Adopting the black box

There may be benefits to using this often disliked device

Proposed federal regulations mandating the use of electronic onboard recorders (EOBRs)—often called electronic driver logs or black boxes—have yet to be formally proposed; however, many in the trucking industry believe companies should start adopting them now, as they can offer significant cost savings.

“For starters, the new hours-of-service (HOS) rules that are going into effect [in July] will be difficult to comply with manually using paper logbooks,” explained John Gaither, senior sales executive and engineer for technology provider GPS Insight. “Use of EOBRs will not only reduce the amount of time required to keep logbooks in compliance, they can also help fleets improve their Compliance, Safety, Accountability (CSA) scores as well.”

But one thing, above all others, is that trucking cannot avoid dealing with this technology. It has been mandated for all truckers as part of the highway funding bill, dubbed the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act, or MAP-21, signed into law back in July 2012.

Speaking during a webinar on the subject, Dave Kraft, director of industry affairs for Qualcomm Enterprise Services (QES), said EOBRs do present a series of challenges as well as potential benefits to the trucking industry.

“The timeline for EOBRs established by the MAP-21 funding bill is very straightforward,” Kraft said. “The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) must issue a final rule on EOBRs by Oct. 1, 2013, with the effective date of implementation Oct. 1, 2015.”

While he noted that MAP-21 is “very specific” on the EOBR timeline, Kraft said FMCSA won’t take a rigid approach to implementation, largely because of the very nature of the regulatory process.

“It’ll take at least a year for whatever rule they propose to become a final rule, so I really wouldn’t expect them to produce a final rule until mid-2014,” he noted. “FMCSA also has to address other issues as well, such as the potential for ‘driver harassment,’ which is the subject of an ongoing lawsuit by the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Assn.”

Start From Scratch

Another reason FMCSA may take a “go slow” approach to proposing and finalizing this mandated EOBR rule is that it has already been down this road before, losing a court battle over its prior attempt to craft an EOBR mandate and forcing the agency to rescind that rule last year.

This time, however, the EOBR mandate has a better chance as it is part of federal legislation. The questions facing fleets, then, are how to comply with the mandate without disrupting their operations, and how to derive benefits from the technology while doing so. “What carriers really need to do is avoid ‘11th hour’ implementation of technology. Don’t wait until the last minute,”

Kraft cautioned. “Because the mandate is in MAP-21, sooner or later fleets must comply with it. While it doesn’t mean you have to run out and get one today, you have to start planning now.”

But Kraft also believes there’s value in acting sooner rather than later, especially in terms of avoiding business disruptions. He also stressed that there are several positives to consider with EOBRs as well. The first is that many such devices are already being used in large numbers throughout the industry, with some 500,000 EOBRs currently in use, up from just 200,000 in 2009.

Another benefit EOBRs can bring to the table is a significant reduction in paperwork and other administrative costs connected to managing paper logbooks. Qualcomm’s research indicates that a move to EOBRs could eliminate 688 hours of administrative work per driver per year.

“Driver satisfaction is an intangible benefit as well,” Kraft added. “We’ve found that once EOBRs are in place, it not only improves time management for drivers and logging accuracy, it reduces job stress to a degree since the devices now automatically track metrics they used to have to calculate by hand.”

Recruiting Tool

Some of the biggest fleets in trucking are discovering that EOBRs can actually aid in driver recruitment efforts.

TL carrier Werner Enterprises, for one, noted that it adopted a paperless logbook system back in 1996 that was subsequently approved for use by the FMCSA in 1998. “We believe that as EOBRs become the industry standard and industry requirement, EOBR use will help to level the competitive field for transit times, driver recruiting, driver retention and rates,” the carrier said in its 2012 earnings report.

“Our entire tractor fleet has been fully equipped with EOBRs for over two years,” TL carrier Knight Transportation stated in its 2012 earnings report issued in January. “We believe this [EOBR] mandate will allow the carriers that have already adopted EOBRs to be more competitive in recruiting and retaining driving associates.”

QES’s Kraft also pointed out that the wider adoption of EOBRs in recent years is helping spur some positive safety trend lines as well. Kraft said that there’s been a 12% reduction in total logbook violations and a corresponding 12% decline in out-of-service tallies linked to hours-of-service violations over the past several years as EOBR usage has increased.

The Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance said that out of 48,815 North American Standard Level 1 inspections conducted back in June during its 25th annual Roadcheck inspection blitz, just 22.4% of vehicles and 3.9% of drivers were placed out of service, the second lowest level ever achieved over the past quarter century; HOS-related violations relative to all out-of-service violations declined slightly.

