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For the past two years, Pavan Pidugu, chief technology officer for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, has quietly been working behind the scenes to conduct a sweeping transformation of many of the agency’s admittedly decades-old technology systems.
Pidugu — who built a reputation running IT systems at global retailers Walmart and Target before he joined FMCSA in the summer of 2020 — already has put his stamp on new user-friendly IT systems to streamline roadside inspections, the motor carrier registration process and the agency’s medical examiners registration website.
Pidugu said he also expects to be revamping IT systems ranging from the often-criticized Compliance, Safety, Accountability’s Safety Measurement System to the way the agency collects and analyzes crash data associated with the Motor Carrier Management Information System. The MCMIS system harnesses safety information systems to focus on higher risk carriers in enforcing safety regulations and collects data from a variety of sources and ensures that it is accessible to other safety programs and organizations as needed. MCMIS, which pulls information from different sources and aggregates it, is more than 30 years old, and has undergone only Band-Aid fixes.
Pidugu said his goal is to revamp all of FMCSA’s so-called legacy systems by 2028. He makes no bones about the state of the agency’s IT when he first arrived: It’s cumbersome, not user friendly, invites processing errors, and is decades behind the fast-moving world of technology.
“We are off to a great start,” Pidugu told Transport Topics. “It definitely is different at the pace working retail versus working at some of the processes in the federal government. It took a little time for me to understand working the current landscape. I think of some of the more recent crashes could have been avoided if certain information was available.”
One of Pidugu’s admirers is James “Wiley” Deck, FMCSA’s former deputy administrator who left the agency in early 2021 for Plus, a company specializing in self-driving truck technology.
“We finally hired somebody that has experience with IT,” Deck said. “FMCSA has never, ever had that in its entire history. He’s lit the FMCSA IT office on fire.”
“I’ve been highly critical of FMCSA data systems before I ever came to the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance,” said Chris Turner, CVSA’s director of enforcement data and judicial outreach. Turner is an attorney and a former captain with the Kansas Highway Patrol and a CVSA past president. He’s been working on the new inspector system with FMCSA.
“When they brought on Pavan, he was really their first full-time IT person with any kind of outside government experience. I can’t tell you how many FMCSA CFOs or technology officers or whatever that have come and gone in that time with no change,” Turner said.
Turner added, “Pavan came in and really shook the boat. And to FMCSA’s credit, they let him do so. He is really revolutionizing not only just their infrastructure on IT, but also they’re internal culture about working to make things better, not just for law enforcement, but also for industry.”
Turner isn’t the only IT critic of FMCSA’s IT systems.
As recently as 2019, the U.S. Government Accountability Office issued a report saying that the agency should revise its methodology used to compare safety performance across motor carriers that “would help ensure that FMCSA can better identify and intervene with carriers at highest risk for crashing.”
“We recommended in February 2014 that DOT revise its Safety Measurement System methodology to better account for data accuracy and sufficiency limitations in drawing comparisons of safety performance information across carriers,” the GAO report concluded.
“We note that the National Academies of Sciences conducted a congressionally mandated evaluation of SMS, including the system’s data accuracy and sufficiency, and in 2017 made several recommendations to improve FMCSA’s ability to identify high-risk carriers,” GAO said.
The audit also recommended that the agency seriously consider developing a new methodology recommended by the panel known as the “Item Response Theory” method. So far, the agency has yet to implement the IRT system.
“A lot of positive things are happening within FMCSA besides in terms of technology,” Pidugu said. “We’re putting the right people with the right skills in the right roles and creating new roles that the agency did not have in the past.”
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One of those first positive developments under Pidugu’s plans has been to develop a system being tested that will help commercial vehicle inspectors do their job more easily by making their technology more user friendly and accurate.
Since the 1990s inspectors have been forced to use at least seven, but as many as 30 different software systems, Turner said.
FMCSA and CVSA are currently testing the software. “But it should be ready, unless something changes on the timeline, for Sept. 1. If everything goes as planned it should be introduced over the next year.”
With the new software, Turner said motor carriers can count on faster inspections and more accurate violations data.
“In the clearest terms, it creates an environment where inspectors are able to find the data they need quickly, and also accurately report what they’re seeing roadside, with fewer mistakes,” Turner said.