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iTECH: Another Kind of Cell Block
Monday, 28 December 2009 00:00
Suppliers Unveil Technology That Locks Down Mobile Handsets in Moving Vehicles

A person trying to chat or read and send text messages while driving could find his cell phone disabled, thanks to technology coming into the market.

Applications for commercial drivers are part of the mix of new products that address what many are saying is a rising safety issue: distracted driving. If people won‘t voluntarily avoid using handsets while operating a motor vehicle, there are ways to render cellular connections inoperable, or at least report the driver‘s activities to management.

The new technology was the focus of a Nov. 24 Federal Communications Commission forum with suppliers, regulators and others.

The basic functions are largely the same: When movement is detected by cell phones and other personal communication devices, outgoing text-messaging is shut down and incoming text and voice messages are saved until the motion has stopped. To prevent drivers from typing anyway, keypads are locked.

The Global Positioning System, accelerometers and Wi-Fi transceivers are among the technologies present in many smart phones that makes motion-tracking possible, John Geyer, vice president of business development for Aegis Mobility, Vancouver, British Columbia, told iTECH.

Voice calls also may be restricted. Certain programs direct inbound calls to voice mail or greet them with a message informing callers that the subscriber is driving and cannot accept calls.

None of the systems blocks outbound 911 emergency calls, and most of the programs can be tailored to permit at least some inbound calls.

Illume Software, Concord, Mass., permits calls from selected numbers on its IZUP ("eyes up") program. And Aegis‘s DriveAssist sends an audio alert when messages from selected contacts arrive.

In some cases, hands-free calling is an option. ZoomSafer, Reston, Va., automatically sets certain handsets‘ "convenience key" so drivers can quickly launch hands-free calling before hitting the road, said Chief Executive Officer and founder Matthew Howard.

"We don‘t want you to take your hands off the wheel," he said. "We don‘t want you touching the device, or even looking at it."

Once a handset‘s GPS detects motion in excess of 10 miles per hour, ZoomSafer automatically launches. The baseline settings prohibit outbound text and e-mail, and cannot be altered.

However, settings that allow for hands-free voice communications can be changed.

"We embrace voice," Howard said, but only in situations where it is "safe and legal" to carry on conversations.

He also said that while the hands-free capability can provide "a measure of productivity," if a company wants to block conversations whenever a truck is in motion—or if local laws prohibit all conversations in moving vehicles—ZoomSafer can completely lock down the device.

"This is a policy application," he said, and can be configured to determine "what the driver can and cannot do." The customizable program offers both owner-operators and fleets "an opportunity to manage risk and liability."

In addition, the company offers a service that can record and report usage habits, giving fleets the ability to monitor and review drivers‘ communications patterns.

Howard was quick to point out that extrapolating meaning from the data is up to the subscriber. "We‘re not the moral authority in this equation, or Big Brother, and we don‘t want to be," he said.

Drivers who are hoping to evade the programs‘ scrutiny face hurdles.

Key2SafeDriving, sold by Safe Driving Systems, South Jordan, Utah, can be configured to notify an administrator of attempts to disable or bypass the program. And while Drive Safely Corp., Rochester, N.Y., and Aegis‘ programs both ask users if they are driving—if a "yes" response is entered, the device shuts down—the programs handle "no" answers—which allow users to move forward—differently.

DriveAssist blocks incoming text and voice communications for users who log in as a driver, but it features an override when users log in as passengers.

Aegis Chief Executive Officer Bill Stack acknowledged that drivers could beat the system with this option, but he said that because voice and data traffic is monitored, fleet managers easily can determine if a driver is punching a keypad when he should have both hands on the wheel.

"All activity is logged, and could be routed to a compliance manager," Stack said.

There is no way for users to specifically disable Drive Safely‘s three anti-messaging technologies—one each for sending text, e-mail and multimedia—but a series of approval screens require a level of dexterity and attention that drivers should not be able to overcome, Chief Operating Officer Jeffrey Schaeffer said.

The first screen asks if the user is driving. A "yes" answer automatically disables text capabilities. A "no" answer launches an "attention validation sequence," during which randomly assigned letters, numbers and symbols must be entered within seconds in order to continue.

As a follow-up, the system will randomly launch additional sequences to ensure that the subscribers‘ attention is not focused elsewhere.

Although Drive Safely products do not completely disable texting, Schaeffer said that the validation sequences and time limits make entry from the driver‘s seat extremely prohibitive.

If any of the sequences are not entered properly, the handset‘s messaging capability is shut down.

