Going digital

by Ingrid Phaneuf

TORONTO, Ont. – It’s not like the industry didn’t see it coming. But with a minority of small- to mid-sized Canadian carriers using electronic on-board recorders (EOBRs) at all, let alone using them for hours-of-service tracking, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s proposed new rule making such devices mandatory south of the border means EOBR providers are gearing up for the biggest shopping season in their history.

Carriers, meanwhile, are scrambling to figure out exactly what they’re going to have to shell out for equipment and driver training.

“Historically, we haven’t been in favour of the government mandating products,” says Brian McLaughlin, COO of PeopleNet, a mobile communications and on-board computing provider. “We believe they should sell on their own merit, based on a defined return on investment.”

But it’s not like the rule came as a surprise to most carriers running south of the border, McLaughlin adds.

“We’ve seen penetration for our on-board computer and the HoS application for our module  go up significantly over the past 18 months,” he says. “Carriers have been trying to get out in front of the rule, so we’ve seen demand up 70% year-over-year for the last two quarters.”

Still, there is much that remains to be learned about what kind of technology the new FMCSA will accept under the new rule, points out Kate Rahn, director of operations for Shaw Tracking, another well-known telecommunications company serving Canadian carriers.

“The rule as it stands right now seems to have a lot of loopholes and that’s a problem,” says Rahn. “EOBRs are not currently widely used and now we’re talking about using them to keep track of hours-of-service. So that’s a whole other ball of wax.”

So far, the rule seems to indicate that any device set to electronically record hours-of-service will have to be permanently attached to the engine, says Rahn. But that’s a matter that’s up for discussion, according to providers of handheld HoS recording providers such as CayCan Safety Consulting, based in Alberta.

CayCan webmaster Kris Fulgham says his company plans to apply to have its handheld GPS-based HoS tracking software recognized as a means of tracking hours-of-service under the new FMCSA rule. The software is already being used by carriers in Alberta, he says.

“We’re a safety consultancy and we’re already one of 21 certified third-party auditors working with Alberta Transportation,” says Fulgham. “And we’ve created a software solution that is really affordable and easy to use for anyone using their own iPhone or iPad handheld communications device – so it’s perfect for the smaller carriers.”

Whether CayCan’s application will be accepted under the new rule remains to be seen, admits Fulgham, “but if it isn’t, we’re perfectly willing to find a way to hook it up to the engine.”

In the meantime, Fulgham is among those who fully believes in the benefits of electronic tracking for both carriers and drivers.

“People needed to find solutions to verify logbooks are filled out correctly,” he says. “And carriers have been paying auditing companies an average $15 to $20 per driver per month to do that, only to discover that someone is in violation after a 45-day turnaround. Electronic recording allows carriers to receive a real-time alert prior to a fatigue-related violation, that’s verifiable by GPS location.”

Fleets and drivers will also save time and therefore money by not having to fill out paper logs manually and process them in the back office, points out McLaughlin. They will also improve their CSA scores and reduce out-of-service violations and citations dramatically, he adds.

“So there is definitely an ROI there – the costs will go down while the benefits will go up. The FMCSA couldn’t have brought town this rule if that wasn’t the case.”

Affordability and training
Affordability shouldn’t be an issue, say providers, with options like no money down leases. But carriers counter that affordability will depend on just how quickly the FMCSA plans to implement the new rule.

“We’re still waiting to hear exactly how it’s going to happen and whether Canada follows suit,” says Bob Halfyard, director of safety and compliance for Challenger Motor Freight. “First, we need to know exactly what kind of system will qualify. Then, we need to know how quickly we’re going to have to phase it in. The cost and the return on investment will depend on whether we have to retrofit or whether we can install the equipment on new trucks and work it into our capital costs.”

As for driver and enforcement training, everyone, even carriers, appears to agree that it doesn’t take long.

“We had to do some training, but definitely not a lot,” says Jeff Hall, president of J&R Hall Transport.

As for enforcement officers: “We can just send them a fax with the hours-of-service over the previous 14 days if they prefer that to looking at a screen,” Hall adds.

In fact, on-board electronic hours-of-service monitoring systems even include training modules for drivers en-route, says Shaw Tracking’s Rahn.

“And we provide a laminated instruction card on how to check hours-of-service electronically for drivers to present to enforcement officers south of the border. If they don’t want to use that, they can press a button and request a fax instead.”

Driver resistance
Overall, initial driver resistance is easily overcome when they see just how much the technology can help them, say both carriers and providers. Systems can switch automatically from one country’s HoS rules to another and on-screen countdown clocks allow drivers to see exactly how much driving time they have left.

“Even if drivers are historically resistant to electronic on-board recording devices, they like those tools,” says McLaughlin. Of course, drivers won’t be able to fudge their logs to get home if they run out of time, McLaughlin admits. “But they weren’t supposed to before. And they still have time for personal conveyance.”

But will drivers, so traditionally resistant to the whole notion of ‘Big Brother’ looking over their shoulders ever willingly adopt a system that so obviously takes control of hours-of-service recording out of their hands?  They will when they see how electronic HoS recording gives them more – not less – time to drive, say those in favour.

“According to studies, drivers typically save at least 20 minutes per day just on paperwork,” says McLaughlin.

Rahn agrees, adding the fact EOBRs record driving time to the minute will give drivers more time as well. “One of the things we’re finding is that, while drivers are initially resistant to electronic recording because they think they’ll have fewer hours to drive, the opposite is true. Drivers can actually gain 30 minutes to two hours per day, because they don’t have to round their time to the nearest quarter hour. Never mind the fact you don’t actually have to get out a piece of paper and a pen to write everything down.”

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