When you think of weapons of mass destruction, the truck may not be the first thing that comes to mind. But if you recall the first time terrorists attacked the World Trade Center in New York, they used not hijacked airplanes, but a rental truck packed with explosives. A truck was also the weapon of choice for the terrorists who destroyed the federal building in Oklahoma City. Then shortly after 9/11, the Justice Department announced that it had indicted 22 people for obtaining fraudulent commercial drivers licenses to transport hazardous materials. The prospect of terrorists' commandeering trucks loaded with radioactive or biohazardous cargo has kept security professionals awake at night ever since.
It took 9/11 to jolt both the government and the trucking industry into action. Since that date, trucking executives and federal officials have sought to answer the vexing questions of how best to protect truck cargo, how to prevent hijackings, and how to verify the identity of the person behind the wheel. In the meantime, technology companies have sprung into action, devising new security devices, modifying older ones to raise the level of security or integrating them into sophisticated high-tech systems.
What's often overlooked, however, is the technology's versatility. Advanced security systems designed to thwart terrorists can also deter more common thieves, halt and track down the perpetrators if a truck is stolen, and even improve fleet performance. Whether it's a biometric smart card that verifies the driver's identity, a remote disabling system that lets a dispatcher shut down a hijacked vehicle by satellite, or a smart seal that monitors a container's status in real time, fleet managers are learning that their investments can also pay off in better visibility and control over their rolling assets.
It's that promise of greater efficiency, productivity and control that may, in the end, sell these tools to senior management. Asset control remains a big worry for truckers. "Right now, losses due to theft in interstate commerce run from $10 billion to $20 billion annually—and that's just the price of the goods," says Norm Ellis, vice president and general manager for Qualcomm Wireless Business Solutions, a company that provides mobile communications and satellite tracking services. "It's a huge problem—much bigger than hazmat, but because of 9/11, that's gotten the attention."
Security technology will actually save truckers money in the long run, adds Lani Fritts, vice president of business development for Savi Technologies. "I think historically, security has been viewed as a cost, but I think with the new technology being employed, [companies will find] there is a net benefit over time."
In the meantime, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) has gotten into the game. The agency has been conducting a year-long study of various security devices coupled with wireless and terrestrial communications to see how well they can protect hazardous materials shipments.
The study, known as the Hazardous Materials Safety & Security Operational Test, involved both fleet operators and technology providers and concentrated particularly on shipments of bulk fuel, high hazard materials, bulk dry chemicals and explosives. The agency said it planned to quantify the costs and benefits of various types of technology to help truckers make more informed choices.
DOT officials declined to comment on the test results until the report was released (the findings had yet to be issued at press time). But representatives of several of the participant companies were willing to talk about some of the technologies tested and their applications to daily fleet operations.
Ellis of Qualcomm, for example, reports that testers were able to demonstrate remote vehicle disabling technology's effectiveness to the FMCSA's satisfaction. Remote disabling, he explains, allows a dispatcher to put a truck into a "limp mode," by sending commands over the air telling the vehicle to downshift and limit the throttle capability. The idea is to let the truck slow down gradually— rather than halt abruptly—but still prevent normal operation.
Remote disabling technology can also be integrated into a remote panic and emergency notification system. In an emergency, a driver can press a panic button on the dashboard or use a key-fob panic button if the driver is within a few hundred feet of the truck. The system then remotely alerts a dispatcher, who can shut down the vehicle.
In fact, the FMCSA pilot program took the testing to another level, says Ellis. The agency ran trials in which signals activated by the panic alarm were broadcast to participating emergency response teams (like police and fire fighters) from New York, California, Texas and Illinois. "We actually built in the ability to pass information not only to the dispatcher and our network center, but also to the appropriate first responder in the event of, say, a hazmat spill," says Ellis. "The test showed clearly we can definitely allow that flow as appropriate."
Is that really you?
Other field tests evaluated various types of driver authentication technology—systems designed to ensure that only an authorized person takes the wheel. Making sure the right person is driving a particular truck is more than just a security issue, Ellis says. "It also has productivity benefits and ensures regulatory compliance as well."
One of the technologies tested required a global log-in that is authenticated remotely. "If you were to try to move a vehicle without signing in appropriately or tried too many times, alerts would go off, and you could take action," Ellis explains.
A more sophisticated version of driver authentication—a system that uses biometrics—was also included in the testing. "You might have a smart card that has a fingerprinting ID," Ellis explains. "You put your finger in, the card goes in, the information goes over the air, and the system does the authentication. We know it's the right employee with the right tractor and the right trailer.You start to build some nice cross benefits. That's how we can make it cost justifiable."
When linked to a satellite communication system, biometric technology lets managers verify that authorized personnel are handling shipments at every step from manifest to final delivery, says Christina Jin, project manager for Saflink, a Bellevue, Wash.-based provider of biometric identification tools. Saflink's Physical Access Group, formerly known as the Biometric Solutions Group Inc., has developed a tracking system that makes use of smart cards and biometrics to time- and date-stamp each event in a hazmat shipment's journey, in effect, creating an audit trail for the entire process. Once the system is activated, the company says, only an authorized driver with an active smart card can transport a particular hazmat shipment.
