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The Boxing Match

Although onboard recorders have been available for more than 20 years, many fleets have never seriously considered what the technology might do for their operation. The easy reason has been concern over drivers' reactions to the omnipresent and ever-watchful black box. Another less-obvious issue has been the difficulty associated with identifying and quantifying the potential benefits of electronic

Although onboard recorders have been available for more than 20 years, many fleets have never seriously considered what the technology might do for their operation. The easy reason has been concern over drivers' reactions to the omnipresent and ever-watchful “black box.” Another less-obvious issue has been the difficulty associated with identifying and quantifying the potential benefits of electronic onboard recorders (EOBRs), many of which are intangible benefits that impact fleet profit indirectly.

Now, two decades after their debut, yet another complicating factor has emerged: Just exactly what are EOBRs today anyway? Are they sealed event recorders such as those used in aviation? Are they the engine control modules (ECMs) that drive electronic engines and can capture engine fault codes and other telling data such as speed, braking and idling? Or, have they evolved to become just one aspect of complete automated fleet management systems that keep drivers, tractors, trailers and cargo under constant scrutiny and in constant contact with home base via wireless communications?


Sorting out this knotty EOBR tangle was difficult enough to persuade the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) to omit onboard recorders from the first hours-of-service rule entirely. However, when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia decided to vacate the rules, it sent them back with an admonition to try harder: “[We] cannot fathom why the agency has not even taken the seemingly obvious step of testing existing EOBRs on the road, or why the agency has not attempted to estimate their benefits on imperfect empirical assumptions,” chided the Court.

Accordingly, on September 1, 2004, FMCSA issued an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking seeking comments on potentially amending the hours of Service rules to permit or require EOBRs, and the American Trucking Associations and other industry groups began their anti-EOBR regulations lobbying in earnest. More than 20 years after the first onboard systems appeared on the scene, data recorders are big news again.


While the “boxing” match takes shape, the larger question for carriers still remains: Would implementing some EOBR technology make good business sense? Today, there are a dozen or more systems that might, depending upon your definition, be considered EOBRs, and even the oldest have evolved and changed enough to be considered new again.

“In the beginning, there were only a few onboard data recorders, really just Tripmaster, Cadec and Xata,” observes Tom Flies, vp-business development for Xata Corp. ( Today, if you count mobile communications systems, engine control modules and other onboard computers, the definition of vehicle data recorders begins to merge and blur. Plus, there are so many companies out there doing just asset tracking or tracking plus some selective data capture. Where do they fit into the EOBR picture?

“Our own product has certainly evolved and changed over the years, as well,” he notes. “We have always had a connection to the engine and now we've added wireless communications. XataNet, for instance, is a totally wireless, Internet-enabled technology. The Internet makes it easier and more affordable for fleets to adopt and deploy the system.”

Like Xata, Cadec is also a new old EOBR. “Cadec ( began in 1976,” says Tom Lemke, executive vp-sales and marketing for Cadec Corp. “The first product was a driver log, connected to the vehicle and listening all the time. The driver had no opportunity to alter or add to the vehicle data. Then a fleet asked us to go the next step and develop an electronic driver log. We designed it so that when the driver stopped, he or she could input additional data and tell their side of the story, and explain what they were doing when they made that unscheduled stop, for example. Looking back, I think the most important thing it did was give drivers a feeling of being involved, not spied upon by a high-tech tattle-tale.”

Today, the Cadec system has a new name and a new job description. Now called Mobius TTS, the old black box is now a Mobile Logistics Management system, designed to provide real-time business information including route information, instantaneous event notification, detailed driver and vehicle information, and delivery and pick-up tracking, in addition to safety and compliance data, all integrated with back office systems to feed everything from invoicing to driver payroll with a steady stream of fresh, accurate information.

“The current system collects all kinds of data in one place and pushes it out to multiple points of delivery,” explains Lemke. “The onboard unit is still the heart of the system, but now fleets can add other ancillary units, such as a handheld device, to capture transactional data and signatures.”


Some entrants to the EOBR market have elected to focus exclusively on the driver monitoring aspects of EOBR technology rather than on automating driver logging, fuel tax reporting or other transactional processes. California-based Acculeon, Inc., for example (, recently introduced its Telemetry Information System (TIS) equipped with Vehicle Safety Manager software designed to track moving violations through real-time event monitoring. The system captures and records data on unsafe driving behaviors, including speeding, tailgating, unsafe handling on curves, sudden stops, frequent lane changes and rapid acceleration.

The Acculeon system consists of three components: an in-vehicle device (black box), a wireless communications infrastructure and web-based analysis and report-generation software. According to the company, fleets currently piloting the product are using it to identify drivers who need more training and drivers who deserve recognition and reward for their superior performance.

Founded in 1998, DriveCam Video Systems (, has taken yet another approach to onboard event recording. The company uses a palm-sized video camera mounted behind the rearview mirror to record what the driver sees and hears. Recorded “event files” are automatically downloaded to a computer where managers use a software called Hindsight 20/20 to view and analyze driving performance.

“Other event recorders are under the hood and monitor the vehicle,” says a company spokesperson. “DriveCam monitors the driver. The company is planning on integrating the black box data with the video information in the future so that you would have a more complete record of what happened. Seeing what the driver saw tells you what they were responding to when making driving decisions. We like to say that we monitor the people and the black box monitors the machine.”


In the absence of standard definitions for onboard data recorders it is really up to each fleet to decide how EOBR technology in all its manifestations might be of use to their operation, for streamlining business and compliance processes, enhancing driver safety or improving asset utilization and customer satisfaction. “The benefits of implementing an EOBR system will vary depending upon the type of fleet operation and the type of EOBR solution,” observes Tom Flies.

