SAINT-BRUNO-de-MONTARVILLE, Quebec – This humble truck reporter spent a few days in Quebec last week at the Isaac Instruments User Conference. I’ve learned a lot more about a controversial trucking technology – and the efforts to onboard drivers with these new systems.
Isaac Instruments is one of Canada’s largest providers of “truck telematics”. Isaac is also pushing into the US market. The company’s core offering is a tablet that functions as an electronic logging device. ELDs are required in North American trucks. They ensure that drivers comply with working time laws. In the US, this means no more than 11 hours of continuous driving in any 14-hour period.
Other major ELD manufacturers include Omnitracs, Samsara, Motive and Garmin. Much of what I will discuss in this newsletter pertains to ELDs across the industry, but will focus on Isaac.
ELDs sound like a smart way to increase safety on the roads, especially for overworked truck drivers. However, many drivers loathe the devices.
This is why ELDs are controversial. As a rule, many just don’t like having a piece of surveillance technology while they work. It’s akin to, as a trucker’s buddy recently told me, “having government surveillance [your] every movement over days and weeks.”
In addition, the HOS regulations do not correspond to a driver’s typical working day. Drivers are paid per kilometer, not per hour. A truck driver can spend hours (unpaid!) waiting in warehouses for loading or unloading. That eats up the 14-hour working day prescribed by the federal government – although the driver does not earn any money during this time. The result is fewer hours in a day for a truck driver to make cash.
This is what an Isaac ELD looks like. (Courtesy of Isaac Instruments)
It has also exacerbated the already challenging problem of truck parking. In the past, a truck driver might have parked in a parking lot for a few hours to rest during the day. But having to work the 14-hour day means more drivers want to work all day and sleep all night. There’s just one problem: truck parking is scarce. A study by the American Trucking Association found that drivers spend almost an hour every day looking for a parking space, which translates into a 12% pay cut every year. According to a study conducted before ELDs were required, fleets with ELDs were more likely to have trouble parking.
Before the ELD mandate, as truck driver Skylere Young recently told me, “drivers didn’t drive against the clock. It was more like, ‘We’ll get there when we get there.’ Now it’s like, ‘Hurry up and come no matter what.’”
“It’s a race against the clock now,” Young added.
On the other hand, this new law brings some advantages. Drivers saw an unusual pay rise in 2018 as the impact of the ELD mandate wore off. That’s because drivers had to work fewer hours a day, increasing demand for truck labor. Better tracking of driver locations via GPS means they can track how much time they spend in warehouses waiting to be loaded or unloaded. Then they have a better chance of getting the wages they deserve for that time.
On a very snowy day in Quebec last week, I wanted to learn why ELDs might actually be good for truck drivers. Here’s what I discovered.
Trucking Technology Could Stop Bad Lawsuits
One point I certainly learned in Quebec was that new trucking technology is not limited to ELDs. There’s also GPS, monitoring systems that can measure steering wheel usage, and of course, cameras.
In a panel discussion with some of Isaac’s executives, I posed the elephant-in-the-room question: How can the industry make these devices acceptable to truck drivers? Don’t drivers hate this stuff?
Jacques DeLarochelliere, co-founder and president of Isaac, was quick to correct me. “I would add one word to your question – driver initially don’t like it,” he said.
Melanie Simard von Isaac, the company’s director of compliance, customer service and technical support, stepped in. Before she came to Isaac, Simard was a truck driver herself.
Simard mentioned that truck drivers – first! – are really careful with their Isaac technology. Some even cover the tablets with tape or drape tissues over their cameras, which face the street. (Cameras aimed at the driver are illegal in Canada, but are legal and increasingly common in the US)
These cameras can capture what happened in a truck accident and accurately depict the circumstances in the event of a lawsuit. Isaac’s technology also records rider speed, force on the pedal, and other key data points that could help unburden riders.
Such evidence is more in demand than ever. So-called “nuclear judgments” are sweeping the industry. As CNBC reported on truck lawsuits in 2021, “If you include judgments of more than $1 million, the average height increased nearly 1,000% from 2010 to 2018, rising from $2.3 million to 22, $3 million.”
