June 13, 2011 8:15 AM, EDT

iTECH: Roadside Electronics Track Vehicle Registration Data

By Dan Calabrese, Contributing Writer, Special to iTECH

This article appears in the June/July 2011 issue of iTECH, published in the June 13 print edition of Transport Topics.
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Technology that can detect from the roadside whether a vehicle is current on its registration and insurance has been launched successfully on a small island nation and could be expanded to save North American cargo fleets some time on the road and in the back office.

Those are a few of the promised benefits of electronic vehicle registration, a concept through which sensors on vehicles and along roadways transmit up-to-date records on drivers and equipment as traffic moves along. Similar in concept to the Commercial Vehicle Infor-mation Systems and Networks that some states use to monitor safety records electronically from the roadside, EVR is intended as more of a compliance tool for vehicle registration and insurance.

For states, such a system could isolate vehicles with outdated records, boosting both compliance and revenue. For cargo fleets, it could keep drivers and trucks that are current on required documentation traveling down the highway instead of stopped by police for routine checks.

“Here we are in 2011, and we’re all running around with leather permit folders in the truck,” said Murray Droescher, chief operating officer for TransAm Trucking, Olathe, Kan., a 1,200-vehicle fleet. He said he believes widespread EVR could provide welcome benefits to his outfit. “I think there’s tremendous value if we’re going to elaborate and include all permitting and licensing that we need to do,” he said. “Right now, it seems so antiquated.”

The government of Bermuda saw enough value in the EVR model to install a system to track the country’s 30,000 licensed vehicles. Implementation required development of tags for every one of them, as well as various application systems and integration of the program with existing government agency databases. The vehicles were tagged as part of the usual 12-month vehicle registration process.

TransCore, Hummelstown, Pa., a developer of EVR and RFID technology, handled design and implementation. The entire project cost $2 million, but once in place, the system helped boost compliance to 99% from 92%, the company said. George McGraw, executive vice president of operations and RFID manufacturing for TransCore, said safeguards that were built into the tags likely helped those numbers.

“If [the tag] is removed, it becomes inoperable, and there’s a visual indication that it’s been removed,” he said. “You can’t move them from one vehicle to another.”

While significant infrastructure build-out would be required to make an EVR setup effective in the United States, McGraw believes cargo fleets could be one of the big beneficiaries.

“As it relates to the trucking industry, all this stuff would be handled in the back office, and it might have the ability to make something like roadside checks much easier for a trucking company going through a state that’s not its home state,” he said.

“If they’re . . . moving from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, data could be transmitted to provide assurance that a truck on the highway going from somewhere in Texas up to Michigan has insurance and is properly registered,” McGraw said.

The system requires installation of radio frequency identification tags on all vehicles. The tags store a variety of data, which are transmitted to roadside scanners placed at various spots throughout jurisdictions. The more scanners, the better the enforcement, proponents have said, but every scanner increases the cost of the build-out.

And governments and fleets in the United States will need some convincing before taking on the investment, said Gordon West-water, president and CEO of IPICO Inc., Burlington, Ontario, an EVR technology company. Meantime, he said, the early testing will be done elsewhere.

“It tends to be in the developing world where there are a higher proportion of unlicensed vehicles on the road,” he said. For example, IPICO is working on a project with taxi licensing in Bogota, Colombia — an initiative that has the potential to generate major fee increases for government there, Westwater said. Technology companies are having a harder time selling the potential benefits to U.S. customers, he said, because noncompliance is less of an issue.

But McGraw argued that the problem is significant enough in the United States for EVR to make a difference.

“There are a lot of scofflaws that avoid these requirements, and that results in either significant lost revenue or increased insurance premiums,” McGraw said. “If you don’t have insurance, or you have your inspections but not your registrations, the system would take a picture of the vehicle in the front or back or both, and that picture along with the record would become the beginnings of an adjudication package,” he said. “The business model centers on increasing revenues to the state, getting people to pay their taxes and increasing overall safety compliance.”

However, companies such as Central Freight Lines, Waco, Texas, expect a return on their technology investments, and Kris Ikejire, Central’s vice president of administration, does not yet see the ROI in EVR. The company’s 850-vehicle fleet consists mostly of local pick-up-and-delivery trucks, along with a few linehaul vehicles.

“Whenever we invest in new technology, it either has to make us money, save us money or solve a problem, and we’re not quite sure what this would do for us yet,” Ikejire said.

Central Freight ranks No. 82 on the Transport Topics Top 100 list of the largest for-hire carriers.

Concern for protecting drivers’ privacy would factor into his carrier’s review of EVR, said Don Osterberg, senior vice president of safety, security and driver training for Schneider National Inc., Green Bay, Wis.

“When considering the addition of a new device, we heavily weigh a technology’s risk to drivers’ privacy and freight security,” he said. “We would take these same factors into consideration for this technology.”

Schneider ranks No. 9 on the Transport Topics Top 100 list of the largest for-hire carriers.

Implementation of the EVR system generated $14 million in additional registration fees for the government of Bermuda, helped by a massive publicity campaign that preceded the launch. Even so, residents who didn’t get the message ended up paying the government more than $267,000 in fines in the first three months the system was online.

While U.S. states could see similar gains, McGraw acknowledged that the required infrastructure is a “fundamental drawback.”

In fact, any RFID-based programs may not catch on until the tags are standard equipment on new trucks, said Paul Menig, chief engineer for mechatronics for Daimler Trucks North America, Portland, Ore.

“We believe that RFID tag technology should be synchronized with the vehicle, either as standard or optional original equipment or as an approved aftermarket solution,” he said. “Many aftermarket systems in use today are not reviewed by vehicle OEMs and are causing problems in the field.”

Before the industry embraces EVR — or any other large-scale RFID system — it should settle first on technology standards, he said.

“A comprehensive [Society of Automotive Engineers] standard covering RFID system design standards would be a good first step,” Menig said.

Design issues such as these can delay new technologies, but TransAm Trucking’s Droescher said he believes that, if EVR is fully deployed, it would merely reflect 

other technological advances that already have happened in related areas.

“We like working with every state agency where we can do our filings online, so I think this would be very beneficial in the same way,” he said.