As time runs out for U.S. truckers to upgrade to electronic logging devices that track how long they’re on the road, data from drivers who’ve made the switch appears to indicate that the controversial systems are working as intended to make trucking safer.
Trucking companies and independent truckers operating Class 8 commercial vehicles were required to start using the devices, known in the industry as ELDs, in December 2017. A U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) division that monitors the industry mandated the devices to ensure trucking companies comply with existing driver hours-of-service rules. The rules limit drivers to working 14 hours in a day, including 11 hours of driving, as a way to promote truck driver safety and prevent crashes.
Many small fleets and independent drivers installed ELDs when the regulation took effect. But regulators gave others, primarily midsize and larger fleets, extra time to comply because they’d previously installed older-generation electronic tracking systems. That grace period ends 16 December 2019.
A sizable portion of those companies still hasn’t upgraded, according to industry surveys, researchers, and executives at companies selling ELD equipment. By one estimate, as of May more than half of the 3.5 million trucks required to install ELDs still hadn’t switched, according to Trucks.com.
“Over the next three and a half months, that transition is going to have to move very quickly,” said Dan Murray, senior vice president at the American Transportation Research Institute, an industry nonprofit that’s tracked adoption of electronic truck monitoring for 20 years.
Although the upgrade is ongoing, preliminary data shows that ELD adoption already has led to fewer truckers driving when they’re not supposed to. From December 2017 to June 2019, truck driver inspections that resulted in at least one hours-of-service violation dropped significantly, from 1.19 percent to 0.57 percent, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), the DOT’s trucking regulator.
“I think they’re okay,” said Michelle Kitchin, 56, a veteran trucker from Grand Rapids, Mich., who drives for a company in the process of making the switch. “If used correctly, they can protect the driver.”
How Do ELDs Work?
A driver uses an electronic logging device made by Omnitracs. Photo: Omnitracs
ELDs plug into a truck’s engine control module through the J1939 vehicle bus to synchronize with the engine and record required data on engine power status, engine hours, vehicle motion, and miles driven. The devices also track the identity of the driver, vehicle, and trucking company. Drivers must also input their duty status to reflect their time spent driving, waiting at a loading dock, sleeping, or on a break. The devices, which are about the size of a sandwich, automatically feed the data to the trucking company and vendor. They also include a small printer so a driver can provide hours of service and other data to safety inspectors upon request.
Typical ELD systems consist of a hardware unit and a companion mobile iOS or Android app that a driver downloads onto a phone or tablet—either their own or a company-owned device—letting them interact with the device from in or outside a truck. Depending on the vendor, ELD software can also include extra features such as tracking hard stops, which could signal unsafe driving, and mileage data that could be used to maximize fuel usage.
Older-generation systems that ELDs replace, called automatic on-board recording devices, or AOBRDs, recorded some of the same data but not everything the ELD regulation requires. Many of the older devices had display screens and were hardwired to a truck, which meant drivers had to be in the cab to log in to check their hours, update their duty status, or perform other transactions.
Smaller trucking companies and independent drivers were among the first to upgrade to ELDs because a significant portion still used paper and pencil to record service hours. Paper logs made it easier to fudge how many hours they were driving and resting—an unethical but common industry practice. In the months before the ELD regulation took effect, groups representing small trucking fleets and independent drivers lobbied unsuccessfully to stop it and warned that it would lead drivers to quit rather than switch.
For the most part, that didn’t happen. “There was so much ridiculous panic that it would force people out of the industry and drivers couldn’t earn a living,” said Brian Fielkow, chief executive at Jetco Delivery, a Houston trucking and logistics company. Instead, he said, it forced carriers to charge shippers and receivers more appropriate rates, “and not put it on the backs of the drivers to run more hours.”
Large Trucking Companies Upgrade to ELDs at the Last Minute
Trucking companies that used AOBRDs have delayed switching until the last minute partly because they could, and partly to wait for vendors to work any bugs out of ELDs and for sales volumes of the newer systems to push down costs. Prices for ELDs range from several hundred dollars for bare-bones units to US $1,000 or more for devices with multiple extra features. In addition to one-time costs, users may pay monthly subscription fees for data storage, analytics, and related functions.
Jetco, which has 150 drivers and about the same number of trucks, switched from a hard-wired AOBRD system to a tablet-based system several years ago, so moving to ELDs earlier this year was a relatively simple software upgrade, Fielkow said. “The tablet-based system is much more practical given that drivers switch trucks,” Fielkow said. “You don’t have to spend a lot. Hardware costs have plummeted as ELDs have become tablet friendly.”
The FMCSA allowed suppliers to self-certify that their equipment meets ELD specifications, which resulted in a flood of vendors entering the market. As of mid-August, a FMCSA ELD database listed more than 470 registered units, with some vendors selling multiple units for different truck types.
Other vendors have already dropped out of the business because they didn’t drum up enough customers to run at a profit or because their devices didn’t meet the specifications, according to industry sources. The FMCSA also maintains a list of revoked ELDs.
As the December deadline approaches, trucking companies that have yet to upgrade have several options. They can order devices directly from vendors or online through sites such as Amazon, and have their mechanics install the units and train drivers on the software. Some device makers are sending their own mechanics to trucking customers to perform the work.
Vendors are also selling ELDs at truck stops. Transflo, for example, stocks units at Pilot Flying J Travel Centers and Love’s Travel Stops, among others, according to Doug Schrier, the company’s vice president of production and innovation. Drivers can buy a unit, plug it into their truck, and “they’ll have a fully ELD-compliant system in less than five minutes,” Schrier said. “The unit self-registers, and all they have to do is download the app and log in.”
Michelle Kitchin at a truck show in Michigan with the truck she drives for Van Eerden Trucking Co., a 2018 Peterbilt 579. Photo: Nesa Azimi
The company that Kitchin drives for, Van Eerden Trucking, operates a 150-truck fleet based in Byron Center, Mich., and started using AOBRDs in 2009. The company is just now switching to ELDs.
Van Eerden, which hauls office furniture to the East and West coasts and produce to Michigan on return trips, has figured out that driver relays are the key to keeping freight on the road and drivers within hours-of-service boundaries, Kitchin said. That means that after she drops off a load in California and is on her return trip, Kitchin drives as far as her hours of service will permit. If she has to stop, another driver or driver team meets her and takes her trailer, and she waits for instructions from dispatch about her next load.
“It’s keeping us moving, which makes us get more freight,” Kitchin said. “We pull more loads because we’re doing it this way, which makes everyone more money.”
An abridged version of this post appears in the October 2019 print issue as “U.S. Truckers Race to Deploy Electronic Logging Devices.”