A long line of rigs, creeping its way along in the right-hand lane of the interstate as auto traffic blows by at 70 mph or more. This used to be a common sight at truck weigh stations, creating a safety hazard out of something that’s actually supposed to improve highway safety.
Stopping for scales also wasted fuel, and especially when there were lines, wasted truck drivers’ time and affected carrier efficiency. But 25 years ago, that began to change with the first weigh-station bypass system.
PrePass this year celebrated its 25th anniversary and marked another milestone with the largest truck enrollment ever in the program-- more than 600,000 trucks. We sat down with Karen Rasmussen, CEO of HELP Inc., the public-private partnership that oversees the PrePass program, to get some insights.
The beginnings of weigh station bypass
In the 1980s, trucking groups got together with the governments of six states and British Columbia to try to address the inefficiencies at state ports of entry and weigh station/inspection facilities. It started as a demonstration known as the Crescent Project.
Rasmussen explained that the project put a technology that had been proven in the aviation industry, the RFID transponder, on trucks so information could be transmitted wirelessly to a special reader installed on the highway ahead of the weigh station. Combined with weigh-in-motion scales, carriers in the program could be pre-screened and weighed at highway speeds, bypassing the scales if everything checked out.
Crescent equipped weigh station and port of entry sites along a corridor from British Columbia south along I-5 through California, then east along I-10 to Texas, branching onto I-20 (hence the name Crescent). A central computer stored information about participating trucks. The transponders identified trucks to local weigh stations along the routes. The truck information was used with weigh-in-motion, automatic vehicle identification and automatic vehicle classification technologies to enable trucks to bypass the weigh station process if determined to be “legal.”
Those first transponders were actually mounted on the front bumper of the truck, leading to the name for the organization overseeing PrePass:HELP Inc. HELP stands for Heavy-vehicle Electronic License Plate.
“They would get mud on them and get hit by rocks and get tar on them; they would fall off,” Rasmussen said. “It didn’t take long to figure out they needed to get that off the front of the vehicle and into the cab.” Today, the transponders are smaller and protected in the cab, but the name is still the same.
The nation’s first mainline bypass site opened in May 1993 at the Santa Nella Weigh Station on I-5 in California. Six months later, a Fall 1993 HELP Newsletter article reported that the Crescent Project had enrolled 4,300 vehicles.
This may seem par for the course today, but at the time it was revolutionary. In fact, weigh station bypass was one of the first “intelligent transportation systems” for commercial vehicles studied by the federal government. While the testing phase ended in 1993, by the late ‘90s, there were other programs going on in other areas of the country, such as the Advantage I-75 project and the Oregon Green Light test, discussed in this 1998 report.
That report found the average time savings per weigh station bypassed using electronic screening was 1.33 to 4.86 minutes for Advantage I-75 and 1.17 for HELP/Crescent. Interestingly, in the HELP/Crescent project, FHWA noted that drivers felt like they were saving even more time, with the perceived savings for drivers more than 4 minutes.
The birth of the PPP
But how would this project be managed? There was a lot of distrust between government and industry, Rasmussen pointed out, and ton-mile taxes were the issue of the day. Trucking companies looked at the prescreening project as a way for government authorities to more easily track trucks to collect weight-distance taxes.
And just as there is today, there were a lot of questions about who would have access to the data and how it would be used by the government.
So, when the truck bypass technology system moved past the demo phase, the coalition determined it would be best to create an objective third-party entity, one that would balance safety and efficiency, and be charged with ensuring carriers adhered to strict safety and credentialing standards.
The resulting public-private partnership applied for and got tax-exempt status as a 501 3(C) nonprofit, with a board consisting of both government and industry representatives. Thus HELP Inc. was born.
While such public-private partnerships are common today (and largely associated negatively with tolls), Rasmussen said, “this is a very special type of P3, and when it was formed it was very visionary. There was nothing like it at the time.”
Over the years, PrePass has added other services. As transponders began to be used for automatic highway tolls, HELP piloted electronic toll payment in 2003 and went live with PrePass Plus, which combines weigh station bypass and electronic tolls, in 2004.
“At one time, you only had one tolling protocol, and that was the one used by E-ZPass,” Rasmussen said. “Today, there are five or six,” all of which are crammed into one large PrePass Plus transponder. “But they still rely on RFID.”
The PrePass toll payment service offers consolidated billing statements, discounted tolling rates where available, and help dealing with toll reconciliation or dispute resolution.
The company also has given its fleet customers insights into their safety data through its Inform business intelligence system. Inform (Information and Reports Manager), launched in 2016, gives carriers granular details on truck inspections and safety information to help identify areas that need improvement. It compiles Inspection Selection System score factors from the most current, accurate data sets and generates a company snapshot. The data includes not only the SAFER carrier records maintained by FMCSA, but also information provided by more than 100 different government sources. Rasmussen explained that there are a number of states that don’t upload to SAFER or don’t upload regularly.
In addition, tolling customers can drill down into their data to discover fraudulent use of toll transponders or identify routes where it may be more cost-effective to route around toll roads.
“It’s a data-mining gold mine,” Rasmussen said.
PrePass also jumped on the ELD bandwagon after the electronic logging device mandate was announced. And as with some other ELD providers, there were some hiccups.
“We’re like everybody else, we had our struggles,” Rasmussen said. “We’ve had to make some changes to it. And FMCSA has had its own issues with the e-RODS [the Records of Duty Status app that law enforcement is supposed to use to decipher electronic logbook data]. It’s a stable service, it’s a stable product, but I think it’s continuing to evolve.”
She emphasized that the PrePass ELD is just one of a set of services available through PrePass. “We have the entire spectrum of alerts that are being rolled out as part of that, including work zone and parking alerts that are evolving every day as we look to the future.”
Today, HELP says its growing network of more than 300 fixed and mobile sites in 31 states enables over 67,000 fleets to bypass weigh stations. During the first nine months of 2018, fleets received more than 42 million bypasses during hours that weigh facilities were open. Per teh company, it has provided carriers over 837 million bypasses since HELP began compiling bypass data in 1997.
When asked about market penetration, Rasmussen said that 94 of the top 100 for-hire carriers are PrePass users. If you think 600,000 trucks doesn’t sound like much, she said, while there are about 3.5 million registered tucks in the U.S., only about 1.5 million are ones that would be going through weigh stations or ports of entry, the others being mostly local or in-state operations. Other trucks that aren’t in the program, she noted, likely would not qualify because their safety would not meet the Inspection Selection System threshold required.
Of course now there is competition in the weigh station bypass market, which uses mobile phones and tablets. PrePass also has a mobile bypass app, called PrePass Motion, which it’s been rolling out in stages. “We are going to be smart about where we deploy it so carriers can get the most benefit from using it,” Rasmussen said.
In addition, she said using the mobile app alone does not allow for the toll-paying and management functions of PrePass’ full product line.
PrePass is also looking ahead to the future of connected vehicles. Rasmussen said HELP Inc. was the first to pilot DRSC 5.9, long before it was ever considered to be the technology for connected vehicles.
The 5.9 GHz spectrum of DRSC, or dedicated short-range communications, has since 1999 been designated for vehicle-to-vehicle ITS (intelligent transportation system) use. But the FCC has been petitioned to free it up for unlicensed Wi-Fi use instead.
Rasmussen said PrePass has been very engaged in this. “DRSC 5.9 has always been a public safety spectrum,” she said. Like others in trucking, PrePass is concerned about this move, just as the industry is starting to see the promise of DRSC for connected vehicles become reality, such as through recent truck-platooning demonstrations.