DOT Research Could Benefit Fleets Through Use of Wireless Inspections

By Denise L. Rondini, Special to Transport Topics

This story appears in the July 21 print edition of Transport Topics.

Imagine being able to have trucks and their drivers wirelessly inspected as they travel at highway speed — then top that off with improving the vehicle’s fuel efficiency. That vision may become reality through the research of the Smart Roadside Initiative — a research project of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

SRI was the result of a meeting of a cross section of members of the commercial vehicle industry. Its purpose is to identify technology that allows vehicles not only to communicate with each other but also to communicate with surface transportation infrastructure — including electronic wireless roadside inspection (WRI) sites that can assess driver and vehicle safety records while trucks and buses are in motion. The initiative is part of DOT’s Intelligent Transportation Systems Strategic Research Plan.

Ted Scott, director of engineering services for American Trucking Associations, said those e-inspections are among several benefits to the initiative.

“The first one is fuel economy and then safety,” he said. “The inspections don’t require the vehicle to slow down or stop. Clearly, there is a fuel-economy piece. On the enforcement side, it gives them the opportunity to do more inspections than they can physically do.”

In June, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration reported on a pilot of wireless roadside inspections. Three different platforms were evaluated: Commercial Mobile Radio Services, Dedicated Short-Range Communications and Universal ID technologies. Although data were limited, the pilot demonstrated that those technologies can be deployed in wireless inspections.

While none was perfect, participants said, “the WRI system holds much promise,” and that it should move forward if the technological and implementation challenges can be overcome, according to the report. In addition, law enforcement strongly supported future

system implementation. “They expressed concern about the current systems in place and felt that given their limited manpower and increasing number of commercial motor vehicles on the road, WRI could allow them to improve their efficiency,” the report said.

FMCSA spokesman Duane DeBruyne said, “Advancements in safety will be achieved through the improved efficiency and utilization of existing technologies, such as infrared-based screening systems to detect overheated wheels and brakes, and license plate readers.”

With wireless screening of trucks and drivers, enforcement officers can concentrate on trucks and drivers that are not in compliance. In theory, this would also result in more inspections being completed, with the goal of getting unsafe trucks off the road.

Since 2008, SRI has been looking at ways to develop a coordinated and comprehensive roadside program to link commercial vehicle safety, security and mobility systems. The goal is to use technology to help alleviate some of the issues caused by the large number of vehicles on the road. The increased volume of truck traffic results in long lines at inspection stations, slows down the delivery of goods and heightens safety concerns.

A diminishing ratio of inspectors to trucks is part of the problem. American Trucking Associations’ U.S. Freight Transportation Forecast to 2024 projects trucking’s share of freight tonnage to rise to 70.8% by 2024 from 68.5% in 2012.

In addition, there are not enough inspectors to handle the number of trucks on the road, which has led to concerns about the effectiveness of inspection programs. And there is insufficient inspection data on many fleets.

The Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance has certified about 13,000 inspectors who are tasked with inspecting 4.5 million registered trucks. FMCSA said even though approximately 3.5 million roadside inspections are completed annually, there is insufficient data to compile complete CSA BASIC percentages on 89% of carriers.

“The near-term objective [of SRI] is to create and test a prototype system that integrates numerous roadside safety screening technologies into one interface,” DeBruyne said. “This will aid roadside safety enforcement by reducing the number of screening interfaces that must be observed. This is very achievable.”

Preparations are under way to test prototype wireless roadside inspection systems. The tests will take place in Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina and Tennessee. The Mississippi Department of Transportation confirmed that the state already is testing WRI technology using a mobile inspection station.

Working in conjunction with Oak Ridge National Laboratories, the tests are expected to include 1,000 trucks and scheduled to be completed by the end of 2017. A

wireless-inspection process system will send data among the vehicle and a roadside inspection facility, federal and state databases and the fleet.

The tests will use geofencing so that when a truck enters the geofenced area, the system will retrieve truck and driver information sending it to an operations center. There it will be combined with fleet information that exists in state and federal databases. These data will be sent to the processing system to be evaluated. Once processing is complete, the driver will be sent a message indicating if he needs to pull over for an inspection.

Beyond the prototype testing, the next objectives of SRI are to analyze existing roadside safety technologies and identify any gaps in the use of these technologies.

