When management of Tradewinds Logistics evaluated electronic logging devices, they decided on a platform that drivers could not remove from trucks easily.
“This was just to minimize loss and theft,” says Benjamin Ramsay, vice president of technology for the Indianapolis-based truckload carrier. Ramsay also is co-founder of ELDRatings.com, a website that provides expert guidance and user reviews of ELDs.
“Looking back, I’m not sure how much difference it really made on that front, so in hindsight I might have valued the freedom to roam a little more highly,” he says.
The benefits of a mobile ELD platform include drivers taking pictures of defects for vehicle inspections and capturing images of proof-of-delivery documents. The same mobile hardware could support signature capture or accident reporting, among other functions.
Drivers would have visibility to their hours-of-service duty status and functions and could log “on duty” to attend a safety meeting.
While there are benefits to mobile ELDs, there also are tradeoffs. Increasingly, ELD suppliers are able to give fleets the flexibility to use a combination of tethered and mobile applications to have the best of both worlds.
Why leave the truck?
When the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration published the ELD final rule in December 2016, the agency made it clear that certain data fields had to be recorded automatically when a driver changed duty status. This only could be done by having the ELD connected to the vehicle.
Since the ELD had to capture odometer readings, engine hours and other data when changing duty status, the rule led to questions about what types of functions drivers could perform outside the cab.
“The FMCSA really didn’t appreciate that there are scenarios where a driver operates away from a vehicle,” says Soona Lee, regulatory compliance manager of ERoad, a provider of fleet management, electronic tax reporting and ELD compliance systems.
During a meeting with FMCSA last May, some ELD vendors asked the agency to clarify the technical specifications. Could drivers log on duty from a mobile device while in the office at a training meeting, for example? FMCSA consented to allow drivers to change status from on-duty to off-duty, and vice versa, outside the vehicle.
Once this clarification was made, ERoad developed a driver portal that would supplement its in-cab platform, Lee says. The company designed its ELD product to be tethered to the vehicle with a wireless connection to its server in the cloud. The new driver portal will be connected to the same server to update the driver’s logbook duty status and give visibility of the time remaining on their clocks from any device with an Internet connection.
A number of ELD providers have taken similar approaches for mobile access to logbook data.
PeopleNet has a companion app, Connected Driver, designed to give drivers visibility to duty status information. By installing the app on their personal devices, drivers are connected to the same cloud-based system as PeopleNet’s in-cab and fixed mounted devices.
PeopleNet offers mobile devices that can be used outside the vehicle, but the reasons fleets choose its Tablet or certified mobile devices such as the Samsung Tab are primarily to run PeopleNet and third-party workflow apps for scanning freight or capturing signatures, says Eric Witty, vice president of product management.
Omnitracs is designing a new helper app for mobile visibility of HOS status. The app will supplement its ELD-compliant products that include the IVG and XRS platforms, says Tom Cuthbertson, vice president of regulatory affairs.
When designing a helper app, Cuthbertson says Omnitracs and any vendor that does so has to be careful to not add much functionality to the app beyond visibility.
“The ELD requirements are there, and if you add too many functions, the app has to be a certified ELD product,” he says.
Managing the connection
One area where a mobile ELD platform can be problematic is the connection between a vehicle’s electronic control module and an app. Many systems use a gateway or reader device that connects to the diagnostics port. This device has to share data with a mobile device through a short-range wireless network — typically Bluetooth.
When the mobile app is away from a vehicle for an extended period of time, the driver may need to log back in to re-establish the Bluetooth connection. When evaluating mobile ELDs, Ramsay recommends looking at how the mobile app syncs with vehicle data. There could be issues with maintaining and resuming a Bluetooth connection, he says.
“To work as an ELD, a mobile device needs to be connected to the unit that is connected to the vehicle,” Lee says.
“Those types of connections can drop from time to time. There is a reason why we ended up going with a tethered device.”
These connection failures can cause an ELD to malfunction and report a data diagnostic issue. Because such instances must be recorded on a driver’s log, they will be visible to an inspection officer and potentially could result in an HOS violation, she says.
The Omnitracs XRS system uses a Bluetooth connection between its Relay gateway device and its mobile app. If a device is out the range for a few hours, the driver may have to press a few buttons on screen to marry up the device again, but for shorter periods such as walking around the truck or going to lunch, the system “has knowledge you were there,” Cuthbertson says.
One way to work around the short-range connectivity issue is to use a cloud-based ELD platform that has separate cellular connections to its server from the vehicle and the mobile app. Transflo Telematics does this with its ELD platform. Its small reader device connects to the vehicle’s databus and transmits odometer, mileage and other telematics data to a server through a cellular modem.
Meanwhile, the Transflo Mobile app with ELD runs on a mobile phone or tablet and has a separate cellular connection. Both the in-cab reader and the mobile app are connected to the same server in the cloud, which eliminates the need to establish and maintain a short-range wireless network.
The ability to change duty status away from a vehicle is one of several functions that drivers can perform using a mobile ELD.
With J.J. Keller’s Encompass platform, drivers can approve or reject logbook edits, certify and submit their logs and have visibility to duty status and time remaining on their clocks, says Tom Ditzler, the company’s director of technology solutions for product management.
Another remote function available in mobile ELDs allows drivers to put their device into a roadside inspection mode, which hides functions other than viewing a recap summary of the driver’s last eight days of log activity. That’s because many drivers may not be comfortable handing their personal smartphone or tablet device to an inspection officer.
“Those are the kind of tradeoffs we thought about when developing a solution,” Lee says.
Most tethered ELD platforms are designed to not use the driver’s personal device as the display, which can eliminate concerns of data privacy issues. Many ELDs also allow drivers to transmit their HOS records to inspection officers wirelessly through email.