Depending on whether an owner-operator is running a single truck or a small fleet, the fleet management software options available on most devices may or may not be needed. Photo: J.J. Keller

Depending on whether an owner-operator is running a single truck or a small fleet, the fleet management software options available on most devices may or may not be needed. Photo: J.J. Keller

*The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration's electronic logging device mandate is causing a lot of confusion and concern among the smallest fleets and single truck owner-operators. With just four months until the regulation comes into force, here are a few things to consider as we brace for December 18 – the date the mandate kicks in.

What type of device do I need?

Owner-operators working under contract to a motor carrier will probably have to use the brand and model of device dictated by the carrier. Who pays for the device and the associated fees will have to be decided by the parties involved.

Owner-operators working under their own authority will have to acquire their own FMCSA-compliant ELD. Since the owner-operator in this case is also the carrier, the owner-operator will have two accounts; one as a fleet manager (the back end) and one as a driver (the in-cab device). The rule requires those accounts to be separate.

Depending on the owner-operator's needs (single truck or small fleet), the fleet management software options that are available on most devices may or may not be needed. That extra functionality is not required by the regulation; however, options such as fuel tax reporting or electronic trip inspection reports can be useful in managing even a single-truck operation.

At their most basic, ELDs must record hours of service information as prescribed by the regulation, and the device must be physically or electronically connected to the truck to capture certain data such as key on an off time, miles traveled, etc. (the regulation describes what is required, and in what format in must be presented). That connection can be physical (by wire) or electronic (bluetooth, for example), but the connection must be maintained at all times the truck is in operation. Devices that offer a cellular data link between the truck's ECM and the device could be subject to cellular drop-outs and could cause a malfunction error on the device.

"The cellular connectivity option is allowed, but it's probably not a good idea," says Mike Davies, vice president for products at BigRoad. "In areas with no cell coverage the connection would be lost."

The device's display must meet the requirements but can vary from device to device. Data transfer for roadside inspection purposes can take place in several ways, and the device must be capable of at least one of the options. The record of duty status (RODS) can be printed if the device is equipped with a printer, downloaded to a USB device for physical transfer to law enforcement's reader, or transferred by Bluetooth or email to the officer. The device can also be handed to the officer for inspection, but the data must be exportable to enforcement in some recognized format.

It's important to note that that the rule does not require real-time transmission of data from the truck to the ELD back-end – the office side – which would require a satellite or cellular data account. "The regulation only requires that the data be submitted to the carrier (the owner-operator's office computer in this case) within 13 days," says Alexis Capelle, ELD program manager at Continental Corp. "That allows for a cost-effective solution for owner-operators by not requiring monthly fees for uploading or data storage or accessibility."

As for the device itself, smartphones and tablets are permitted, provided they are physically or electronically tethered to the truck's ECM through the dataport. Dedicated devices have the same requirement. The device must be secured to the dashboard while the truck is in operation and of course it must be tamperproof.

Options for owner-operators range from smartphone or tablet apps with hardware to facilitate the connection to the truck, to full-scale devices, with or without the optional and scalable fleet management solutions.

Do I need to buy an ELD before December 18?

If you are currently running or plan to acquire a compliant Automatic On-Board Recording Device (AOBRD) before that date, you will have until December 16, 2019, to transition to an ELD. This approach is being recommended by many ELD suppliers, as it will allow fleets and owner-operators an additional two years of breathing room while governments and vendors and enforcement officials sort out some of the remaining confusion over the compliance requirements.

"I'm telling everyone I speak with to get an AOBRD as soon as they can so they can skip right over the crunch in December."

"I'm telling everyone I speak with to get an AOBRD as soon as they can so they can skip right over the crunch in December," says Fred Fakkema, vice president of compliance at Zonar Systems. "It will take at least a year to get enforcement officials trained on the 80 to 100 devices that will be on the market by the end of the year. It's going to be a mess at roadside for a long time to come."

Fakkema, along with many other vendor reps, says Zonar will be ready with a compliant ELD by the deadline, but his current AOBRD device is compliant now and will be compliant until December of 2019.

"When the time comes, all we will require is a firmware upgrade and the device will transition from an AOBRD to an ELD," he says. "When the customer is ready, they can request the upgrade, we'll flash the update and transition will be complete."  

