Taking the digital route

Initial controversy surrounding the digital tachograph has largely died away, after an extraordinarily difficult delivery from the legislative process and an angry reception from many road hauliers. But more controversy may be on the way as it moves into a new phase

Tachographs are the devices fitted to trucks and coaches to record the amount of driving, rest and other work done by professional drivers and work alongside EU Regulation governing drivers’ hours.
For decades, the tachograph record was made on circular card with a wax coating, upon which a needle scratched out a trace of time and speed with the driver manually entering his name, date and start/finish mileage and vehicle details.
This basic technology worked well enough but failed almost entirely to deliver the ease and economy of administration and checking, either for operators or, importantly, for enforcement authorities that could be available from more modern technology. Additionally, the European Commission argued that the wax card was insufficiently accurate, not so much in its recording as in its practical reading.

Technical developments
Astonishingly, the Commission asked technical experts to develop a technical specification for a new digital tachograph way back in 1992. Only in May 2006 were they finally mandated in EU countries, at the third time of asking.
It was recognised in 2006 that the new device was some way behind what could be achieved with the latest technology but that it was a substantial improvement. In Brussels, officials were even heard to describe it as “intellectually perfect”.
One problem was that it was being brought into an imperfect world. The Road Haulage Association received strong feedback that the new device was depriving them of substantial amounts of road driving time – 20, 30, even 40 minutes in some 4.5-hour driving periods. Similar feedback emerged from across Europe, especially from France and Denmark.
The EC countered that this was nonsense and in a sense, both sides were right. The way the digital tachograph recorded was different from the analogue recording and analysis, for example, it recorded all the time spent stationary in traffic queues, which had previously not been recorded.
Concrete evidence regarding the difference between the two types of tachograph and their practical impact was gathered by the Vehicle and Operators Services Agency through a month-long trial arranged by the RHA with two of its member companies, AJA Smith Transport and Ray Smith Haulage.
The trial, involving running two trucks recording on both types of tachograph at the same time, showed an interesting double-whammy for many operators. The digital tachograph added to the burden of a revision of drivers’ hours rules that included driving off-road as well as on-road. This meant that, for example, slow-speed queuing in quarries, distribution centres, and chemicals works and diesel tanks for refuelling all counted for the first time. Drivers even started to run out of hours while on customers’ premises.

The benefits
There are many positives for truck operators. Record-keeping is much easier and less costly, for example. Several record analysis services, including the RHA’s SmartAnalysis, now give driver and fleet reports that integrate records from both analogue and digital tachographs into single-format reports. The new tachograph is also a more easy-to-use tool for managing drivers’ time. Enforcement authorities in much of the EU are adjusting to the demands of the new device but there have been clear training and familiarisation demands in terms of roadside checks.

Hub system
The Tachonet hub system for member states is used to exchange information on drivers, who are issued with ‘smart cards’ that record information from the digital tachograph. Enforcement authorities can use Tachonet to validate the cards of foreign drivers and to ensure the driver is not using two cards in order disguise breaches of the hours’ laws.
The digital tachograph has no sooner arrived than it is entering into a new controversy. In the short term and on detail, improvements will be made to the current specification, probably next year, to make the device more user-friendly and to get over the ‘one-minute’ issue; at present, the tachograph is prone to slight over-recording because it records any activity in a calendar minute as one full minute. This is a fairly minor, fringe issue, however.

Additional services
Much more controversially, the Commission is thought to want to add to the functionality of the device. Specifically, it wants to add tracking and other saleable services, which can be used for truck road pricing schemes and be a key revenue scheme funding the aspirational Gallileo project - the European would-be equivalent of the American GPS system. Revenue is also anticipated from charging operators for tracking and other management information. There are concerns on two counts. Firstly, and given the problems with the first digital tachograph, there is concern over complexity and lack of focus. The device should be focused on drivers’ hours compliance (and therefore road safety).
Secondly, there is unease as to how this compliance-based mandatory device with added services would relate to commercial fleet management services, which are offered and being rapidly developed by a number of companies. Perhaps a more appropriate way forward is to have a compliance specification that can be either stand-alone, as at present, or integrate into other fleet management products. The Commission is expected to publish proposals for consultation in the second half of 2009.
It is anticipated that by the time the mark-2 digital tachograph is developed, enforcement authorities will have developed their thinking on remote downloading of information; for example, as the truck passes a sensor at the roadside. Meanwhile, the development of telematics, or intelligent transport system products and services, is one of the major changes the RHA foresees in the haulage profession; or rather, more importantly, their up-take in the market. Products already exists giving, to a considerable extent, the ability to see how your truck is being driven, its fuel consumption, where it has gone and how efficiently vehicle and its driver are being routed and managed. The challenge is for the industry – in companies of all sizes – is to adopt and to make productive use of them.

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