“This is all occurring at a time when the number of ongoing roadside inspections is staying relatively consistent,” Kraft noted. “In sum, I think there’s a lot that can be gained from adopting this technology.”

Ancilliary Charges

Tom Cuthbertson, vice president-regulatory compliance for XRS Corp., agrees. “CSA, for one, is changing the way trucking businesses must operate,” he said. “Now, CSA scores are easily accessible to shippers, insurance companies, and prospective drivers for review. In order to remain competitive in the industry, carriers must maintain strong CSA scores and that means attracting and retaining drivers with excellent safety records.”

EOBR-derived data not only helps drivers support such safety records, they can also be a tool for receiving pay for time lost at shippers’ docks. “With the data [from EOBRs] to support those extra charges, carriers have the ability to bill for the time and compensate their drivers accordingly,” he said.

GPS Insight’s Gaither also draws a connection between EOBRs and improved CSA scores, claiming that eight types of HOS violations under CSA can be virtually eliminated by using EOBRs, especially in terms of providing roadside inspectors with a simple way to check logbook data.

“But remember that old saying, ‘Show me the money’? EOBRs not only reduce the time drivers spend updating their logbooks—some 15 to 30 minutes per day—they eliminate the cost of paper forms and the clerical work required to file paper logbooks for six months, as well as the clerical work required to meet a DOT audit of logbook records,” he said.

Cost Savings

For example, Gaither points to his company’s new EOBR-1000 device, which combines GPS tracking with an EOBR that combines an electronic driver log with electronic driver vehicle inspection reports (DVIRs) to ensure compliance with HOS rules and vehicle maintenance upkeep required under CSA. One of the firm’s clients is saving $9 million annually just with the DVIR function alone, he said.

For those reasons, Gaither stresses that by adopting EOBRs early, fleets not only accumulate savings but get ahead of the technological curve before federal mandates impose such devices on the industry.

“It’s not a question of ‘if’ where EOBRs are concerned; it’s a question of ‘when,’” he emphasized. “EOBRs will happen; they’ve been mandated by Congress. I would expect FMCSA to publish a proposed final rule on the technology [soon], followed by a six-month comment period. At the earliest, a final rule would be issued by October, with implementation in 2015 to allow time for the adoption of the technology.”

The question is, will you be ready?

Uncovering the myths

Seven myths—or, perhaps more accurately, seven “misperceptions”—are holding back fleets from adopting electronic onboard recorders (EOBRs) to serve as “electronic logbooks,” according to Dave Kraft, director of industry affairs for Qualcomm Enterprise Services (QES). In a webinar, Kraft, along with several fleet panelists, tried to dispel these “misperceptions” regarding black boxes.

Myth #1: EOBRs infringe on driver privacy Fact: “MAP-21 specifically limits use of EOBR data for inspections only,” stated Kraft. Vincent J. Dinino Jr., safety manager at Rochester, NY-based Emerson Express Co., pointed out that while there “originally was reluctance [from drivers], the myth of EOBRs affecting their privacy was dispelled quickly once the system was implemented and drivers found it was user-friendly.”

Myth #2: Driver harassment Fact: While this myth posits that EOBRs could force drivers to drive even when they’re too tired, Kraft said FMCSA has been tasked with evaluating drivers and their ability to drive, and EOBRs have helped those drivers more clearly define what their hours are.

Myth #3: Safety impact Fact: While many believe EOBRs won’t actually “solve” safety and compliance issues, data seems to indicate the opposite, Kraft noted, as the CSA scores of fleets using EOBRs have improved, and the industry as a whole is getting fewer HOS violations as EOBRs are becoming more widely used.

Myth #4: EOBRs are very expensive Fact: “Carriers that have implemented EOBRs have seen [acceptable] ROI,” said Kraft. “Today, an EOBR is available for under $30 per month, and [we expect] even more affordability as consumer devices [such as tablets and smartphones] become integrated with EOBRs.”

Myth #5: Data manipulation Fact: Many fleets fear data contained within the EOBR could easily be manipulated by drivers, but that’s not necessarily the case, explained Kraft. “Carriers are looking for log accuracy, and with EOBRs it’s very hard to make the data go away,” he pointed out.

Myth #6: Enforcement Fact: “Our inspections and violations numbers have decreased [since implementing EOBRs],” Dinino said. “EOBRs have also made us more aware and [able to] concentrate on maintenance and a clean inspection.”

Myth #7: EOBRs are just ‘black boxes’ Fact: “EOBRs are incredibly valuable to the way we run our business,” noted Allen Lowry, director of safety for Central Refrigerated Services. “One of the reasons we went to EOBRs was because of a DOT audit; [now] EOBRs make addressing audit issues easier.” —David Cullen

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