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To Catch a Thief

At the rate cargo theft is growing in the United States, five years from now the current loss estimate of $12 billion per year could double."In Canada, we're such good people for the most part," says ...


At the rate cargo theft is growing in the United States, five years from now the current loss estimate of $12 billion per year could double.

“In Canada, we’re such good people for the most part,” says Bob Lewis, vice president of product development at Safefreight Technology Corp. “but at a recent security conference, Toronto was named as one of the seven worst trailer theft hotspots in North America. This is a problem that is definitely on the rise.”

That amounts to about $1 billion of cargo stolen in Canada per year, according to the Ontario Trucking Association. This figure may still not mean much to the average fleet operator until he losses a trailer. Suddenly customers become disgruntled, underwriters get hard-nosed about rate increases and everyone is questioning what the managers were thinking hauling goods with practically no security in place.

“The market has changed somewhat slowly after an initial onslaught of technology about three years ago,” says Charles Fey, vice president of strategic programs at Paradigm Advanced Technologies. After 911, global positioning systems (GPS) found broader application in high-valued and dangerous goods hauling. Tools like panic buttons send an emergency signal over the air to central control, geo-corridors and geo-fences alert dispatch of a truck’s deviation from a specified route or over-night yard.

But if the mobile security industry is now ready to make another evolutionary step, as Fey predicts it is, applying concepts of command and control will be central to that progress in the next five years. Industry experts also suggest these systems will need to broaden their functionality beyond security to improve adoption rates.

“I don’t believe transport companies can buy for security alone,” says Miguel Gonsalves, vice president, commercial transport at AirIQ. With some 33,000 contracted subscribers, AirIQ provides end -to-end wireless security solutions for commercial transport, rental vehicles and heavy equipment. “For example, if I can manage my driver labor by understanding what they’re doing and why I’m getting billed overtime, then that’s a benefit to my operation. If I can also have security, that’s a huge benefit,” says Gonsalves. At the same time, broader appeal would improve sales and bring economies of scale to bear on production costs, making the devices even more accessible.

Apart from the current high costs, a limitation of today’s GPS-based security systems is summed up by the quip that GPS devices usually lead you to an empty trailer. This is partly because of the intervals at which the systems report to the control centre. “Let’s say you’re taking position reports every 15 minutes and you’re comparing it to the geo-fence. At 60 miles an hour that vehicle could go 14 or 15 miles before you would detect it was off the route,” explains Norm Ellis, vice president of systems operations of Qualcomm Wireless System Solutions, which is represented by Cancom in Canada. Ellis expects onboard geo-fencing to remedy this. “Within a year or so this solution will be prevalent. You’ll actually send the route to the vehicle and then the vehicle monitors itself using GPS on a tighter path… So maybe the vehicle could go only 400 or 500 yards off route before it is detected by the onboard computer. Then action could be taken accordingly.”

Another limitation of today’s GPS systems is their ability to only track stolen units. In the next five years, on-board computers will be called to take a range of actions. These are the command and control functions Fey suggests will push satellite tracking to its next evolutionary step. In North America, that is. In Brazil, mobile security is already there. “Our partner in Brazil, called Autotrack, has about 30,000 units on the air, all for security,” Ellis says. “In Brazil, they’ve had significant issues with hijacking, so about 10 years ago we took our product, which was being used for productivity improvement, and partnered with a company that converted it into a security product. An onboard computer interfaces with the Qualcomm device and allows you to shut the vehicle down over the air.”

According to Ellis, initially the hijacked truck’s onboard computer cut the fuel line off, bringing the vehicle to a stop. But the thieves would bring a tow truck and tow it away. So the device was redesigned to lock the trailer brakes by bleeding off the air valve. Signal loss was another challenge. Even hidden Qualcomm devices were found and disabled, which would end the control centre’s ability to shut down the truck. So the onboard computer now monitors the GPS signal. If the signal is blocked, say with a garbage can lid or by cutting the wires, the onboard computer processes the speed of the truck, the duration of the interruption and decides whether the signal is obstructed by, for example, a tunnel or if it has been disabled. In the latter case, it shuts the vehicle down.

“This is commercially available in Brazil. We are in beta test in the U.S. right now on these very products. We want to make sure it passes rigors of our testing, plus we have liability issues that are significantly different here than in Brazil,” Ellis explains. The legal due diligence work aims to sort out the liability carriers, vendors and shippers may face in shutting down a tractor trailer on a freeway, possibly causing an accident.

