Andrew Thompson reports on the FMCSA’s forthcoming rule on electronic on-board recorders (EOBRs), and the uncertainty it is expected to put to rest.
As early as this month, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) is expected to release the first draft of a new rule requiring all commercial truckers in the United States to deploy electronic on-board recorders (EOBRs).
And the hope is the new rule will end the confusion and protests that went with two previous attempts by the agency to electronically monitor compliance with hours-of-service regulations.
So what can fleet managers and device manufacturers expect to see?
Two main things, says Annette Sandberg, owner of TransSafe Consulting and a former administrator of the FMCSA: a tweaking of wording that stoked fears that the rule would allow carriers to harass their drivers, and clarity on technical specifications.
EOBRs will cost fleets when it comes to installation and maintenance of the logging devices, but they will also provide a more accurate method of tracking hours of service, and a smoother way to exchange information with trucking police.
In 2010, the FMCSA mandated EOBRs for all commercial motor vehicles (CMVs) that had over a 10% hours-of-service non-compliance rate.
This decision was challenged by the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA) on grounds that it could be used by carriers to interrupt rest periods and pressure drivers to drive when tired. In 2011, the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit sided with OOIDA, and the rule was scrapped.
The new rule is not only expected to answer the OOIDA objections by mandating EOBRs for all drivers, but it is also expected to address the issue of driver harassment. How the agency ends up defining harassment, and, hence, how it plans to ensure that operators aren’t harassing, remains unclear, however.
“That is the big question for everyone,” Sandberg says. “I think they will have some guidelines on what constitutes harassment, and there will likely be penalties for any carrier that uses the devices to harass. They will likely highlight their hotline for complaints and such.”
The Motor Carrier Safety Advisory Committee has recommended the following definition of harassment: “A course of conduct directed at a specific person that causes substantial emotional distress in such a person and serves no legitimate purpose” — all, of course, judged within the traditional standards of “reasonableness”.
But FMCSA is under no obligation to adopt the wording, and its legal team could decide the proposed language is too broad (or even too narrow).
Perhaps even more unpredictable than the definition of harassment are technical specifications for EOBRs. In 2011, the FMCSA came up with a labyrinthine set that ended up being scrapped along with the 2010 mandate.
The Motor Carrier Safety Advisory Committee now recommends that EOBRs be synchronized with the vehicle engine control module, but beyond that, there is little certainty.
One concern is the method of transfer from the logging device to readers used by trucking police. Rob Abbott, vice president of safety policy for the American Trucking Association, says there are many possibilities but few certainties, each with its set of pros and cons.
A Bluetooth or cloud transfer could work, but there’s some potential that the driver could create spoof records that the officer can’t validate, he says. A wire going from the EOBR to the receiving device would provide security, but it’s awkward and unwieldy.
Wi-Fi is also a possibility, and it would offer standard encryption protocols. But the management of wireless service set identifiers requires time and effort, and the method scored the lowest on a scale of usability in a Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance survey.
The seeming compromise is either a USB stick or an SD card. Both are reliable, immediate, cost-effective and ubiquitous. But even here, the Motor Carrier Safety Advisory Committee found disadvantages.
Both pose the threat of giving a dishonest driver the ability to easily transfer malware onto the officer’s device. What's more, USB sticks may actually become an obsolete technology. And SD cards have limited life cycles and are not widely used in the field. As a result, they would require engineering changes in quite a bit of hardware, including the police readers.
Similar trade-offs arise in the actual tracking method of EOBRs. Even within the Motor Carrier Safety Advisory Committee, there was disagreement as to the necessity of GPS, which would be used to note where changes of duty occur.
The new rule may also require the adoption of printers. Printouts are much easier for officials to read and use than a digital text display, but they involve both fixed and variable costs, as well as maintenance and authentication issues. It is also unclear whether existing devices can be retrofitted with printers.
But manufactures can take some comfort here: The devices likely won’t need much aesthetic flourish. The Motor Carrier Safety Advisory Committee recommended that the screen would be a simple grid showing whether the driver is in compliance.
The new rule to deploy EOBRs will place the U.S. in league with other countries around the world. The European Union and Brazil have passed similar mandates. And the more mandates there are, the wider the adoption of telematics, which benefits the whole space, says Martin Hiscox, CEO of Masternaut.
The American legislation “is interesting from a European perspective as it is a further example of legislation driving telematics into the public sphere and also how fundamentally important driver safety is becoming globally,” he says. “All of these initiatives will create the perfect storm that will get mobile-to-mobile and telematics into the mainstream.”
Andrew Thompson is a regular contributor to TU.
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