Logging onward

Fleets brace for the long-awaited regulation on electronic logs.

After navigating through hours-of-service revisions in 2003 and 2005, the trucking industry is preparing for a long-awaited rulemaking in 2006 on electronic onboard recorders (EOBRs).

One of the greatest concerns among drivers and carriers is the privacy of data. Many drivers believe EOBRs will give carriers and law enforcement officials far more information than they need to enforce laws and regulations. Many carriers also have similar worries and are concerned over misuse of data in litigation. And privacy is just one worry for fleets (See “ATA conditionally backs EOBRs,” CCJ, November 2005).

Current regulations allow fleets to voluntarily use EOBRs to replace paper logs, but the question on everyone’s mind is whether or not the agency charged with improving highway safety – the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) – will mandate use of these devices.

Three years ago, the agency sidestepped such a rulemaking during its revised HOS rules in Part 395 of the motor carriers safety regulations. Even so, the answer to the EOBR question should have been known by now: FMCSA was supposed to issue a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) in February 2006.

Due to the complexity of the topic and current litigation from advocacy groups surrounding the HOS rules, the agency said it was postponing its NPRM until June 2006. And FMCSA Administrator Annette Sandberg’s recent resignation announcement could lead to another delay in the rulemaking, says Dennis McGee, an FMCSA state program specialist for Pennsylvania and a participant in the rulemaking process.

So the NPRM may be months away, but the effort is clearly in the homestretch. When released, the NPRM will propose specifics about new technical standards for EOBRs and determine whether EOBR use will remain voluntary or be mandated for all or certain segments of the trucking industry, says Larry Minor, FMCSA’s director of the office of bus and truck standards and operations.

To date, the different segments of the industry have yet to agree on many of the key issues that the upcoming NPRM will have to address. Central to the debate is whether or not the use of electronic logs improves safety. Today, about 100,000 drivers voluntarily use electronic logs – mainly for efficiency and to reduce the financial risk of an audit by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Technical standards
Whether or not FMCSA ultimately decides to mandate use of EOBRs to improve compliance to HOS regulations, the agency says the NPRM will, at minimum, update Part 395.15 of the regulations. Codified in 1988, 395.15 defines the conditions for voluntary use of automatic onboard recording devices (AOBRD).

FMCSA recently has been using the term EOBR instead of AOBRD, and the change reflects new technology advancements such as the Global Positioning System (GPS), onboard computing and wireless communications that fleets now use to record driver hours.

One possible change to 395.15 in the upcoming NPRM is an inclusion of EOBR devices that monitor driver duty status, location and miles without being synchronized to the vehicle’s engine and odometer. Currently, electronic logs must be synchronized to the vehicle’s odometer, meaning HOS applications for GPS-enabled mobile devices such as cell phones and handheld computers do not comply.

Several wireless application providers, however, are holding out that FMCSA will approve such mobile devices in its update (see “Easy add-on,” page 80). In 1998, for example, FMCSA granted Werner Enterprises an exemption for its proprietary paperless logs application that records driver duty status and vehicle mileages based on a GPS algorithm.

Even technical issues – such as whether or not GPS tracking systems are accurate and reliable enough for driver logs – do not have consensus within the industry.

In early 2005, leadership of the Technology and Maintenance Council (TMC) of the American Trucking Associations recognized the need for a voluntary, industry standard that would reflect input from interested stakeholders. In April 2005, TMC formed a task force to address performance requirements for EOBRs.

To date, the task force has not reached a consensus on what the minimum performance standards should be – including whether or not electronic logs need to be synchronized to the vehicle’s odometer or if GPS alone is sufficient, says Dave Kraft, task force chairman.

Kraft, a senior manager at Qualcomm Wireless Business Solutions, has coordinated the development of several industry standards and initiatives for electrical and mechanical devices. Chairing the EOBR task force has proven far more challenging in a different way, he says. “Technically, it’s not that difficult,” Kraft says. “In this area, there is a lot more controversy.”

For example, one contentious policy the task force examined is whether or not fleets that use electronic logs should be held to a different standard than fleets that use paper logs. Today, drivers can make corrections to paper logs days after the fact. Should drivers that use EOBRs also be allowed to make corrections? This is among many issues the task force – and the industry – is waiting on FMCSA to decide.

Another difficult issue is how to ensure reliability of EOBRs, Kraft says. Should FMCSA continue its flexible technology approach based on performance requirements, or should it follow the European approach with a design specification to optimize EOBR performance for its intended purpose?

