I'm still amazed by technology, especially truck technology. We now have a system that allows a truck to monitor and diagnose its critical components and send that information on to a roadside inspection site wirelessly without stopping or even slowing down. The Dept. of Transportation has already joined with researchers and state DOTs to test what they're calling wireless roadside inspections (WRI) on highways and city streets. This sounds like a great idea with benefits for both fleets and safety enforcement agencies, at least at first blush.
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) likes WRI because it will allow it to vastly increase the number of trucks screened for equipment safety problems without disrupting the flow of truck traffic or adding new inspectors. It points out that there were 3 million roadside inspections in 2007, while trucks passed through weigh stations 177 million times in the same period. Obviously, adding on-the-fly automated inspection technology to some facilities would dramatically increase safety screenings.
And those inspections would be effective. FMCSA says that 82% of all vehicle out-of-service violations involve just four categories — brakes, lights, tires and load securement. The first three, accounting for over 67% of the violations, can all easily be monitored and diagnosed by onboard systems.
The proposal has advantages for fleets too, at least for those with good maintenance procedures in place. WRI would allow trucks without detectable problems to bypass inspection sites, improving productivity and fuel economy. One report estimates that slowing down to pass through an inspection or weigh facility consumes 0.5 gal. of fuel and adds $5 to operational costs. The price tag for the system should also be minimal since most of the sensing and processing hardware is already on modern trucks, and the wireless communications system under consideration has no service fees.
Still undecided, though, is who will actually collect and analyze the data from the trucks, and that's where you run into potential problems. Sensors see the world in black and white. For example, if a single brake lining falls below minimum specs, WRI could pick up on that even though it presents a minimal safety issue in a well-maintained truck and will probably be caught quickly by the fleet's own inspection program. But if your fleet plays by the book and participates in WRI, are you going to have every minor defect result in a truck inspection and violation?
One proposal to avoid that scenario calls for a third party to do the data capture and analysis. If all is fine, the truck gets a bypass signal. If not, it doesn't and just enters the general population of trucks waiting to pass through the weigh site, where it's subject to random inspection just like every other vehicle in line.
The second approach, however, would give enforcement agencies the data gathering and analysis responsibility. A stick, not a carrot, will be needed to get fleets to participate in WRI under those conditions.
The arguments in favor of WRI are pretty compelling, and my bet is that it will eventually be widely adopted. Now, while it's still in the development stage, is the time to make sure the version we get is fair and one that benefits all.