Custom’s ACE in the hole

Aaron Huff is technology editor of Commercial Carrier Journal. E-mail

Every day, it seems we hear about another federal initiative to strengthen homeland security – some coming from agencies you never knew existed before Sept. 11. You also hear sales pitches about new technology and systems. And you read general pronouncements about the need to tighten U.S. borders without choking off international commerce.

Motor carrier owners or executives may feel powerless to maintain maximum efficiency in the new security regime. Fortunately, one program begun by the U.S. Customs Service well before Sept. 11 promises to deliver both greater border security and faster clearance soon.

The Automated Commercial Environment (ACE) is the U.S. Custom’s vision for a paperless, account-based system between the trade industry. ACE will allow suppliers, importers, brokers and transportation providers to file their information electronically well in advance of shipment through a single government web-based portal, says Charles Armstrong, executive director of the Customs Modernization Office. Customs and other agencies will then process and analyze this information and determine whether to examine the shipment, refuse it, seize it or accept it and speed it on its way.

Companies that participate in ACE will equip their trucks or containers with transponders, which will allow Customs to automatically bill the importer as the container or truck passes a Customs station.

As of the beginning of this month, Customs had planned to finalize its applications process for 60 initial companies to begin testing the program. The list includes General Motors, Ford, DaimlerChrysler, Motorola, Target and Sara Lee. General testing of ACE will begin no earlier than October 28, 2002 and will run about 2 years at the border points of Detroit; Port Huron, Mich.; and Laredo, Texas.

To participate in ACE, importers must also participate in a U.S. Customs initiative known as Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism (C-TPAT). This joint government-business initiative will build cooperative relationships that strengthen overall supply chain and border security, Customs says. Customs is asking business partners to implement improved and transparent physical security practices and communicate their requirements to their business partners within the supply chain.

To participate in C-TPAT, General Motors, for example, began to implement improved security across its Tier 1 suppliers. Ultimately, GM accomplishes this by including in its contracts – including transportation contracts – additional security requirements to earn its business.

Potential ACE benefits could include dedicated commercial lanes, assigned Customs points of contact, eligibility for bimonthly or monthly payments and reduced inspections.

Both ACE and C-TPAT are aligned with Operation Safe Commerce, an initiative launched by the U.S. Coast Guard and spearheaded by Commander Stephen Flynn. Many federal and state agencies have adopted this operation’s vision and are working to acquire the ability to ensure ironclad security, tracking and information profiles of each container that enters the country – from its point of origin to its final destination.

“Operation Safe Commerce is evolving as the standard of expectation in multi-modal transportation,” says Stephen Zujkowski, senior vice president of business development and strategic accounts at Savi Technology, a provider of, supply chain asset management, security and collaboration software and hardware.

The greater requirement of details on container contents, however, is stressing old systems, he says. U.S. Customs and the U.S. Coast Guard, for example, manually inspect about 2 percent of the cargo containers and trailers at U.S. ports and border crossings.

“Historically, there has been the need for inspection and verification of contents to protect from smuggling and get the appropriate tariff revenues,” Zujkowski says. That’s important, but with a real threat of chemical or biological weapons facing our nation, verification of contents before items even reach our shores or cross our borders has become a high priority. With lots of effort and a little luck, the federal government and its private-industry partners will deliver a solution that enhances homeland security and speeds commerce.