This also applies to accident-free fleets. From 2011 to 2020, truck insurance premiums increased nearly 30%, according to the American Transportation Research Institute.
The trucking industry blames these nuclear judgments on overactive lawyers and plaintiffs. But, as plaintiff attorney Michael Leizerman previously told FreightWaves, “nuclear injuries” are also on the rise. According to federal data, the death toll from accidents involving large trucks increased by 36% from 2010 to 2019.
Regardless of the larger industry talk, Simard said she wishes she had had a road-facing camera in her early truck driving days. At that time, Simard said, a passenger car drove up from the shoulder of a road and cut it off. A serious collision followed. But she had no proof that the passenger was a significant contributor to the accident.
“If I had had this camera, it would have been so much easier,” she said.
ELDs can help with training
During the conference, Isaac executives pointed to another benefit of technology in their customers’ cabs: training.
Let’s say a truck driver has a bad habit of braking too hard or making sharp turns. The Isaac tablet recognizes this immediately, sends an alert to the driver and also sends an alert to the fleet back office. The fleets then have the opportunity to chat with the drivers. Isaac’s technology also uses cameras aimed at the street to capture exactly what happened.
This is what it looks like when you get a notification on an Isaac tablet. (Rachel Premack/Freight Waves)
How Fleet Managers Can Oversee Current “Critical Events” (Rachel Premack/FreightWaves)
Fleets can then use this footage when training new drivers, who can see real-world examples of their peers, rather than stock footage in an unfamiliar environment, for example.
In an informal poll at the conference, 42% of Isaac customers said they use Isaac Coach and have an incentive plan to ensure safe driving. Another 32% use Isaac Coach, but without an incentive plan.
Admittedly, I had trouble believing that drivers would welcome these types of warnings and disciplinary action. However, if this prevents accidents and dangerous driving, neither I nor the drivers could protest too much.
Simard mentioned in her presentation that critical drivers actually warm up to such warnings as it makes them better drivers.
There is some confusion surrounding the technology
Part of the resistance to ELDs may be due to the fact that this technology may not be intuitive to most drivers.
Much time during Wednesday’s events was spent discussing how drivers can adjust the brightness of their tablets and increase the size of icons.
I have no further information on this. I just found it interesting how much time we spent discussing how to adjust the brightness!
Goodbye weigh stations
There were many stalls outside the conference room.
One from DriveWyze really caught my attention. This company integrates with Isaac tablets to allow drivers to skip weigh stations up to 90% of the time.
It is available in 45 states and provinces; New York is a notable outlier.
Being able to skip weigh stations that far would certainly be an advantage for ELD-desperate truckers.
Getting truck drivers to accept their ELDs is probably not enough
I’ve probably received over a thousand emails from truck drivers about their dislike of the ELD mandate. Some early research suggests that their reservations do indeed have a basis.
A 2020 study published by researchers at Michigan State University and the University of Arkansas compared accident counts and driver inspections before and after the ELD mandate, collecting millions of data points. The scientists found that drivers are actually less likely to break HOS rules.
However, truckers in small fleets were more likely to speed and engage in other unsafe driving practices. According to a University of Arkansas press release published in 2021 about the study, the number of accidents among small fleets actually increased. This is of particular concern as the ELD mandate was largely geared towards owners and small fleets.
“Tighter enforcement of hours of operation appears to have resulted in more drivers attempting to compress their routes to their allotted time,” the press release said.
Harder to capture in research studies: the idea that such technology will help undermine trucking culture – emptying the truck stop diners and forcing a group of workers who prefer open roads and freedom to cabs. As Paul “Long Haul Paul” Marhoefer said of ELDs in a 2020 Radiotopia podcast: “[I]It’s changing us and the way we do business… the codes and culture of trucking are eroding before our eyes.”
What do you think of ELDs? E-mail [email protected]. And be sure to subscribe the MODES newsletter for your weekly plethora of trucking and logistics insights.