AVION Waits to Take Flight

If the signs weren’t still standing along Ontario’s Hwy. 401, AVION-the “smart highways” initiative the provincial government launched to great fanfare in the fall of 1995-would seem to be little more than a blurry memory to most drivers speeding by.

But the program-part of a larger ITS (Intelligent Transportation Systems) program in the United States called Advantage I-75-is still very much alive as transport officials in Ontario and six states study the results of a three-year test and clarify where the technology will go next.

Established in 1995, the AVION (Automated Vehicle Identification Ontario)/Advantage I-75 project was designed to streamline commercial vehicle enforcement at 29 weigh stations along Hwy. 401 and Interstate 75 from Whitby, Ont., all the way to south Florida.

Transport officials wanted to see how they could make truck fleets more efficient by allowing them to avoid stopping at most weigh scales, while still maintaining necessary control over vehicle weights, mechanical fitness, and driver duty hours, and the AVION/Advantage I-75 technology seemed promising.

The concept is simple. The results of an inspection made at the start of a trip are stored electronically on a transponder mounted to the truck’s dashboard and read automatically by scanners stationed at the roadside or overhead.

As the vehicle approaches an inspection station, the system will accept the data, automatically check the truck’s pre-cleared status through a central database, send a green-light signal to the transponder in the cab, update the vehicle’s trip data to show the time, date, and location where the truck was interrogated, and send the information to the next weigh station along the route.

If for any reason a truck can’t be verified, or the AVION database indicates that the carrier’s compliance rating has been downgraded, the in-vehicle transponder will show a red light telling the driver to pull in and submit to normal inspection.

Weigh-scale operators can choose to override the system and impose a red light, if they see reason to do so, and AVION is also designed to randomly select a truck periodically to be given a red light, even if it would normally receive a green one, just so occasional spot checks can be accomplished.


Ontario isn’t the only Canadian jurisdiction committing to ITS projects. In March, the Winnipeg Development Agreement-a coalition of federal, Manitoba, and City of Winnipeg governments-pledged $20,000 to develop high-tech safety and enforcement systems for a proposed trade corridor between Manitoba and Mexico.

The funds will be used to draft a plan among jurisdictions involved in the so-called Mid-Continent International Trade Corridor to deploy a system like AVION/Advantage I-75 along the proposed route, which threads through Manitoba and 11 states along Interstate highways 35, 29, 80, and 94. The United States is making ITS funding a high priority: the U.S. Transportation Equity Act (TEA 21, the U.S. highway funding program) commits nearly $1.5 billion US to ITS over the next five years.

And both the U.S. and Canada are exploring technologies that would further automate border-crossing systems, whereby a pre-approved driver and load might not even have to stop as he crossed the international boundary. For example, a portion of the Winnipeg Development Agreement funds will be used to work with North Dakota to plan and implement an automated system that will reduce delays, improve cargo security, and enhance traffic safety at the Pembina/Emerson crossing and other “second-tier” border stations.

What’s different about AVION/Advantage I-75 is that with a three-year pilot in the books, transport officials have some actual numbers to crunch as they try to assess the initiative’s costs, benefits, and potential.

The test involved transponders in 4500 trucks, about 900 of which were from Ontario. Twenty-nine scale houses-seven in Ontario-were equipped with data readers. Use grew steadily over the three years.

“For 1996, we show 35,305 Ontario transponder transactions, of which 25,147 (71%) resulted in a truck being given a green light to continue, and 10,131 where the vehicle was signaled to pull in for a traditional inspection,” explains Joe Crabtree of the University of Kentucky’s Transportation Center, which is responsible for tracking the program’s data.

“For 1997, activity jumped to 74,972 vehicle passages, with 66,370 (89%) green lights and 8602 (11%) red lights. And for 1998 we logged 96,544 transactions with 90,791 green lights (94%) and 5793 pull-ins (6%).”

(These numbers refer to each transaction at a given weigh scale. If a participating truck, on a particular day, ran past all seven AVION-equipped scales on Hwy. 401 and got a green light at three, that would count as three separate transactions in these totals.)


AVION/Advantage I-75 administrators predicted that highway safety would improve because carriers could pass weigh stations at normal operating speeds, reducing the queue of trucks waiting to be inspected, and offering an incentive to be more compliant.

As they review whether those objectives were met, AVION administrators face other key questions:

* Which fleets should be allowed to participate? Criteria for joining the AVION pilot were stringent: applicants had to have an exemplary safety record-in the top 12% of all Ontario carriers-and submit to a facility audit. Still, the maximum number of trucks that would be equipped from even a large fleet was 75, whereas a small carrier (five, 10, 15 vehicles, etc.) might qualify for one to three transponders.

A fleet could be disqualified from the program if its compliance or accident stats deteriorated below a desired threshold-which occurred with about 25% of the Ontario-registered trucks (drawn from about 90 fleets).

Provincial officials will try to decide if these standards should stick, according to former AVION administrator Bill Kmet. The Target ’97 government-industry task force on truck safety in Ontario suggested that AVION be used as an incentive, restricting the program only to carriers with exemplary compliance records.

* Is bypassing a scale incentive enough? “I haven’t done any fuel- or time-savings studies on the 10 trucks of ours that are transponder-equipped compared to the rest of the fleet,” says Greg Atkin of London, Ont.-based Cuddy Transportation, a 37-tractor for-hire fleet that participated in AVION from day one.

“But I would say that not having to stop at a weigh scale saves us from five to 10 minutes per location-depending on line-ups-and a typical run in Ontario would send us past six AVION-equipped stations.”

However, many trucks pass by Ontario scales unimpeded already because few stations in the province conduct inspections around the clock.

* Which begs the question, can AVION do more? The beauty of ITS is that once the basic hardware and systems are in place, the door opens for all kinds of data to be sent to and from the vehicle in real time-from customs pre-clearance information to weather and traffic forecasts.

There’s no shortage of inspiration.

For example, one ITS project put under contract last month calls for installation of a fog and smoke detection system along I-75 in south Georgia. The system is designed to warn motorists whenever smoke or fog rolls obscures the roadway.

An immediate prospect for Ontario would be to install more weigh-in-motion scales (WIMS). The 22 stations along I-75 are so equipped; Ontario has just one WIMS system, at a scale house near London.

Notwithstanding occasional glitches like getting a red-light signal at a weigh scale that’s closed-“That can happen if the scale operator forgets to shut off the system before closing down,” Atkin says-Cuddy trucks even out in Oregon or Washington are now seeing their transponders activate, indicating to Atkin that this technology is growing more widely all the time.

“There’s significant interest in this project, and the system is being improved even as we speak, with upgraded software, additional sites being brought on-line, and a philosophical change from a government-sponsored test to an ongoing deployment,” Joe Crabtree confirms.

“AVION offers some real benefits to both commercial trucking interests and government enforcement authorities as we look into the future.”

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