Safefreight also believes that security has to go beyond simply tracking the stolen units. “We work to both deter and frustrate and then respond. We physically install a little black box on the trailer that is connected to things like power and door openings, etc. If anyone opens the doors there are sirens and lights — so something happens locally. That noise can go a long way to deterring. We can even lock down the air brakes so that you can’t haul the trailer away,” says Lewis. A remote alarm alerts the call centre, which can lead to the dispatching of police. (AirIQ and Qualcomm’s systems don’t come with local alarms but they can accommodate them in their input and output terminals.)

“We have been invited to consider contaminating loads that are being threatened either with incendiary devices, dyes or whatever. These are all things that sound a bit extreme, but may happen in the future,” Lewis adds.

Most security experts agree the technology for the products of the next five years already exists. But refinements in that technology will continue. Devices will get smaller and will require less power, making them easier to hide on tractors and trailers. According to Dave Sward, vice-president of major accounts at Vistar Communications, satellite-based security systems will evolve to relaying more comprehensive information back about the trailer. Not only the health and location of the trailer, but the tire pressure, temperature and humidity of the load, type of cargo and the amount of free space left in the trailer for loading may be included. What will pace this evolution is development of the sensors that can accurately draw the information together into an onboard computer and then relay it back to the host system. Also a key development will be the host system’s ability to make sense of the information for the dispatcher. “There’s some catch-up there to be done to be able to analyze and organize the data for the dispatcher. A lot of this will have to be done on an exception-based model,” Sward says.

According to Gonsalves, independent tracking of the tractor and the trailer will also become more common. “Our vision at Air IQ is that every moving asset, as long as it’s affordable enough, will have a telematics device — a device that has the ability to send and receive messages to and from those vehicles, report information automatically and be called to do things.” With devices on both tractors and trailers comes the ability to ensure the right tractor hooks to the right trailer. But the cost has just doubled — in the case of a B train, tripled. The key variable, as Todd Felker, VP of marketing at Terion puts it, is “the customer demanding it and being willing to pay for it.” For that to happen, the
devices will have to provide a solid return on investment. Theft protection is a future possibility, but devices that can help a company reduce insurance rates, promote safe driving habits by monitoring drivers, and increase just-in-time delivery efficiencies provide immediate benefits.

“Security by itself is an important item for a transportation company to be able to convey to their customers that their loads are secure. They also need to convey to their employees that the equipment is safe. But then you have to rationalize this relative to the cost of these systems… that’s where some of these other things, such as load sensing and being able to send back information about the amount of free space left in the trailer for loading, can provide additional value to the trucking company and makes the cost easier to justify,” says Sward.

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SECURITY ON A BUDGET

Even if you think theft is a remote risk and terrorism a TV news memory, here are some ingenious low cost security devices worth considering.

By Paul Stastny

It depends on who you talk to. Some in the trucking industry say that 911 dramatically raised their security awareness and others, like Robert Hackley, manager of ebusiness at Seneca Tank says, “Nobody’s worried about terrorists.”

Nonetheless, 911 prompted this petroleum tank truck manufacturer in Des Moines, Iowa to get into the security industry as a sideline. Now, three years later, its customers are buying the devices mostly against theft. Two wars on terrorism, some aggressive Homeland Security initiatives and the passage of time may have somehow made Americans feel safer, but a growing lawlessness in their own land is making cargo theft a real threat. In Canada, the threat is more remote, but a range of ingenious, low-cost security devices can help truckers curb this North America-wide trend.

“In terms of what’s out there for security, you have to define what we’re going to steal. A trucker is probably equally interested in somebody not stealing his trailer and tractor as he is about his load,” says Erik Hoffer, president and CEO of CGM Security and the chairman of educational events for the U.S. National Cargo Security Council. According to Hoffer, when dealing with the total theft of the cargo, you automatically encompass partial cargo theft and theft of equipment. “It’s called bundling your asset. In order to take the cargo, he has to take the truck,” Hoffer explains.

Seneca Tank’s devices, for example, are designed to thwart the theft of bulk fuel and hazardous materials by locking the emergency brakes on the truck. “We have a high-tech version made in Canada by Base Engineering and a mechanical device. One is [US]$400. The other is [US]$100. One requires a technician to install. The other can be installed in five minutes by a driver. The high-tech approach is good for the fleet operator who doesn’t really know his drivers, as it doesn’t require the driver to do anything to set it. The driver just has to input a code before it releases his brake. If he doesn’t it kills the engine,” says Hackley. The mechanical version is a simple locking device. After the brake is set, the driver pushes a knob on the dash to lock it. If a thief tries to force it, he ruins the valve and still can’t move the truck.