Kraft says debate also continues about the requirements for EOBRs to support compliance inspections: What information really is needed, and how should it be made available? Today, drivers are given the option of either printing off a log summary to inspectors, or letting inspectors read the data directly from the onboard recorder.

“Drivers are aware that they do not have to print anything off,” McGee says. And while most new systems feature graph displays similar to a paper logbook, many older systems still in use do not. So inspectors who look over driver logs on older devices often have to review the summaries line by line.

“It is more cumbersome for roadside officers to interpret line by line,” McGee says. One topic FMCSA is reviewing in the rulemaking is data display requirements, he says.

“Right now, there is no buy-in and no trust from law enforcement,” says Brian McLaughlin, vice president of marketing for PeopleNet Communications, an onboard computing and mobile communications provider. “They don’t question the accuracy (of EOBRs), but every one presents data differently.”

Safety first?
Besides disagreeing over the technical and performance requirements for EOBRs, the industry does not support a mandate on electronic logs. In comments to FMCSA, ATA said that for FMCSA to achieve industry support of a mandate on electronic logs, the agency would have to provide strong evidence that EOBRs improve highway safety.

McGee says that in his opinion, electronic logs do improve safety, based on the anecdotal evidence he’s gathered in working with EOBR manufacturers and companies that have purchased the devices – even if the reason they use them is economical, such as eliminating paperwork.

“The crash rates in almost every case have all gone down dramatically with their use,” McGee says. Although he hasn’t seen a specific study done on the safety benefits of EOBRs, he says that “some of it has to do with thinking that somebody is riding in the truck with you. It is safer.”

From a fleet perspective, however, safety is not among the main reasons fleets voluntarily use electronic logs, says McLaughlin, who also is vice chairman of TMC’s task force. EOBR users most often are focused on broader uses of these devices, such as fleet efficiency and productivity.

Such is the case for food service distributor Martin Bros., a 65-truck fleet in Cedar Falls, Iowa. Based on the company’s three-year experience with using electronic logs, the safety aspect is “questionable,” says Mike McCurry, assistant director of transportation.

“I would say our safety overall is actually pretty good,” he says. “I’ve looked at our SafeStat reports, and I’m not sure how it relates to onboard recorders.”

One measurable improvement is that the company’s HOS violations have vanished since it started using the Tripmaster system – a situation McCurry credits to using electronic logs. More solid proof of the safety benefits, such as a reduction in accidents, are difficult to correlate directly with the use of electronic logs, he says.

Although not easy to quantify, McCurry says that if a driver is able to monitor his driving hours in the cab – and knows that his actions are recorded – he can plan his workday better and will be more safety-conscious. At first, drivers for Martin Bros. resisted using the Tripmaster system – not because of what it was, but because most people resist change in general, McCurry says.

“Now that we’ve got electronic logs, they have come to depend on it. If we had issues, such as the software not working correctly, they would say ‘fix my recorder.’ They very quickly became accustomed to the ease of doing it.”

The company uses a local-area network connection to download data automatically from its Tripmaster units as its vehicles return to headquarters each day. Data from the automated system has reduced the time drivers spend doing logs and increased the accuracy and efficiency of planning routes and stops, McCurry says.

Operational efficiency
By far, private fleets comprise the majority of electronic log users. The two top reasons they adopt these systems are to reduce log paperwork and fleet risk through HOS compliance, McLaughlin says. About 70 percent of the private fleets that purchase PeopleNet’s onboard computing and mobile communications system use its wireless e-Driver Logs application, he says.

From his first day as a fleet manager in 1988, Ken Yeoman says he knew there had to be a better way than the “recordkeeping nightmare” presented by paper logs. Today, Yeoman is director of outbound systems and processes for the private fleet of Unisource, one of the largest distributors of paper, packaging and janitorial supplies in the United States.

“We were severely breaking HOS regulations,” he says. “Until we took a look at it, we didn’t know we had a problem.” As a result, the company started using onboard computers from Xata to automate its driver logs.

“From an enforcement, compliance and safety standpoint, [the onboard computer] is one of the best things we’ve ever done,” Yeoman says. “It is so easy to maintain records. There is no paper involved, it is so easy for drivers, and there is never any confusion.”

Yeoman says he doesn’t think logs have a negative effect on fleet productivity since it is not operationally efficient for Unisource drivers to deliver to areas that would push the HOS rules. “If we make good decisions on the regulatory end, it is good for the cost side as well.”