Do fence me in
Another technology developed to provide early warning if something goes awry is what's known as geo-fencing. Ellis explains that geo-fencing systems alert fleet managers in real time should a truck "break out of the fence"—that is, depart from a pre-preprogrammed route.
Though developed to deter terrorists, the technology has potential benefits for daily operations, he claims. "If you're paying for fuel and a truck goes off route, not only do you have a potential security risk, but the driver is burning your fuel. We're trying to blend those things together. It's not just about security; it's security and productivity based."
Dispatchers can use geo-fencing capabilities not only to keep a truck from wandering off course but also to alert authorities if it enters a proscribed area—say, the area surrounding the White House. "We tested both of those capabilities," Ellis reports, "and the tests were very successful."
The field tests also evaluated the potential for systems that remotely monitor electronic seals. Savi Technologies, which develops sealing systems that use RFID technology to transmit information about freight containers, is one of the companies that participated in these trials. "What we were working on was integration of the sealing systems with incab and satellite systems," says Savi's Fritts. "You always have communication with the device, but you can keep the cost relatively low."
Fritts says that when used together, smart seals and satellite communication allow the continuous monitoring of high-risk cargo that might be targeted by terrorists. With hazardous loads, it's not enough to know that something didn't show up at the next checkpoint, he says. "If something changes, you need to know right away."
But again the applications aren't confined to hazmats. Fritts says the technology would be equally useful for monitoring rigs that haul high-value goods as well as items sensitive to environmental conditions, like food or electronic products that can be damaged by excessive g-forces. Knowing if and where product damage occurred lets the shipper assign liability and ensure that damaged goods aren't delivered to customers.
Will all this technology be coming to a dealer near you anytime soon? Don't count on it. Ellis says he believes the various systems offer great commercial promise, but he acknowledges that it's not quite ready for prime time. "Some of the integration still has to be stepped up," he says. "We want that to be more robust if we want to make it commercially available."
Conventional wisdom holds that accidents will happen, but Tom Rule refuses to accept that. When it comes to safety, he says his goal is nothing less than perfection. "We'd like to achieve zero/zero performance," says Rule. Zero/zero performance? That's no accidents, he explains. And no injuries.
It's not just talk. Rule, who is vice president of operations for Logex, a contract carrier that hauls industrial gases, is doing what he can to bring the nation's trucking industry closer to that goal. How does he expect to get there? "Technology will play an important part in that," he told attendees at the National Private Truck Council's second annual National Safety Conference last month.
One area in which he believes technology is making particular headway is the prevention of deadly rollovers. "It's an issue for the entire trucking industry, especially tankers," Rule says. Rollovers present a particular hazard to tractor-trailers because a driver can't always tell when a trailer's about to tip. By the time the driver realizes he's in trouble, it's usually too late. One remedy is a roll stability advisor that sets off a series of alarms if the system detects speed or other factors that put the truck at risk. In the works is a second generation of the system that will apply the truck's Jake brake and cut off the fuel supply should the driver fail to take corrective action.
Another common cause of highway accidents is what safety experts call an unintended lane departure, which occurs when a drowsy or inattentive driver lets the truck drift out of its highway lane. More than 18,000 highway deaths a year are related to unintended lane departures, according to Iteris, a maker of lane departure warning systems and other technology.
To deliver a wakeup call, Iteris and others market systems that use a miniature camera mounted in the truck's windshield. Should the truck drift out of its highway lane, the camera detects the drift and sends a signal to the system, which alerts the driver with an alarm that sounds like a vehicle driving over a rumble strip. The system is deactivated when the driver turns on a directional signal to indicate he's deliberately changing lanes.
Technology also can help address the visibility challenge: truck drivers' inability to see the vehicles around them. To minimize the dangers posed by blind spots, managers like Rule are investing in radar systems that can sense vehicles in front of or beside them (Rule makes them standard equipment on the tractors he buys). One such system is Eaton VORAD, an acronym for Vehicle Onboard Radar. Eaton, which manufactures components for medium- and heavy-duty trucks, says the system warns the driver of potential hazards such as stopped or slow-moving vehicles. Among the options available with the system is one dubbed BlindSpotter, which alerts a driver to obstacles off to the side.
Rule says he's found VORAD useful not only as a safety system, but as a training tool as well. "It allows you to measure drivers' effectiveness regarding … following' distances," he says. "You can monitor their performance and speak to the driver at the end of his tour of duty."
Despite their dazzling capabilities, Rule warns that taken together, all these whiz-bang gadgets could prove to be too much of a good thing. The more safety devices installed in the cab, he explains, the greater the risk that they'll end up distracting the driver. Rule believes the answer lies in industry standardization. "As more and more technologies emerge," he says, "there have to be more efforts to develop standards for inside the tractor. All [the suppliers] have their own bells and whistles. The manufacturers have to get together; they have to have a common interface or a common plug."