Keep on trucking

GPS wireless phones could record truck driver log data required by law

Wireless phones equipped with satellite-based navigation technology could help trucking companies cut down on accidents if officials change rules for tracking truckers.

Xora, a developer of Global Positioning System software, has created a solution that would monitor how many hours truck drivers have been on the road. Federal rules prohibit them from driving for more than 11 hours because of concerns that they may become drowsy and more likely to cause an accident.

Xora's solution, GPS TimeTrack, uses a GPS-enabled wireless phone to log the time truckers spend on the road and transmit that data to a central location. But that solution does not comply with a rule that requires tracking systems to connect directly to the engine.

Xora officials have requested a waiver from the Transportation Department. With the technology, trucking companies could give drivers GPS-enabled wireless phones.

That would be good news for Cameron McCoy, an operations manager at motor carrier ACI Motor Freight in Wichita, Kan. He relies on scribbled notes from drivers to ensure that they comply with federal requirements.

McCoy and federal officials need this data to decrease accidents related to tired drivers. DOT estimates that more than 5,000 truck-related deaths occurred in 2004.

"We need to do something to go paperless," McCoy said. "Right now, we go through every log by hand." If a manager is responsible for 50 drivers, that manager must tabulate 350 logs a week, which takes a long time.

For most other management duties, such as calculating billable hours, checking speed and tracking location, McCoy gives drivers Nextel GPS-enabled wireless phones. At the office, he and the dispatchers can view maps generated by software within the phones to help them issue assignments to drivers. Xora's GPS TimeTrack software also reports speed and distance. The phones beep and send text-based warnings when drivers exceed 67 miles per hour.

McCoy wants to use TimeTrack to instantaneously create reports that monitor hours of service. The technology does not satisfy government rules, however, which stipulate that automatic onboard recording devices, or black boxes, must be connected to the engine.

"Customers wanted to know if we could do DOT logs on the phones," said Ananth Rani, vice president of products and services at Xora. "The problem is that we needed an exemption from [the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration]. They have a rule for anything that captures these hours of service on electronic systems. The rule is that it needs to be connected to the engine. When we put it on the phone, clearly we could not be connected to the engine."

Xora's request will be posted on the administration's Web site in a few weeks for public comment. After 30 days, officials will rule on it.

A GPS-enhanced wireless phone would transmit data directly to the Web in a format that operations managers could easily read. That method is safer and cheaper than some options, industry observers say. Truck drivers would not need to write while driving, and companies would save costs associated with scanning paper logs and black box output.

The new software would also ensure that data is more accurate. For years, the trucking industry has dealt with the problem of drivers who manipulated their hours, McCoy said.

TimeTrack links software in the phones to software on office servers via wireless connections and satellite signals. For example, a truck driver could log in as on-duty, off-duty and driving or off-duty and in the sleeper bed. The phone would communicate with the GPS satellite every two or three minutes. After the 10th hour, a text warning would display on the Nextel phone's screen, accompanied by a beep. At the office, the driver's boss would receive the same report. And the driver would not need to touch the phone.

The DOT logs would cost $22 per month per phone. The cost of the phones vary, depending on each trucking company's relationship with Nextel.

Privacy advocates say that if the government plans to use location-tracking technology to record time on the road, federal officials should also draft privacy policies.

"The federal government needs to take a leading role in bringing some sort of privacy requirements for these technologies," said David Sobel, general counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center. "I do think there is something particularly invasive about location data, especially when it is collected over an extended period of time."

On the road again

Officials at Xora, a developer of Global Positioning System technology, have asked the Transportation Department to let trucking companies track employees' time on the road using GPS-enabled mobile phones. Federal rules mandate that drivers cannot be at the wheel for more than 11 hours. Currently, companies can install black boxes to automatically record hours, but those devices must be hooked up to the engine or the vehicle's other moving parts.

Regulations for automated on-the-road recording devices state that:

  • They must produce, on demand, a driver's hours-of-service chart, which is an electronic display or printout showing the time and sequence of duty status changes, including the driver's starting time.
  • They must provide a means for government officials to immediately check how long a driver has been working.
  • Supporting electronic systems at the motor carrier's offices must also be able to provide government officials with summaries of an individual driver's hours.
  • Support systems must provide information about onboard system sensor failures and identification of edited data.
  • They must allow drivers to update their duty status only when the vehicle is at rest.

— Aliya Sternstein

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