Drawing the line

Onboard data is a boon, but it comes with dangers

On a recent road trip to go duck hunting in Arkansas, my buddy David casually touched a button on the dashboard of his Silverado pickup and announced, “We’re four-and-a-half hours into the trip, I’m getting 19 miles to the gallon on average – up to 33 mpg when we’re in V-4 mode – the pressure problem in the right front tire has evened out, we’re averaging 58 miles an hour, and it looks like we’re going to go a total of around 320 miles.”

Can you imagine what it would’ve cost to give a driver that kind of instant information in 1975 when Chevy launched the Silverado nameplate? Assuming you even could have developed workable electronics with engine technology of that era, an onboard computer capable of processing that data would’ve been so big you’d need the entire pickup bed to carry the thing around.

Next year, in conjunction with the new Environmental Protection Agency-mandated 2010 diesel engines, onboard diagnostics (OBD) systems will be installed on all new diesel engine-equipped vehicles weighing more than 14,000 pounds. These systems will identify any emissions systems malfunctions on diesel trucks. After all, EPA has gone to a great deal of trouble to bestow clean-diesel engines on the world and doesn’t want to see its efforts wasted once trucks pull out of dealerships.

OBD systems are part of an evolution of trucks and components into comprehensive data collection devices that will monitor, control and record virtually every mechanical function and human action that occurs in or on a truck as it rolls down the highway. You already have far more information and control than you did 20 years ago. Electronic control modules help you monitor driver behavior, coach and encourage safe driving habits – or fire unsafe drivers before they cause a deadly crash. Technicians have an easier time diagnosing and repairing powertrain problems and will find diagnostics increasingly more precise and immediate.

More data is good for managing your equipment and drivers, but it also means more accountability. In one quick data dump, state or federal law enforcement officers sitting in front of a computer could receive reams of recent operating information about a specific truck and its driver. Vehicle speeds, hours of operation, lane changes, braking events, emissions performance, fuel economy, tire pressures and light-bulb status – as well as GPS tracking information showing where the truck has been – all potentially could be at an officer’s fingertips before the rig is done crossing over a set of scales.

You don’t need a crystal ball to predict law enforcement’s stance on this technology. The argument will be that federal and state roads are financed by taxpayers, and the government has a right to any data collected by an OBD system used on those roads to “protect the public good.” Any persons, organizations or companies that oppose unadulterated truck data dumps will be accused of putting profits ahead of safety.

To me, however, the possibility of abuse by agencies mining a truck’s operational data is very real and very troublesome. Privacy is a core American value. And yet, bored transportation enforcement officers soon will be able to nitpick through unlimited fields of data and find unlimited reasons to pull over trucks, and delay and question drivers.

All responsible truck fleets are committed to operating safely, yet we all know that it is virtually impossible for even the most well-intentioned citizen to obey, to the letter, every law on the books in our country. Truck fleets are a vital cog in our nation’s economic well-being. As an industry, we should accept and welcome scrutiny “for the public good.” At the same time, we deserve – and should demand – protection from those who would abuse the awesome power today’s electronics systems place in their hands.