I t would be tempting to hype up Ken Kroeger, head of Australian technology company Seeing Machines, as the nation’s next agent of disruption and get lost in the fascinating tale of how he helped transform a struggling Canberra start-up into a pioneering force in the emerging field of eye-tracking technology.
Yet, even though the 55-year-old would be the obvious choice to exemplify the concept of discontinuous innovation – a scenario where a new technology, product or service will require the market to fundamentally change a behaviour previously considered normal – it wouldn’t quite capture what the Canadian-born cosmopolite is all about.
Granted, Ken’s track record in technology management is buzzword-worthy: Spun out of a robotics laboratory at the Australian National University, Seeing Machines’ success has skyrocketed under his leadership. Still based in the Australian capital, it is now listed on London’s Alternative Investment Market with a turnover of $23 million and some 160 people firmly devoted to developing a new generation of in-vehicle safety systems that can assess a person’s alertness behind the wheel in real time.
Combining smart camera technology with complex math, it has also scored a number 6 ranking on the BRW Most Innovative Companies list for 2015 and will likely play a leading role in the development of future mobility solutions by re-defining the very notion of safety technology in the age of autonomous driving.
Beyond the hype, though, Ken’s true mission is not to tell a person’s blood pressure by observing an almost invisible vein running below the eye, but to change the very narrative behind operating a commercial vehicle. As such, his vision goes far beyond adding to the 70+ driver assistance systems transport businesses can currently choose from when spec’ing a truck. Ken’s goal is to change commercial road transport from within and let innovation spark what must ultimately be a cultural revolution.
“Naturally the product is at the core of what we do, and we are incredibly proud of what we are now able to bring to the transport market,” he says with reference to the company’s new Guardian product, which can observe a truck driver’s eye movement and alert them about fatigue creeping up or any other distraction from the traffic ahead. “What we found, though, is that world-class technology is just the beginning. We also need to educate the industry and have a frank discussion about the professional culture it would like to portray going forward.”
According to Ken, the idea of having an inward-facing camera film a professional driver on the job is still somewhat alien to most transport businesses in Australia, even though the company can look back on years of experience in the mining industry, where it has achieved significant success by “keeping an eye out for the driver”, as Ken has it. “Put simply, we’re in the business of enabling a vehicle to tell how able, or available, you are to properly operate it. After years of work the concept is now very refined, but in a trucking context, we’re really only just learning to walk.”
What Ken is bringing to the table for the commercial road industry, he says, is a new perspective on professionalism. “I think it’s clear that the industry has a fatigue problem, there’s no avoiding that truth. What our work in mining has shown – and it’s only been reinforced by what’s happening in the field of autonomous driving – is that driver-monitoring can help with that when it’s done right, so that’s where we come into play.”
Doing it right, Ken says, must include a degree of acknowledgement for the fact that drivers are “real people with real concerns about change” in what already is a volatile industry. “We have some incredible, proven tech that is now becoming more and more affordable for the truck market as we roll it out across the board. But we’re also aware that we’re working with real people here, and our experience has shown that most of them don’t enjoy having to deal with what they believe is a Big Brother kind of scenario.”
After launching Seeing Machines in the mining industry and holding a range of field trials in the trucking space, Ken learned that installing an in-cab camera is often seen as a sign of distrust. But just as much as he doesn’t believe in the idea of having his own desk back at Seeing Machines HQ in Canberra, Ken says a new, more transparent approach to leadership could change that impression.
“The camera is not looking at you, it’s looking out for you,” he repeats his mantra – revealing that Seeing Machines has had to develop an elaborate induction process to ensure drivers can familiarise with the technology and don’t just block the camera lens with chewing gum or Vaseline. “In the beginning we had all sorts of issues with drivers trying to manipulate the camera. But then they started to understand that we’re merely providing them with a tool to go about their job in the most professional way possible.”
As such, Ken says the future success of driver-monitoring technology will be closely related to a general change in attitude. “Like every profession, driving is evolving in line with the progress we make as a society, and people are becoming increasingly aware that a healthy lifestyle and self-management are part of that process,” he says – explaining that educating drivers’ families is often the most effective way to bring the message home. “Quite often it’s the families that appreciate our technology the most, because they know there’s a system in place to make sure their loved ones stay safe. After all, drivers are often alone in the truck and there is no colleague around to look out for them.”
In a global trial, Ken says only one in every 35 transport businesses did not go ahead with the Canberra-made technology after experiencing it in real life. At the moment, another 30 fleets are testing it globally, and Ken is confident the “socially conscious and financially capable” of them will quickly take driver-monitoring up as standard. “In some cases we actually test it in the managers’ company cars first, which can be quite the eye-opening experience after a long day at the office,” he says, again pointing to the importance of changing mind-sets before talking technology. “We’ve recorded some near-misses that really fast-tracked the decision to do something about fatigue behind the wheel.”
An entrepreneur himself, Ken says he is aware that even the best idea will still need to yield a return, though, especially in the transport world. “Our technology is much more than just a camera, which is why it isn’t cheap. But with us also rolling out the product in the car space, it will quickly become more affordable,” he predicts, hinting that a range of telematics providers are already working on implementing Guardian in their captive offerings to make it more accessible. “At the moment we’re working with the classic early adopter community. By 2020, however, we believe we’ll be selling more than 50,000 units every year worldwide.”
With that in mind, Ken is not all too worried about the potential backlash coming from the driver community as in-cab cameras gain traction across the industry – after all, his mission has never been just about supervising them. To him, driver-monitoring technology is merely a tool to enable a cultural shift in the commercial road transport industry, with Seeing Machines providing both the visionary guidance and the technical expertise to make that evolutionary leap. “We have a real opportunity here to make a difference and fundamentally change the way we define the driver’s role,” he says – indicating that, at the end of the day, there may be some disruption involved after all.
The story appears in the August edition of Prime Mover. To get your copy, click here.