Electronic Comic Books?

Paper logbooks are a joke," once declared former Canadian Trucking Alliance (CTA) Chairman Claude Robert while trying to accentuate the lobby group’s campaign to get electronic on-board recorders (EOBRs) mandated for all trucks in Canada and the U.S.

Now that — after six years of planning — U.S. regulators have finally unveiled an EOBR rule, we doubt Robert or anyone else who supports CTA’s position that mandatory EOBRs will level the playing field is smiling. In fact, it’s tough to find people on either side of the border that are overly impressed with what the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) decided. Some even insist the rule is unenforceable as it currently stands.

While the rule is stricter than a previous proposal the agency submitted under the Bush administration, it doesn’t go as far as mandating EOBRs universally for all truckers, as some carriers, suppliers and enforcement agencies had hoped.

At least not yet.

The new rule will go into effect on June 1, 2012, and will require truckers with a 10-percent or greater HOS violation rate during a single compliance review to install EOBRs on all their vehicles, regardless of the model year, for a two-year period. Upon receiving a notice, hazmat haulers have 45 days to install the devices and all other motor carriers have 60 days.

That’s more stringent than the initial plan, which called for EOBRs upon compliance failure rates after two reviews. As of now, the rule would affect close to 5,700 interstate carriers after its first year, compared to about 1,000 carriers under the lesser option. And as a carrot to promote wide adoption, carriers that voluntarily adopt EOBRs will receive relief from some requirements to retain HOS supporting documents, such as toll receipts.

As well, those carriers are promised more liberal compliance review procedures. The FMCSA says it will begin to draft a "broader mandate" later in the year. It was not able to do so at this time because "the scope of the current rulemaking proceeding is limited to compliance-based regulatory approaches, implemented through a remedial directive." We’re not too sure what that means either, except that the agency obviously felt that procedural red tape stood in the way of a speedy universal mandate and so it settled on this interim step.

Traditionally, Canadian rule makers take the path of least resistance when it comes to cross-border transportation rules and usually decide to mirror what the Americans do. That shouldn’t be the case this time, says CTA’s David Bradley. In fact, since it’s abundantly clear that FMCSA will inevitably move towards "options for significantly expanding the population of carriers" covered under the mandate, Canada should just head straight there now.

Suppliers believe that a broader rule would
have to accommodate simpler, cheaper technology if the
majority of truckers are going to afford it.

"Canada is not bound by the same regulatory structures as the U.S. and could if it so chooses to move to a broad or universal mandate from the outset," says Bradley. "Obviously, you would still want to be harmonized with the U.S. from a technology standards point of view … but there is no obligation on the Canadian governments to introduce an interim, remedial step as the FMCSA is doing."

In fact, Bradley surmises, "it would likely only take a couple of U.S. fleets to get caught up in the new rule before you’d see more of them calling for a universal mandate."

In the meantime, though, some stakeholders — suppliers and enforcement authorities, especially — fret that this piecemeal approach is loaded with technological and compliance ambiguities.

"With this rule, even if it’s a step in the right direction, we’re still going to have existing devices allowed under the old rules, which there was no consistency with," says Steve Keppler, director of policy and programs, for the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance. "For some time we’re still going to have too many devices out there."


The rule outlines several new performance standards for EOBRs.

For one thing, EOBRs will have to be integrally tethered to the truck’s engine ECM, meaning non-synchronized wireless GPS systems won’t cut it on their own.

Enforcement agencies are concerned with
the EOBR rule’s constantly shifting goalposts.

As well, recorders will have to track the truck’s location and distance traveled at each change of duty status and while the truck is in motion. Recorded data must include the driver’s name, on-duty/not driving status, and sleeper berth, and off-duty.

What the rule doesn’t seem to do, though, is standardize the technologies or the interface for enforcement officers. And that could be a nightmare for agents at roadside, hints Keppler, many of whom don’t have mobile computers to read the data. Ultimately, drivers could be asked to reconstruct the logbook report in-cab.

Plus, enforcement agencies might spend the next two years training for this rule, only to see the goalposts shift once again under a "broader mandate" down the road. "If there are going to be changes to the performance standards, that’s going to be an issue," says Keppler.

Jerry Gabbard is even more critical. He’s the vice-president of the Commercial Vehicles and Aftermarket Business Unit for Continental Tire, which in 2007 acquired Siemens, one of the world’s largest providers of electronic logbooks and digital tachographs. He tells Today’s Trucking that the new EOBR rule, as it’s written, contains too many holes and, because there’s no specific anti-tampering provision, is virtually unenforceable as well.

"They’re making assumptions on data, they’re making assumptions on certification, they’re making assumptions on the law enforcement interface," says Gabbard, who was one of a few suppliers to personally testify before a congressional committee on this issue in 2007.

"…There’s no requirements that guarantees that [the data] must be accurate. We’re trying to replace logs, which are known in the industry as comic books. And what this rule does at this point is create electronic comic books, which do not achieve the objective of increasing road safety."

And, he adds, the rule allows the industry to self-certify the devices, opening "the flood gates for anyone that wants to get in this business.

"Law enforcement is going to be asking themselves, ‘do I trust this data?’"

Most of all, he adds, it’s uneconomical. While many fleet management systems have built-in, HOS-monitoring offerings, the overall hardware is expensive even before the monthly maintenance fees. Under these standards, many cheaper, mobile or hand-held applications are ruled out because of the tethering condition.

Gabbard says a compliant, tethered device could still be had for under $500, but another requirement to transmit the data back to base wirelessly every few days increases the costs of such devices beyond that range. "It’s not a minimal cost rule for the marketplace," he says.

True, there’s going to be little sympathy for truckers who have to pay up for non-compliance, but under this framework, a broader mandate that encompasses all truckers in the future would be practically unworkable without changes. And that could mean that many suppliers simply choose to sit out until the final endgame is clearer.

"The question for suppliers, and for that matter enforcement," asks Gabbard, "is which rule do you chase? Do you address this one or the one that’s going to be coming out later on?"

Questions which Canadian decision makers observing all this from above should be contemplating right now.

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