that emits mood-enhancing fragrances, massage, ambient light, ionization or more advanced climate control.
And those features will include a higher degree of driver health as time passes. According to Kleinschmit, Daimler is entering into a strategic cooperation with Philips, a supplier of healthcare technology, to develop wearable-based data acquisition in vehicles. A more short-term development will be Daimler’s new Energizing Comfort system, which will keep drivers alert and focused by means of minute movements in seat cushions and backrests. This system will debut this year in Mercedes S Class sedans, but Kleinschmit stresses, “we do not view vitality and fitness as the privilege of luxury-car drivers. These systems will eventually find their way into all vehicles – including trucks.”
Volvo Trucks North America says today engineers are sorting through a host of new technologies and integrating many new systems into cabs. “Of course, for Volvo, our goal with integrating these new systems into our cabs is to enhance driver safety,” says Brian Balicki, chief interior design engineer. “We’re already at Level 1 or 2 in terms of vehicle automation. So the question now is how we get to Level 3 or 4 automation, which will naturally increase driver interaction with the vehicle.”
Balicki says much of the technological building blocks for these next steps are already in common use today. “One of the most important things we can do in designing our trucks is to make sure drivers get the sleep they need in a comfortable environment,” he notes. “I think before long, we’ll see wearable computing items communicating with a vehicle, tracking things like blood pressure, heart rate and eye movement, to determine if drivers are sufficiently rested. And if they’re not, the vehicle will prompt the driver to pull off the highway and rest. And if they refuse, the vehicle takes over and either continues on the route, or pulls off the road on its own.”
The suggestion that computers and machines will overrule human judgement in determining drivers’ ability to do their jobs seems like Big Brother overreach to a lot of drivers today, but Balicki says this will likely be an accepted part of truck driving in 20 years or so. “To me, it’s the same sort of adoption curve that seats belts went through,” he explains. “There was a lot of pushback when they were introduced. But now, seat belts are simply a normal part of the driving experience. I think we’ll see a lot of this type of technology in the future to ensure our roads are safer for all of us.”