Truck News


Inside the ‘black box’

TAMPA, Fla. - This may be the digital age, but Hours-of-Service regulations seem to be stuck in a different era. Drivers still record their duty cycles on paper logs, offering roadside inspectors acce...

TAMPA, Fla. – This may be the digital age, but Hours-of-Service regulations seem to be stuck in a different era. Drivers still record their duty cycles on paper logs, offering roadside inspectors access to a literal paper trail.

Yet there is a chance the days of paper logbooks are numbered.

U.S. regulators will soon introduce plans for Electronic On-Board Recorders – basically, the electronic “black boxes” that could track Hours-of-Service – through a Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to be unveiled in May or June.

The exact form of the proposed rule is still unknown. There’s the question of whether the equipment should be mandatory for every carrier, specific industries that are more prone to breaking HoS rules, or simply be voluntary. That, says Larry Minor of the FMCSA, is the “million-dollar question.”

At the very least, the rules are expected to establish the standards that such recorders will need to meet. The technology first emerged about 20 years ago as an Automatic On-Board Recording Device, which was tested by a small number of carriers including Frito-Lay, says Brian McLaughlin of PeopleNet. In 1988, the FMCSA set preliminary standards that the equipment needed to meet, and those sketchy details are in place today.

Today, more than 100,000 EOBRs are in trucks across North America. And the majority do much more than record duty hours, incorporating such things as GPS tracking, fuel taxes and information for accident reconstructions, he adds.

Last year, the Technology and Maintenance Council of the American Trucking Associations began to discuss standards that such technology might need to meet.

“This year, when you say EOBR, people know exactly what you’re talking about,” McLaughlin adds.

Well, yes and no. While the concept of the recorders is easy to understand, many questions still remain, not the least of which is whether the government should mandate the design of a specific device – a recorder that would be found in every truck – or simply set standards that manufacturers would need to meet. European drivers all use the same form of digital tachographs, and that common approach could drive down costs. But a performance-based approach would encourage manufacturers to set their products apart by adding other features such as fleet management reports, wireless messaging and the tracking of fuel economy.

“EOBRs are a great improvement over paper logs,” says Dave Kraft of Qualcomm. Indeed, they are accurate, and can help inform drivers and carriers alike about available hours. But they have many of the same limitations as paper logs, he said. Drivers could use multiple IDs, fail to log on, or fail to accurately report off-duty hours.

From the standpoint of security, drivers could be recognized by anything from smart cards (such as those used in Europe) to PIN numbers and biometric systems that scan fingerprints. But each has its challenge. The first choice could be lost, the second could be forgotten, and biometrics can be expensive to implement in every single truck.

Ah yes, the cost. The equipment could cost anywhere from $300 to $4,100, depending on the features, says Minor. Unlike paper logbooks, the devices can track vehicle conditions such as road speed, miles driven, the date and time of day. But the systems aren’t perfect. A traditional on-board recorder will recognize driving time, but won’t tell if a driver is in his sleeper berth.

“There is a big concern about keeping the information confidential if it doesn’t apply to Hours-of-Service,” Minor adds.

Any standard is also expected to include an electronic display or printer that can be read at the side of the road, complete with access to eight days of data.

“It makes it difficult for law enforcement out in the field,” Kraft says. Unlike paper logs, it can be difficult to spot violations at a glance. The full volume of information can be overwhelming, and the electronic displays can simply be difficult to read at the side of the road. “They’re stakeholders in how this technology is used.”

Minor also recognizes another issue that has emerged in an initial comment period.

“Many drivers believe mandatory use of EOBRs would be an unwarranted invasion of their privacy,” he says. “If drivers really don’t like the technology, then all of us have a big problem.”

When one fleet manager confronted Minor about whether this could truly help improve safety performance, Minor admitted the question still remains.

The requirement was dropped from draft HoS regulations for that very reason.

“We really couldn’t make the rock-solid safety argument,” Minor admits. “That question is still out there…getting a handle on that is a major challenge.”

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