While the programs are still in their infancy, there already is debate over which technical framework— network- or phone-based—is best.

Schaeffer said the Drive Safely technology, designed to embed directly with carrier networks, is compatible with all phones and networks, which he proclaimed as an advantage over technologies that must be downloaded to phones.

However, the hurdle of weaving a technology into existing infrastructure is not insignificant, said Aegis‘ Stack, noting that regulatory and developmental delays could slow introduction of a network-based—or "mediated," in the industry parlance—platforms.

"There has to be a way to work within the existing construct of the network," he said. "Wireless networks and handsets are similar but require customization." He cited cost and additional demand placed on networks working to keep pace with the increasing digital traffic as an advantage that phone-based applications could have over network setups.

"We can‘t cause the carriers to reengineer their entire network to do this," he said.

Despite these hurdles, Aegis has been working on a mediated product that should be ready for demonstration early next year, Geyer said.

Regardless of framework, Stack said there is no time to wait for ongoing government efforts now under way to address distracted driving.

"Laws, mandates and policies cannot force compliance," he said. "We can pass all the laws we want. If we wait until the accident happens, it‘s too late."

He also said more driver restraint would help.

"Subscribers have the ultimate control—they have the [handset‘s] on-off button, and they can use it," he said. "But people are not going to do that."

Transport Topics, 12/28/2009

 
Biodiesel Producers Could Halt Operations if $1 a Gallon Tax Credit Is Not Extended
Monday, 21 December 2009 00:00

Biodiesel producers are threatening to shut down their operations if the Senate does not approve a bill that would extend the $1 per gallon biodiesel tax credit due to expire on Dec. 31.

The bill to extend the tax credit passed the House on Dec. 11, and has been referred to the Senate Finance Committee.

However, Holly Alfano, vice president of government affairs for NATSO, a trade association representing travel plaza and truck-stop owners and operators, is concerned that the "Senate is caught up in health care, and they are not really moving a lot of legislation."

"The biodiesel industry, as we know it, will come to halt until it‘s renewed," Alfano told Transport Topics. "People are really concerned about it."

Over the past few years, the tax credit has enabled the industry to compete with cheaper and more efficient conventional diesel fuels, according to a study released earlier this month by the National Biodiesel Board.

"Since it was enacted in 2004, the biodiesel tax incentive has allowed the nation to reap the economic, energy security and environmental benefits associated with commercial sale production and use of biodiesel," Manning Feraci, vice president of federal affairs for NBB, said in a recent statement. "Allowing the credit to lapse will compound the already daunting challenges facing the industry and will cost the nation another 23,000 jobs in addition to the 29,000 jobs that were shed in 2009."

The NBB study, conducted by economic analyst John Urbanchuk of the international consulting firm LECG, Emeryville, Calif., concluded that without the tax incentive, there also would be a major loss of income, increased demand for petroleum diesel, a degradation of energy security, decreased demand for soybean oil that would hurt farmers, tax revenue losses for states and local governments, and decreased investment in the industry.

Richard Moskowitz, vice president and regulatory affairs counsel for American Trucking Associations, said allowing the tax credit to expire would increase the cost of fuel for motor carriers.

The federal renewable fuels standard requires refiners to make increasing amounts of biofuels, and although the tax credit goes to biodiesel producers, truckers would have to buy fuel blended with biodiesel, he said.

"Without that dollar-per-gallon tax credit, the [renewable fuels standard] amounts to essentially a billondollar hidden tax on our industry, because we are being forced to use biodiesel. And if it‘s not subsidized, without the existing federal tax credit we will have to pay a higher price," Moskowitz said.

Alfano said that NATSO members buy large quantities of biodiesel, but they would be reluctant to purchase the alternative fuel because the tax credit is what makes it competitive with conventional diesel fuel.

"Our members have found that if it‘s priced competitively with conventional diesel, then it‘s a viable product," Alfano said. "But if there‘s no dollar credit, it‘s not a viable product."

Charles 'Shorty' Whittington, immediate past chairman of ATA and the owner of an Indiana-based biodiesel production facility, said if the Senate does not pass the tax credit by the end of the year, he would probably shut down his plant, at least temporarily.

"Everybody‘s on a wing and a prayer right now," Whittington said. "About 80% of the bioproducers are already shut down. And nobody is making any purchases of raw products after the first of the year."

Transport Topics, 12/21/2009

 
Study: Physical driver screening pays off
Monday, 21 December 2009 00:00

A two-year study by Atlas Ergonomics showed that systematic physical screenings of truck drivers prior to hiring led to a 7 percent reduction in lost work days, saving a long-haul carrier company $28 million in just two years—a return of $25 for every dollar spent on the program.

