January 2017

Rise Of The Safety Machines

Fans of the Terminator movie series recognize that the beginning of the end for human’s hegemony over the earth began when the military industrial complex introduced artificial intelligence to its defense and warfighting technologies. Fans of the trucking industry are watching a similar, perhaps scary evolution occur as new commercial-ready monitoring and vehicle control technologies are steadily being applied to regulate the behavior and performance of man or woman in the seat in a quest to make it safer to be there.

Okay, so maybe the world as we know it is not going to end because of monitoring and safety technologies in trucks, but steady introduction of data-collecting monitoring devices, direct vehicle piloting and control systems into truck fleets and owner-operated rigs is only going to accelerate over the next decade. The bottom line to all of this innovation and data-collecting technology is safety. What is bugging people is all the Big-Brother privacy concerns and the costs associated with implementing the technologies to be compliant with state and federal regulations.

For a fleet operator, ELD technologies represent safety for their drivers (fewer life-threatening incidents) but also from catastrophic accident liabilities, negligence claims and the ever-escalating costs associated with managing and indemnifying against all the risk associated fleet truck operations. These technologies serve to automate regulatory response with data that demonstrates compliance that proves safe operation and useful operations-managing metrics. These technologies are intended to manage a broad range of risk and demonstrate their effectiveness with data to control operating costs.

Safety is also relative to lawmakers and regulators whose motivations are driven by a number of externalities. Certainly society is at the top of their list, the ultimate recipient of the safer interaction of commercial vehicles and “civilian” users on the nation’s roads. It’s a complex transportation infrastructure and its effectiveness and utility to society is dependent on regulating people’s behavior across a broad number of fronts. But regulators and their government bureaucracies, being who they are, are prone to over-regulate in pursuit of public “safety” -- a subjective concept and a construct that good intentions aside, cannot be regulated into an absolute reality when humans (or technology for that matter) are involved. This utopia will never be realized.

Let’s not forget all the operators either. Safety to them is personally manifest and their work piloting commercial vehicles on public roads presents its own particular set of dangers, unique because of the environment in which they operate. With the driver/operator as the focal point, safety technologies’ role is to support safer operational decision-making (speed, operating hours, intoxication, etc.) and create a safer industrial working environment for this important labor force. Many of the safety technologies being innovated into over-the-road commercial vehicles have to do with addressing human limits of reaction time, cognition and efficiency/performance.

In its recent two part series “Tomorrow’s Trucker” Overdrive Magazine editors note: ”Trucking’s technology advances are changing not just the vehicle, but also what’s expected of its operator.” Citing sophisticated braking and stability systems, combined with other automation, Overdrive says these technologies are bringing autonomous trucks – and possibly hours of service changes to the industry. “Electronic logging devices and other wireless systems are turning the cab into a remote office churning out more data to more recipients.”

According to Overdrive, ELDs are just the tip of the iceberg.

Overdrive also projects that the rise of these technologies will impact the owner-operator business model in significant ways as the availability of real-time market information from all the data collection will prompt a call for smarter, more tech-savvy businesspeople. “Whether leased or operating with his own authority, tomorrow’s owner-operator will be redefined as more independent, yet more interdependent.”

The vast, vast majority of drivers operate by the book, but there will always be an element who do not; but lawmakers tend to penalize whole groups with laws focused on preventing the bad behaviors of individuals rather than holding them responsible. Unfortunately the law of diminishing returns is at work: if that “book” gets too thick, compliance becomes a challenge that overwhelms both an organization’s and individual's ability to actually attain it, practically and economically. ELDs and similar technologies are both a solution to and a symptom of over regulation - so as new compliance hurdles are put in place the industry and its technologists respond by creating new systems that help manage the expense of complying with new laws.

Whether regulator or regulatee, much of the technology being introduced today comes down to being connected and integrated, collecting accurate data—data to justify valuations for those paying fees and taxes and those collecting them. Government doesn’t want you to pay less than every penny that you owe and you don’t want to pay a penny more when it comes to operating your own or a fleet’s trucks legally, responsibly and profitably.

Everyone knows what you can’t measure, you can’t manage. Networked mobile technologies are connecting everything - I hope you have heard of the Internet of Things - because that connectivity and data collecting capability is moving into trucking and logistics big time, connecting everything from the driver to the freight he or she is transporting down the road.

For 2017 and beyond, the industry’s future is increasingly interdependent on technology and the humans that wield it– something that is not going to change. Overdrive’s editors say millennials are much better equipped to leverage the connected cockpit all that goes along with this progress. That has a ring of truth to it, but it’s today’s drivers and fleet managers who have to deal with it and sort out any implementation. The industry is embracing this technology at its usual pace, slowly, deliberately and not without a good measure of well-earned cynicism.