The company uses daily exception reports and can determine if a driver goes over his hours by even one minute. The log will print automatically in the office to create a paper trail: The driver is required to review and sign the log, and the company takes corrective action to make sure it doesn’t happen again. “We will not accept the fact that drivers went over their hours of service,” Yeoman says. “We consider that an important part of safety training.”

The company’s SafeStat score is one-tenth of the national average, he says.

Currently, most of Unisource’s fleet has the “static” Xata system in which information stored in the computer is transmitted through a driver key into a collection device, and then into the company’s enterprise database. The company currently is adding Xata’s wireless system, Xatanet, to its inbound transportation fleet to transmit logs and other fleet management information to the office. The company plans to convert the whole fleet to the wireless system.

Through real-time wireless communications, fleets that use EOBRs can manage their drivers’ HOS proactively through e-mail alerts, a Web interface or integration with their dispatch planning system.

In general, you would expect carriers that manage their drivers’ HOS and other performance data wirelessly to have excellent safety records, Kraft says. For example, paper logbooks often are turned in by truckload drivers every week or two. How can any fleet take action on an HOS violation if the record is two weeks old?

There is a lot of resistance, however, to say that every system must have wireless communications. Many owner-operators do not need wireless communications. And from a regulatory standpoint, wireless will not be required even if EOBRs are mandated, Kraft says.

Although the industry is widely divided over a mandate on the use of EOBRs for recording drivers’ HOS, it also is divided about the performance standards of these devices. Both topics should become clear in a few months. One thing that everyone can agree on, however, is the need to increase efficiency and reduce the burden of compliance. In this regard, evidence is solid that electronic logs do provide a solution.

Easy add-on
Electronic logs aren’t cost-prohibitive

Should use of electronic logs become mandatory, fleets will have no shortage of technology suppliers. In many cases, the devices now used by fleets for other applications such as vehicle tracking and performance monitoring are powerful onboard computers – or even handhelds – that easily can run a wireless hours-of-service (HOS) application.

The cost of this hardware has dropped significantly – and since many fleets already have an electronic onboard recorder (EOBR) in their vehicle, they could turn on an HOS application instantly. For example, Qualcomm recently released an HOS application for OmniTracs that it says is fully compliant with the most recent revision of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s HOS rules.

PeopleNet offers its e-Driver Logs as a Web-based application that 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.

The vast majority of GeoLogic’s customers are longhaul truckload carriers that do not implement electronic logs, says John Lewis, the company’s chief executive officer. But should electronic logs be required, GeoLogic will support that functionality, Lewis says.

Another possible option to automate driver logbooks is to use handheld devices. Currently, under Part 395.15 of the HOS regulations, electronic logs must be synchronized to the vehicle’s odometer, meaning HOS applications for GPS-enabled cell phones and handheld computers do not comply.

In February 2005, a company called Xora submitted a software application to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration during its comment period on EOBRs. Xora’s TimeTrack application runs on Java-enabled handsets such as Nextel phones. The company’s argument is that it captures the mileage and location information through GPS and doesn’t need to be tethered to the vehicle to capture changes in driver duty status and driving time, says David Adams, product manager for Xora.

The application – which is stored in the phone and allows the driver to see how many hours he has available – also is wirelessly linked to a company’s dispatch and safety management systems, allowing fleet managers to see violations in real time. Between 50 and 100 customers now are using the Xora application, Adams says, but under current law their drivers still keep paper records.

Using HOS recording devices that are not synchronized with the vehicle’s odometer is not without precedent: Werner Enterprises was granted an exemption from 395.15 for use of its GPS-based paperless logs application.

Similarly, KonaWare recently developed an HOS solution for PocketPC devices, says Dave Negy, vice president of product marketing. The first release – currently in testing – requires the use of an onboard computer in the vehicle to comply with FMCSA. The HOS application, however, resides on the PocketPC device that can be synced to any computer wirelessly through radio or Bluetooth, he says.

For fleets that lease vehicles, driver logs are available through Penske’s FleetIQ, a private branded version of a wireless fleet management system from Xata. FleetIQ comes in three offerings: basic, standard and premier. Fleets that use the premier option can automate fuel taxes and monitor location and performance data by vehicle and driver, as well as use an electronic logs application.

More than 50 percent of FleetIQ users choose the premier package, which costs $84 per month over a typical six-year lease, says Mike Flynn, manager of onboard technology for Penske Truck Leasing. For HOS violations, the driver gets a real-time warning in the cab. Data is held in the vehicle and downloaded to a server at midnight, where fleets can see available time reports and violation reports online. “It’s a real plus for being on top of compliance with drivers,” Flynn says.