Tech in Focus: Electronic Logs

PeopleNet’s eDriver Logs, released in early 2003, have been adopted by about 70 percent of its private fleet customers.

In January 2004, Sinclair Oil equipped its fleet with onboard computers. In July it converted to paperless driver logs. Coincidentally, July 2004 was the same month that a federal appeals court stopped just short of ordering the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to consider whether to make electronic onboard recorders mandatory. FMCSA promptly issued an advance notice of proposed rulemaking on the subject.

To date, hundreds of drivers and carriers have submitted comments to FMCSA mostly opposing mandatory use of electronic recorders. But Sinclair Oil fleet manager Danny Hansen doesn’t understand what the fuss is about. The 93-truck Salt Lake City-based company uses a wireless fleet management system from Xata to increase fleet safety through real-time monitoring of driver and vehicle performance. It also has increased driver productivity and efficiency through automated logbooks.

“The drivers love it,” Hansen says. “They were able to add more time to their day.” For example, with electronic logs, a driver knows that he has 5 hours, 39 minutes left of driving time, whereas with paper logs, drivers record their duty status in quarter-hour, half-hour and full-hour segments.

Today, onboard computers and real-time communications between the truck and office are used by thousands of fleets of all sizes. For many of these fleets, the technology infrastructure already exists to add electronic logs at minimal cost. All that would be required is to activate the feature and move from paper to electronic logs.

PeopleNet has offered electronic logs since early 2003. About 70 percent of the private fleets that use PeopleNet’s onboard computing and mobile communications system have adopted the electronic logs feature, says Brian McLaughlin, vice president of marketing. PeopleNet’s web-based eDriver Logs application costs $8 monthly per vehicle, with no additional fees for more than one driver using the same in-cab computer and no software or upfront fees.

In 2003, Xata launched Xatanet, a web-based fleet management system that includes electronic logs. The company has offered electronic logs since 1989, and approximately 85 percent of its customer base (mostly private fleets) uses the application. Xatanet offers electronic logs for $5 monthly per vehicle over the cost of the base system (approximately $2,000) and monthly service fees, he says.

Qualcomm Wireless Business Solutions last year began developing a web-based electronic log application for OmniTracs customers. The company has not formally announced availability and pricing for the new service, but Norm Ellis, Qualcomm vice president and general manager, says the application will be available this summer for several dollars monthly per truck.

Since 1998, Qualcomm customer Werner Enterprises has used a proprietary paperless logs application for its OmniTracs system, but Werner had to obtain first waivers and then an exemption because its system doesn’t fully comply with FMCSA’s regulations (Part 395.15) governing automated driver logs. Qualcomm currently offers electronic logs that comply with 395.15 through its FleetAdvisor system using the MVPc onboard computer. Nearly all of the customers with FleetAdvisor use electronic logs, Ellis says.

GeoLogic Solutions (formerly Aether Systems) also is developing a driver logs application. “Geologic understands that the market needs driver logs and will be using automated driver logs,” says Norman Thomas, director of product development. The company plans to launch the application in the second half of 2005 as an option for its MobileMax system.

Electronic logs applications also can run on cell phones, thanks to the wide availability of GPS handsets today. In 2003 Xora launched TimeTrack – a web-based application for GPS handsets such as Nextel phones – to track employee’s timesheets, jobs and location. Last year, Xora developed DOT Logs, an electronic logs application for its TimeTrack product. In August, Xora asked FMCSA for an exemption from 395.15, specifically the regulation that requires the onboard recorder to be synchronized to the vehicle, says David Adams, Xora’s DOT Logs product manager. That’s the same requirement that forced Werner to obtain an exemption for its system.

Despite having the infrastructure in place, the primary reason for the slow adoption among carriers – especially for-hire carriers – is neither a cost problem nor an enforcement issue. Carriers worry about electronic data getting into the hands of trial lawyers, says trucking consultant Lana Batts.

In the event of an accident, even if a carrier is not at fault, lawyers successfully have used logbook violations to prove “joint and several” liability, Batts says. In other words, an accident is caused by a combination of faults. If a carrier can be proved just 1 percent responsible for the accident – say, for example, an electronic logbook shows a driver violated his driving time by 10 minutes – the carrier ends up paying the majority of the settlement because it is the only one involved in the accident with significant assets, says Batts.

The main factor that could help increase the number of carriers that use electronic logs is a law that would assure that onboard recorder data would be used only for enforcement purposes by outside parties (i.e. the FMCSA), Batts says. A similar existing law allows the airline industry to protect data in flight recorders.

For more information about FMCSA’s requirements for electronic logs (395.15), visit this site. For industry comments regarding mandatory recorders, visit this site and search Docket No. 18940.