From 2007 to 2009, Atlas Ergonomics screened about 20,000 driver candidates for a long-haul truckload carrier. The study, part of Atlas‘ ongoing research into transportation industry ergonomics, reviewed and quantified the effects of a Pre-Work Screen (PWS) program in addressing drivers‘ risks of musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs).

MSDs are especially costly for the commercial transportation industry. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and Washington State Department of Labor spotlight the industry‘s high rates of overexertion injuries. Combined with a high level of employee turnover, these injuries cost trucking companies millions of dollars annually in direct and indirect injury expenses.

The study demonstrated that, by appropriately assessing drivers‘ physical risks before hiring, a PWS program based on current ergonomic science can match workers‘ physical abilities with the physical demands of the job, demonstrably reducing injuries and resulting costs.

With a focus on trends in injury rates and the costs associated with implementing the program, the Atlas study showed that a direct impact on core risk can be achieved through a scientific, systematic PWS program – ultimately returning the employer many times more than its initial investment.

eTrucker.com, 12/21/2009

 
Congress Adds Road Funds
Monday, 21 December 2009 00:00
At Least $40 Bln. Approved for Highways in 2010

In a flurry of activity before its holiday recess, Congress approved more than $40 billion in new highway spending for 2010, moved toward adding another $27 billion, approved a truck-weight exemption and quietly dropped a prohibition on a federal pilot program allowing trucking across the U.S.-Mexico border.

The House also approved two separate extensions of the current federal highway program to ensure that the Department of Transportation can continue supporting state transportation efforts.

The first round of new highway spending was part of a $447 billion fiscal 2010 funding package for DOT and other federal agencies.

The spending bill allows Maine and Vermont to conduct one-year pilot programs to test increased truck weights, and it omits a provision preventing DOT from spending money on a Mexican trucking pilot program that was in the previous appropriation.

The weight language would allow trucks weighing up to 100,000 pounds to use interstate highways in Maine and Vermont. New Hampshire already has a similar exemption. The provision, originally inserted by Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), was expanded to include Vermont by a House-Senate conference committee.

"A uniform truck weight limit would keep trucks on the interstates where they belong, rather than on the rural roads that pass through our small towns and villages," Collins said.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said the weight exemption "will get these trucks out of our downtowns in the short term. In the longer term, it will help us determine, with real-world experience, whether it is safer and better for both our infrastructure and the environment to have these trucks use the interstate system."

The true value of the exemption was "less about a one-year pilot and much more about states‘ needing to have the flexibility to meet their own economic needs, and under a freeze, it literally takes an act of Congress to do that," Tim Lynch, a senior vice president of American Trucking Associations, told Transport Topics.

ATA has said it would like states to have the ability to set their own truck size and weight limits.

John Lannen, executive director of the Truck Safety Coalition, which opposes increased size and weight limits, said that residents of the two states deserve more than being human guinea pigs in this dangerous experiment.

The bill‘s omission of a provision to block DOT from spending money on a Mexican trucking pilot program was a departure from the previous annual spending measure, which withheld funds for DOT‘s test of cross-border trucking and effectively ended the program.

Rod Nofziger, director of government affairs for the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, said that the prohibition was not necessary because there is no cross-border pilot program currently under way.

"That‘s the reason that provision was in there, and right now, we don‘t have a pilot program, so it really brings into question the need for such a provision," Nofziger said. "It has all to do with the fact that there‘s not an existing pilot program."

The bill does require DOT to report to Congress about the state of cross-border trucking. While the United States had committed to opening the border under the North American Free Trade Agreement, it has failed to follow through, citing safety concerns about Mexican trucks.

In retaliation, Mexico has slapped punitive tariffs on some U.S. goods and has filed legal actions seeking billions of dollars in damages.

After approving the omnibus spending bill, which President Obama is expected to sign, the House passed a measure funding the Department of Defense that included an extension of current highway legislation until Feb. 28 and a job-creation spending bill that extends the law to Sept. 30.

The jobs bill also included $27.5 billion in immediate spending on highway and bridge construction, which would be an addition to the stimulus legislation passed earlier this year.

Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.), chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said the jobs bill "doubles down on the highway and transit investments of the [stimulus program] and will immediately create and sustain jobs."