A criticism of emergency brake locks is that they can be bypassed by getting under the truck and backing off the brake, although it takes time, tools and knowledge. A step up are air brakes locks. “Since the air brakes are not mechanical, the newest products out there disable the airbrakes, which doesn’t allow the person to bypass the system,” says Hoffer. CGM sells a device for (U.S.)$175 that goes into the airline. This tiny ball valve cannot be actuated unless there is air in the line. The system allows the tractor to be locked down even as the driver leaves the truck idling.

“We make the same device for the trailer. The trailer has no power of its own so the only protection it has is the air brake, adds Hoffer. The TS-3B costs [US]$225. It was developed for isolated or unattended trailers and chassis. It cannot be closed while the lines are energized so there is no chance of it being set while the trailer is in motion. Only the driver can set it once he bleeds his lines and leaves the trailer. It is switched on or off by the driver with a special key system that can be encoded with over a million codes. Even in the unlikely event of discovering the device, any attempt to remove it will prevent any use of the airbrakes until the lines are replaced.

A similar device is the portable glad hand lock. It seals the air intake valve on unattended trailers and can replace messy king pin locks, locking chocks, chains or other devices, which are rarely used consistently. “This product is about (U.S.)$30. These are very cheap and very good. They are all methods of blocking air,” adds Hoffer. CGM has about 3000 TS-3B trailer lock installations in England and many in Europe. The glad hand locks do better in the U.S.

In Canada, common sense practices, locks and seals are often the only security truckers employ. Frank Garret, safety director at Mullen Trucking explains this position: “The only thing we’ve come up with on our end are padlocks and seals for security. When you look at it from risk versus reward, we’ve been pulling vans for 20 years and we’ve had no incidents of break-ins or of somebody putting something into the van to get it across the border. So it’s not something I’m going to spend a lot of time and money on. It sounds like a reactive stand, but by the same token, you have to put your money where your liability is.”

Seals, as security people say, don’t keep people out; they keep people honest. E.J. Brooks Company has seen its share of changing attitudes towards security since its founding in 1873. “If you’ve followed what the U.S. has done with their Homeland Security, everything is being watched much more closely. In some way, shape or form, they want it locked down and guaranteed that nobody’s opened it in order to let it pass, whether it’s crossing a border or being put on a plane,” says Don Geddy, the company’s Ontario branch general manager. The firm produces plastic indicative seals, cable seals, heavy cable seals and hardened steel bolts, which are impervious to bolt cutters.

Radio frequency identification (RFID) seals is an area of development for E.J. Brooks. “Though RFID seals are not readily available on the market yet, we know that’s a place the community is going to move… but it has to be made cost effective,” Geddy says. RFID seals will make it possible to check seal integrity without actual physical inspection. Future development of high-tech electronic seals will likely allow for satellite tracking and provide information about when and where the trailer is opened.

But in Geddy’s view, cable seals, which have been selling strongly since 9/11, currently represent the best buy. “For a dollar and a quarter you get a pretty good cable seal that’s strong and can’t be cut off with a tool somebody’s carrying around in their pocket.”

Hoffer, who has spent a good deal of his life thinking like a thief in order to develop effective security products, elaborates on cable seals: “The Conrail Boyz [a New Jersey, multi-million dollar theft ring arrested this July] were stealing cargo off the trailers on trains. They were able to get into the cargo through the back doors. To get into the back door of a trailer, you bypass the bolt. The thieves aren’t stupid. They don’t want to get caught.” By leaving the bolt in place and cutting off the handle, the thieves were able to get into the trailers, steal the products and then repair them to avoid detection. Hoffer claims they avoided trailers with cable seals wrapped around the keeper bars, which maintained the integrity of the swing doors. “It’s not what’s new in cable seals, it’s what’s new in using them differently than they have been in the past,” says Hoffer.

A final inclusion throws a curve ball into the low budget security issue in Canada. Here’s an exce
rpt from a conversation with an Alberta trucking company:

Motortruck: How do you handle cargo security?

Manager: We use Rottweilers. We have one in each truck. They sit next to the driver and travel with the driver. Then when loading or at a coffee shop they let them out.

Motortruck: They’re trained to stay with the trailer?

Manager: They’re fully trained. We’ve got 42 of them and we run 52 trucks. We’ve been doing this for years. In fact, we’re kind of an industry leader in this type of security.

Motortruck: You’re kidding. You find that effective?

Manager: Sure it’s effective. Try fighting off a Rottweiler.

Motortruck: Can I quote you?

Manager: Sure, but don’t use my name because none of it is true.

After catching his breath from a long bout of laughter, he admits that the company only uses padlocks and seals. But it shows up the fact that in Canada, we still have the luxury of treating security somewhat lightly – for now.


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