ELDs: A future beyond HOS?
You may think of the humble electronic logging device (ELD) as a tool for tracking truck drivers' hours of service (HOS). But the technology's developers have a much grander vision.
By Ben Ames
Truck operators across the nation scrambled in December to install electronic logging devices (ELDs) ahead of a federal safety mandate requiring that virtually all trucks built after the year 2000 have the devices onboard. Regulators say the digital vehicle-monitoring equipment will enable more accurate accounting of time worked under federal hours-of-service (HOS) regulations than was possible with paper logbooks, helping ensure that drivers get the rest they need and that roads are safer for all motorists.
Yet even as truckers begin familiarizing themselves with the new equipment, developers are at work creating next-generation devices that could change the way we think about ELDs. What they envision is a sophisticated multifunctional device whose capabilities extend far beyond simply tracking drivers to encompass a broad array of transportation and fleet management functions.
For instance, future ELD designs could incorporate features allowing trucks to communicate with remote software that can help prevent breakdowns, improve navigation, or locate backhaul loads, proponents say. Developers also envision models that would enable fleets to combine detailed information about individual drivers—such as their steering and braking habits—with precise information about the specific vehicle (conveyed through engine telematics and other sensors) and then analyze the data through cloud-based platforms.THE TRUCK BECOMES A ROLLING OFFICE
As for what will make this all possible, the key lies in connectivity. By connecting truck cabs to cloud computing, enhanced ELDs could access sophisticated software and vast databases that have previously been inaccessible from a moving vehicle. That capability could transform a truck from a simple means of conveyance into a sophisticated mobile office, said Usha Iyer, vice president of marketing at Honeywell Safety & Productivity Solutions. Honeywell recently teamed up with transportation technology provider Omnitracs to launch an ELD software platform designed to help fleets improve worker safety and avoid violations, among other capabilities.
And that's only the beginning, according to Iyer. Developers are currently looking at ways to use "smart" ELDs to tackle other industry challenges, she said. "Fleets are not just complying with the regulation to track drivers' hours of service but are now looking at how they can use ELDs to drive toward other challenges like rising labor costs, driver shortages, and e-commerce trends," she said.
To reach those goals, developers will take advantage of ELDs' capability to collect more granular real-time data than was possible with automatic onboard recording devices (AOBRDs), the previous generation of vehicle data recorders, Iyer said. By analyzing the ELD-generated data with cloud-based software, fleets can improve variables ranging from asset utilization rates to navigation, safety, and fuel efficiency, she said.
Fleets could even use the capabilities to improve the driver experience by delivering customized services to each individual truck, Iyer added. "A driver could get into his cab in the morning, log in [to an onboard computer], and manage his workflow, whether that means turn-by-turn navigation or document capture and imaging," she said.BOOSTING THE ROI ON ELDs
As for when all this might happen, that will depend on a couple of factors, according to Norm Ellis, president of ERoad, a Portland, Ore.-based fleet management solutions provider. Much of the hardware needed to enable such applications is already in place, he said. But getting to the next level will require software improvements as well as building up the network of trucks equipped with the devices, he said.
The ELD mandate that took effect in December affects about 4 million trucks in the U.S., including 2.5 million to 3 million vehicles that had already been equipped with either AOBRDs or ELDs well before the deadline, Ellis said. Adding the remaining 1 million to 1.5 million vehicles and beginning the required process of upgrading the rest to newer ELD models will generate a flood of new data that fleets could potentially use to generate valuable insights, he said.
As more fleets adopt ELDs, they will increasingly look for additional ways to use the information the devices provide. "Some people will just hunker down and use it to monitor hours of service, but once you have this device in the vehicle, many others will ask 'What else can I use the ELD for that will give me a return on investment?'" Ellis said.
Technology providers have anticipated that question. A number have already rolled out ELDs with features like wireless data plans, cloud analytics platforms, or connections to vehicle telematics. While those enhanced models cost more than their basic counterparts, most fleets will be able to justify the investment through the operational savings they yield, he said.
For example, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) requires that ELDs be connected to a vehicle's engine control module (ECM) so the device can record when the ignition is turned on and when the vehicle is moving. However, some enhanced ELDs allow users to collect a wide range of additional data, such as engine diagnostics, and send it to a cloud-based platform for analysis. If the results indicated that, say, the truck was at high risk of a breakdown, the fleet manager could then instruct the driver to visit the closest mechanic before expensive damage could occur, Ellis said.
Another way that ELDs may help fleets cut costs is by recording drivers' behavior on the road, with an eye toward curbing bad—read: costly—habits, he said. As for how that might work, Ellis offers this example: "If you can identify a guy who's driving with hard braking or rapid acceleration, then you know he could manage his miles per gallon (mpg) more efficiently. Guess what happens when you pound the pedal to the floor? You burn through your fuel. But if you can move a guy from 5.5 to 6 mpg, that's a huge impact to the bottom line."SHAKEOUT AHEAD?
Technology providers are already at work adding new hardware and software features that would enable these new applications, with vendors launching dozens of new ELD models in recent months, said Thayne Boren, general manager of the mobile division at Truckstop.com, the New Plymouth, Idaho-based loadboard provider. The firm has created a marketplace that matches drivers, carriers, and fleets with the right ELD supplier for their needs.
Many ELD vendors sell a range of products, from basic models designed to be affordable for small fleets and owner/operators to more expensive devices with added functionality, intended for trucking lines with more sophisticated information technology needs, he said. In total, the ELD market currently has an estimated 150 different vendors selling more than 190 models, he said.
But Boren thinks that's about to change. He predicts the marketplace will undergo a restructuring in the coming months, as weaker players start dropping out and others join forces through mergers or acquisitions. "I see a lot of consolidation happening," he said. "You could probably divide that [number of providers] by four over the next 24 months."
The market will also evolve in response to external factors such as the ongoing upgrade from 3G to 4G cellular networks, Boren said. With access to greater wireless bandwidth, ELDs will be able to transmit far more data, which will encourage users to connect their ELDs to a wider range of peripheral devices and sensors.OUT WITH THE OLD
Originally designed to perform the simple task of recording drivers' hours behind the wheel, ELDs are on track to evolve quickly over the next few years, driven by trucking fleets' relentless search for ways to cut costs and improve performance. The devices could soon assume a central role in recording, analyzing, and improving the smallest details of transportation operations.
"There is diversity and confusion in the market today, but ELDs will eventually consolidate a lot of technologies and improve archaic ways of doing things," Boren said.
About the Author
Ben Ames has spent 20 years as a journalist since starting out as a daily newspaper reporter in Pennsylvania in 1995. From 1999 forward, he has focused on business and technology reporting for a number of trade journals, beginning when he joined Design News and Modern Materials Handling magazines. Ames is author of the trail guide "Hiking Massachusetts" and is a graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism.
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