In addition to the new highway spending, the bill included a transfer of more than $20 billion into the Highway Trust Fund from the general treasury. The extension also allows the fund to receive more from the general fund, which Oberstar said would increase Trust Fund receipts by an estimated $500 million to $1 billion annually, in the near-term.

The Senate was expected to vote on the DOD bill after press time, but it was unlikely to consider the jobs legislation until sometime in 2010.

Transport Topics, 12/21/2009

 
Recession, White House Made for Year of Challenges
Monday, 21 December 2009 00:00

Trucking fleets focused on survival in 2009 as freight haulers battled a widespread economic downturn and confronted the prospect of significant new safety and environmental regulations from the Obama administration.

A continuing decline in truck tonnage forced many carriers to slash rates and shrink the size of their fleets, depressing profits and curbing demand for new and used tractors and trailers.

The inauguration of Barack Obama as president in January marked a turning point for several key federal agencies. The Environmental Protection Agency took the first steps toward regulating carbon emissions. Meanwhile, truck and engine manufacturers ramped up new models to comply with EPA‘s tailpipe emissions standards for 2010.

At the Department of Transportation, Secretary Ray LaHood announced a plan to re-examine driver hours-of-service rules in effect since 2004 and sparred with congressional leaders over upcoming highway funding legislation.

"These are very unsettling and challenging times," American Trucking Associations President Bill Graves said in his annual State of the Industry address in October, when he painted a picture of an increasingly hostile business and regulatory environment for trucking.

Many carriers took drastic action to cope with the downturn.

YRC Worldwide Inc., the nation‘s largest less-than-truckload freight carrier, sold off terminal properties, struck a deal with the Teamsters union to cut wages in return for a share of ownership and renegotiated payment terms with major lenders to cut costs.

Several debt-laden large freight haulers—Gainey Corp., Greatwide Logistics Services and Velocity Express—were taken over by new owners.

The pace of trucking bankruptcies slowed as many banks were reluctant to foreclose on delinquent loans when used equipment prices were so low. Several carriers that filed for bankruptcy in 2008, including Jim Palmer Trucking and Hoosier Tradewinds, restructured and continued to operate on a smaller scale.

Although credit conditions remained tight throughout much of the year, stock values rebounded, partly because of optimism about the economy and concern about future freight-hauling capacity. U.S. gross domestic product did grow by 2.8% in the third quarter, marking at least a temporary end to the recession. The unemployment rate, however, topped 10% for the first time in more than 25 years.

Nearly two out of three trucking executives surveyed by Transport Capital Partners in the fourth quarter said they expected freight volume to improve in the next seven to 12 months.

The year also featured a number of prominent transportation deals.

Investor Warren Buffett, chairman of Berkshire Hathaway Inc., offered to buy BNSF Railway in what he called an "all-in wager on the economic future of the United States."

In a move that combines two trucking software providers, TMW System said it would acquire Innovative Computing Corp.

PepsiCo Inc. moved to acquire its two largest independent bottlers, which would create the nation‘s largest private truck fleet.

Earlier in the year, CenterPoint Properties, Oak Brook, Ill., proposed a multibillion-dollar deal to operate state-owned marine terminals in Norfolk, Portsmouth and Newport News, Va., and an inland distribution center in Front Royal, Va.

Notwithstanding signs of economic recovery, industry experts expect freight-hauling demand to remain relatively weak.

Eric Starks, president of FTR Associates, a company that tracks equipment purchasing trends, said excess capacity created by the record drop in freight shipments from 2006 to 2009 "will put a drag on equipment sales well into 2010 and possibly into 2011."

" After a spurt in August due to government stimulus, the economy has settled into the slow, uneven movement typical of recession bottoms," Starks said.

There are signs of improved market conditions and customers‘ willingness to add new equipment, said Robert Stowers, president of Altec Capital Services, but the economy has "a long way to go to get back to some form of normalcy". Altec Capital Services, Birmingham, Ala., is a unit of Altec Industries, a manufacturer of utility line service trucks.

Another hopeful sign is that the average number of miles driven by truck owner-operators was up 1.5% in the first half of the year, according to a survey conducted by American Truck Business Services.

"It really feels like we‘re at the bottom of the cycle," said Todd Amen, president and founder of ATBS.

"This is a resilient industry," David Bradley, president of the Ontario Trucking Association, said in a yearend wrap up at the OTA‘s annual convention in Toronto.

"While it was a struggle, most OTA members have weathered the storm," he said. "Costs have been cut to the bone. Companies restructured. Carriers should be positioning themselves to take advantage of the turnaround when it comes."

Transport Topics, 12/21/2009

 
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