“Most fleets we talk with base their ROI analysis on factors like improving fuel economy by managing idling and driver performance, boosting productivity by saving time on logbook and trip sheet preparation, increasing delivery rates due to better asset utilization and improving safety,” he notes. “It all comes down to fleets being able to justify the technology for themselves. Fleets are definitely using the technology better and doing more with it than they ever have.”

One fleet's experience

Robert Nader is systems coordinator for Blue Line, A Michigan-based fleet with about 200 drivers that hauls everything from ice cream to dry freight. According to Nader, Blue Line has been a Xata customer for about eleven years, and implementing the system has been one of the best decisions the carrier ever made.

“Today, we use the Xata system in so many ways,” he says, “but in the beginning all we wanted to do was reduce our fuel costs by reducing idling. Within fourteen months, the system had paid for itself. Our average miles per gallon increased from 4.8 mpg to 6.3 mpg almost immediately, just from shutting the trucks off. We were still in the rollout phase with Xata and it had paid for itself already.

“Later, we started up a bonus program to reward our drivers,” Nader continues. “We told them we would share the savings the company realized with them. It is almost impossible to hide violations or poor driving practices with Xata,” he adds. “Today, drivers get bonuses for staying below our national speed limit of 65 miles per hour, for example.“

“Xata has also helped us to identify problems earlier and correct them. We had a great driver who suddenly started having problems like tailgating that showed up on his Xata reports, for instance. We found out that he'd recently lost his wife, so we talked with him, but the problems continued,” recalls Nader. “We got him into professional counseling based on the information the Xata system was showing us. Later, the counselor told us he was suicidal and thinking about using his truck to kill himself. That was four or five years ago . He is still with us and is a great driver.

“If a driver gets stopped for speeding or some other violation and tells us he didn't do it, we send him to court with the Xata information so that he can prove what he was really doing,” Nader continues. “There is not a driver working for us whose complete driving record I couldn't pull up right now, and we are a safer, better company for it. Our drivers like the feedback, too. They like to know they are doing a good job and they like the extra protection and the extra pay it provides them,” he says.

“We also use the system to do electronic fuel tax reporting and to help identify and document engine fault codes with the company from whom we lease our equipment,” Nader adds. “There are just so many places where we've saved money over the years. Today, we tend to take the Xata system for granted; it is just a part of the way we do business, but it has transformed our business.

“As far as I'm concerned, FMCSA is missing the boat if they don't understand the value of onboard data recorders.” Nader offers. “But carriers aren't dependent on the government to tell them how to run their operations. If anybody wants to do a better job managing their fleet, they should use an onboard data recording system.”

EOBR: Decision-support worksheet

This worksheet is designed to help you evaluate the impact of installing an electronic onboard recording system. It provides a list of critical factors to consider, as well as a mechanism for assessing the risks and benefits. You can use the worksheet to compare the status quo or to compare different EOBR options.

Importance % Rating Score Rating Score
TANGIBLES (factors that can be expressed in financial terms)
Reduced fuel costs through reducing idling and improving driving habits
Reduced maintenance costs due to better, real-time diagnostic data
Reduced preparation & processing time for DOT logs/fuel tax reporting
Improved asset utilization
Ability to document/charge for detention
INTANGIBLES (factors that impact profit indirectly)
Virtual elimination of DOT log errors
Ability to identify best drivers for recognition/reward
Ability to spot driver performance problems early
Ability to document driver performance in the event of an accident
Ability to provide drivers with feedback on driving habits
Ability to develop driver performance standards
Ability to provide insurers with actual data on driver performance
Ability to gather predictive maintenance & repair data
Ability to capture and transmit transaction data in real-time
Ability to integrate EOBR data with back office systems
Ability to improve customer service
Ability to improve fleet safety rating
NOTE: This checklist incorporates techniques derived from Oracle Corporation's “CB-90 Scoring Worksheet” and other decision-support tools.

  1. Weigh the importance of each factor by assigning it a percentage value. The sum of all factors must equal 100%.

  2. Now compare the ”Status Quo“ with the ”EOBR“ option. On a scale of -5 to +5, estimate the likelihood of each factor occurring. If you consider it a benefit, rate it between 0 and +5, with +5 being very likely to occur and 0 very unlikely. If you consider it to be a risk, give it a rating of 0 to -5, with -5 being very likely and 0 very unlikely to occur. For example, if you consider ”ability to document a driver's performance “ to be a moderate risk, you might rate it -3. If you consider it a benefit you fully expect to realize, you'd rate it +5.

  3. Multiply the importance % by the likelihood rating, and enter the results in the score columns. For example, an importance of 4% × a likelihood rating of 2 = a score of +8. An importance rating of 6% × a likelihood of -2 = a score of -12.

  4. Add all scores for the “Status Quo“ option and all scores for the ”EOBR“ option. The option with the highest total score should be the best choice.

Shopping for EOBRs

In 2001, FMCSA sponsored a report concerning onboard recorders. It was prepared by Cambridge Systematics, Cambridge, MA, and is available at (report number FMCSA-RT-02-040: “On-Board Recorders: Literature and Technology Review”). The report divided onboard data recorders into three broad categories: digital tachographs (electronic machines that measure and record a vehicle's speed, distance and time traveled), engine control modules, and wireless/satellite communications equipment including GPS.

Here is a partial list of the systems they identified, along with a few that are new since the report was prepared. Some are entirely for capturing event data. Others have broader applications.

Note: Many fleet management software providers have also paired with mobile communications suppliers to capture onboard data and integrate it with their systems. They're not listed here, nor are all engine makers and truck OEMs that offer some level of onboard data capture and transmission capabilities. Many asset-tracking companies also offer management tools that tie into their core technology. To make the catalog of EOBR suppliers complete, they should also be included even though they're not on FMCSA's list.

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