Without microchips, America stops?

For consumers, the magic of information technology is old hat. We expect to pay any bill or buy any item online and instantaneously. Credit card purchases automatically earn frequent flier miles. Cookies and passwords track your movements around cyberspace. Buy a book on Amazon.com, and every time that author publishes another book, you get an e-mail. You might be grateful at the customer service – or you might resent it as an intrusion of your privacy.

The trucking industry also seems to have been transformed by information technology. A single technology – satellite positioning – has empowered management tools that were barely conceivable 15 years ago. And yet, the technology revolution in trucking really has just begun. Mobile communications providers are far from finished developing new applications. Some are offering new generations of their onboard hardware that may enable further leaps in safety, efficiency and customer service.

The truck itself is becoming a mobile computer. First, there are the safety-related systems that are growing in popularity. John Hill, the new administrator of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, wants to see rapid adoption of many of the safety technologies available today – collision avoidance, adaptive cruise and lane departure warning, just for starters. Hill can’t order this unilaterally, but his attitude is shared by many in the Department of Transportation and in Congress.

Then there are telematics systems. Engine electronic control modules are yesterday’s news. Today, there are more sensors and ECMs on trucks than you might realize. And the information is better. For example, the engagement of the antilock braking system is a much better indicator of a hard brake than the so-called “hard braking” data collected by the engine ECM, which might be fooled by driving on gravel or some other unstable road surface. Data is more complete, and you can get it faster through wireless communications. Some fleet owners have done this for years, but a drop in communications costs has made real-time telematics more affordable.

Truck makers are embracing telematics. Just last month, Volvo announced that trucks built next year with the new engines will come standard with its Volvo Link Sentry system, which will report vehicle fault codes in real time to the company’s roadside assistance operation.

So in the years ahead we will have more and instantly available information about equipment, drivers and customers. We will capitalize on that data through greater integration. And we will see much wider adoption of technology by the smallest of fleet operations. But there is another side of technology: Accountability.

The debate over electronic onboard recorders has brought accountability to the forefront, but a big change is already upon us. FMCSA’s new rules on supporting documents for driver logs likely will place a high priority on electronic data and may force motor carriers to retain and manage far more of it. This is only the beginning. Because FMCSA has the resources to audit only a tiny fraction of all carriers, it plans to put greater reliance on data in the future.

Many see these databases and tiny computers as hidden traps, ready to ensnare you in litigation or enforcement. That they are, but there is an upside: Better data exposes the truth. Lawyers and regulators will get data anyway, so it might as well be good. And as far as crashes go, the playing field is leveling a bit. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration this summer ordered car and light truck manufacturers to adopt standard data elements if they install event data recorders on vehicles.

Technology is a double-edged sword. You can’t enjoy its benefits without accepting its risks. But whether it’s by legislation, regulation, the tort system or the marketplace, you probably will be forced to accept the technology and its risks anyway. You might as well embrace technology and get the most out of it.