“A benefits analysis will be conducted and a tool developed for use by states in assessing their roadside safety technology needs,” DeBruyne said.

“The success of SRI does not require changes being made to vehicles and highways,” DeBruyne said. “It would be a big step forward to provide a consolidated e-screening interface for roadside safety enforcement personnel.”

However, government agencies aren’t the only ones involved with trying to improve trucking efficiency. Drivewyze, PeopleNet, Zonar and XRS conducted an e-inspection demonstration for FMCSA and FHWA officials in 2013. Two commercial trucks and one commercial motorcoach equipped with new mobile safety-compliance technology participated in a drive-by demonstration at the West Friendship Weigh Station and Inspection Site in Maryland. The Smart Roadside Initiative played no part in the demonstration.

Observers witnessed the trucks and bus electronically communicating with the weigh-station system as they approached the facility without having to slow down. Critical safety data on the vehicle and the driver — including driver identification, electronic-logging information and vehicle weight — were communicated in real time while the vehicles remained in motion.

Drivewyze President Brian Heath said, “This is the first commercial vehicle-to-infrastructure solution for large trucks and buses to leverage GPS and telematics technologies to augment traditional roadside inspections.”

The demonstration relied on a commercial mobile-radio service transponder, “essentially a transponder that uses the cellular network to transmit data,” Heath said.

Traditional technology used in weigh-station bypass operations relies on a Dedicated Short-range Communication transponder placed on the vehicle’s windshield.

However, that method is dependent on equipment and infrastructure at the weigh station, and also costly, Heath said. Therefore, it’s not available at all weigh stations.

Heath believes Commercial Mobile Radio Services technology could be leveraged to electronically conduct CVSA Level III inspections.

“Level III inspections are credential checks, and the advantage of a CMRS transponder is that you can add extra data elements to the data stream. It allows you to exchange carrier, vehicle and driver information. This is the same information that would be collected by an inspector,” Heath said.

He sees the credential check using CMRS as a way to leverage onboard technologies.

“For example, if a carrier has paid a lot of money to install brake-monitoring equipment or tire-inflation monitoring, in the future, they may also play a role in terms of providing more specific vehicle-condition information,” he said.

Heath added, “When people talk about e-inspections, it is a first step that would be easy for anyone to participate in. The credential check is the low-hanging fruit. You wouldn’t have to install any customized high-priced equipment on the vehicle to participate. All you need is an electronic onboard recorder — which [is] going to be mandatory — and cellular technology.”

And while the technology is in place for e-inspections, Heath said, what is missing is policy and program implementation from FMCSA. He pointed out, however, that no one is interested in a mandatory program.

“Everyone is looking at a voluntary compliance program where trucking companies would have the option to participate and share additional information. If carriers are willing to share additional information at the roadside, they should be given something in return — some kind of incentive,” he said.

In exchange for providing extra information, the government would provide a CSA credit in addition to the operational benefit of not having to stop at the roadside, Heath said.

This is seen as something akin to the TSA Pre Program, where travelers voluntarily share data with the agency and in return pass through airport security screening more quickly.

Heath said that the trucking industry is aware of the data-sufficiency problem with the current CSA framework simply because inspectors are constrained in the number of inspections they can perform in a year.

“There is only so much source data going into the system. The option of an electronic inspection has the ability to leapfrog past the resource constraints to overcome the shortfalls of the CSA program’s data sufficiency,” Heath said.

He said he hopes the federal government will leverage commercial platforms that are out there and maintain a low cost of entry.

“If a driver or owner-operator can use his smart phone, then they are in a stronger position to participate in a program just like the larger carriers can,” Heath said.

ATA’s Scott said 500 million to 600 million trucks stop every year for weight inspections. As a result, 2 million tickets have been written.

“That is less than 1%. Those are the people — the 1% — who inspectors have an opportunity to do a Level I inspection on.”

E-inspections allow trucks that are in compliance to avoid inspections and free inspectors to concentrate their efforts where they do the most good.

Scott said it may not be necessary to tackle the issue on a federal level.

“Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania safety people, or whoever, ought to be able to do this without federal rule,” he said. “The concern they have is, will this impact their MCSAP [Motor Carrier Safety Assistance Program] funding, so they will be cautious. However, I think we can make some headway in this area and do some of it without FMCSA.”