Trucking app secured

A stolen tractor-trailer carrying hazardous materials is tearing through Northern Virginia and headed toward the U.S. Capitol building, where the concrete barriers and police might not be strong enough to stop 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.

This scenario may have seemed farfetched just a year ago, but the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks — and the subsequent focus on homeland security — have forced government and industry officials to explore technology that can help head off a potentially deadly situation.

With that in mind, Qualcomm Inc. last month announced a trio of security enhancements to its OmniTRACS mobile communications system. OmniTRACS was developed to support data communications between a vehicle and dispatch officers at its base of operations and to provide vehicle tracking.

The enhanced security, combined with the system's satellite communications base, enables the dispatch office to remotely disable the vehicle if, for example, 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.

The features are:

* Driver authentication through a unique identification and password, in which a 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 send a signal for help 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.

Should a problem arise, the satellite link enables a dispatcher to remotely disable the truck or lock trailer doors.

San Diego-based Qualcomm also plans to train users who purchase the new security tools, said Jeff Nacu, manager of field engineering at Qualcomm.

Transportation experts see an important role for technology in their field.

"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. Those technological advances have not only increased security and safety, but have also led to increased capacity without adding lanes to highways, he said.

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.

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, Sands said.

The tracking system 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.

Ellen Engleman, administrator of the Transportation Department's Research and Special Programs Administration, said that her office is looking at all possible transportation security solutions. She added that both the public and private sectors must tackle the issue.

"Behavioral awareness, training, education and technology" all must be built into solutions, Engleman said.

Matt Caterinicchia contributed to this report.

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