It may sound too good to be true, but an AOBRD is probably the best option possible for small fleets and owner-operators. Get an AOBRD device now and avoid all the compliance problems that are bound to arise after December 2017, and give the market time shake out the scammers from the legitimate product providers.

What type of device should I buy?

With the failure of a Supreme Court appeal by the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, and despite efforts in Congress to delay the rule, ELDs now appear imminent, so drivers and owner-operators better start planning to integrate them into their businesses, and soon.

Robin Doherty, president of Edmonton-based Verigo Inc., a supplier of software for electronic logging devices and driver's vehicle inspection reports, says the search for a suitable device should begin with finding something looks, feels and works like a logbook.

"There are lots of devices on the market with lots of bells and whistles, but the only legal requirement of an ELD is HOS compliance," he says. "It may not be immediately obvious which devices will prove to be compliant, but you can certainly narrow the search by eliminating options you don't need and aren't required to have."

Some things to consider:

1. Does the device comply with the regulations? Since it will be nearly impossible for independent owner-operators and very small fleets to test and validate an ELD without extensive knowledge of the regulations and the device's performance, seek written guarantees and assurances from the provider that the device is compliant and that the vendor will still be in business next year or in five years from now.

2. Which device is right for you? There are many devices already on the market and many, many more will enter the market before the December compliance deadline. Decide what you want from your device, whether it's bare-bones HOS compliance or any of the fleet management solutions that are available from most suppliers. Consider the growth potential of your business and whether the FMS options are something you might eventually need. Some of those can be switched on as needed; other providers may not offer them at all.

3. Is your data protected from damage or loss of the device? Who hasn't dropped a smartphone into a toilet? Is that the end of 12 days worth of hours of service data? Data should be stored in a separate off-device location or easily uploadable to the office computer on a regular basis, whether via an internet connection, cellular or satellite. The latter two options may result in additional fees, but the peace of mind of knowing the data is safe might be worth the additional cost.

4. Will the provider still be in business a year from now? Obviously consumers will be looking for support and guidance from their ELD provider, so you want to be sure you're buying from a company with a compliant device, time in the market and the support capability to keep you up and running.

With ELDs, it's Buyer Beware

How does an ELD buyer ensure that a particular device is compliant? If you're a big fleet, you consult your IT department or hire a third-party auditor to verify compliance. If you're a much smaller fleet or an owner-operator without such resources, it will be up to you ensure the device you choose complies with all 516 pages of the federal regulation.

The rule requires ELD providers "self-certify" that their product meets the requirements. There's a list of documents the suppliers must forward to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration in order to have that device included on a list of "registered" ELD devices. FMCSA does not actually verify device compliance. The list of registered devices is much like EPA's SmartWay list. Simply being on that list is no guarantee that the device is actually compliant.

Consumers will be in a difficult position if a particular ELD is discovered to be non-compliant after enforcement officials begin working with data from the device. Drivers will be allowed to use paper logs temporarily, but motor carriers will have eight days from notification to replace all non-compliant devices in the fleet with compliant ones.

Once the devices are in service and FMCSA begins auditing carriers for compliance, non-compliant devices will become known and they will be removed from the list. Notices will not automatically be issued advising consumers of non-compliant devices. It will be up to carriers and owner-operators to check periodically to see if their device is still on the list.  

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Experienced and trusted electronic recordkeeping and data service providers are warning consumers to be very wary of the low-cost ELDs that will likely flood the market in the next few months.

"It's a nightmare scenario for carriers and particularly owner-operators who do not have the resources to determine which systems are compliant or not," says VDO's Capelle. "The fact that a vendor is on FMCSA's list means nothing. There will be a lot non-compliant product on the market and a lot of vendors who never intend to be compliant. They are just in the market to make a fast easy dollar selling a device they call an ELD, and then they will close up shop and disappear. There are absolutely no consequences for those vendors."

About the author
Jim Park

Jim Park

Equipment Editor

A truck driver and owner-operator for 20 years before becoming a trucking journalist, Jim Park maintains his commercial driver’s license and brings a real-world perspective to Test Drives, as well as to features about equipment spec’ing and trends, maintenance and drivers. His On the Spot videos bring a new dimension to his trucking reporting. And he's the primary host of the HDT Talks Trucking videocast/podcast.

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