Putting security in the fast lane

A stolen tractor-trailer carrying hazardous materials is tearing through Northern Virginia and is headed toward the U.S. Capitol building, where even the concrete barriers and police might have a hard time stopping it.

But before the vehicle and its deadly payload get anywhere near the target, the truck's engine seizes, its brakes lock up, an alarm blares and potential disaster is averted.

While this scenario may have seem farfetched just a year ago, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks — and the subsequent focus on homeland security — have forced government and industry to explore technology that can help turn a potentially deadly situation into nothing more than a bump in the road.

It's with that in mind that Qualcomm Inc. last month announced a trio of security enhancements to its OmniTRACS mobile communications system, which includes continuous data communication and nationwide vehicle tracking via satellite. The three new security features are:

* Driver authentication through a unique ID and password. The driver's log-in name is validated through over-the-air transmissions that interface with a secure database at Qualcomm's network management center.

* A wireless panic button that augments the current in-dash capability so that drivers can use it if they're threatened while outside the vehicle.

* A tamper-detection feature that alerts fleet management or the driver if an attempt is made to disable the OmniTRACS unit.

San Diego-based Qualcomm also plans to train users who purchase the new security tools, said Jeff Nacu, manager of field engineering at Qualcomm. Nacu demonstrated the enhanced security features June 6 for a number of lawmakers on a truck parked near the Capitol building in Washington, D.C.

The enhanced security, combined with the system's satellite communications base enables the driver and the dispatch office to remotely disable the vehicle for many reasons, including if a truck is stolen, veers off course or is entering a dangerous area, said Marc Sands, vice president and division counsel for Qualcomm Wireless Business Solutions.

"For the last few years, there's been an accelerating rollout of technology into the world of transportation," said Rep. Thomas Petri (R-Wis.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee's Highways and Transit Subcommittee. He added that those technological advances have not only increased security and safety, but they have also led to increased capacity without adding lanes to highways.

Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), co-founder of the Intelligent Transportation Systems Caucus, said that because the United States can't afford to hire as many law enforcement, intelligence and border patrol officers as it needs, "We have got to do it smarter."

Rogers said that about 60 percent of international terrorist incidents target transportation, and more than 90 percent of those are ground-based targets. For that reason, Rep. Randy Cunningham (R-Calif.), said he would like to see the technology used with trucks that haul "propane gas or anything that could be used in a detrimental way to American citizens." A pair of trucking companies that haul hazardous materials for the Defense Department — Superior Carriers Inc. and Baggett Transportation — use Qualcomm's OmniTRACS system to monitor the hauling of cargo through the Defense Transportation Tracking System (DTTS), Sands said.

DTTS combines satellite positioning and communications technology with digitized mapping and 24-hour operations to ensure in-transit ordnance safety and security.

The basic OmniTRACS system costs about $2,000 per truck, but with the added security, the price would be closer to $5,000, Sands said. In addition to some DOD customers, the Federal Bureau of Prisons and the Energy Department also use the system.

Matt Caterinicchia contributed to this report.

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