SAINT-BRUNO-de-MONTARVILLE, Quebec — This humble trucking reporter spent a few days last week in Quebec at the Isaac Instruments User Conference. I learned a lot more about a controversial trucking technology — and the efforts to get drivers on board with these new systems.
Isaac Instruments is one of Canada’s largest providers of “trucking telematics.” Isaac is also making a push into the U.S. 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 are abiding by hours-of-service laws. In the U.S., that means no more than 11 hours of consecutive driving in a 14-hour period.
Other major ELD manufacturers include Omnitracs, Samsara, Motive and Garmin. Much of what I’ll discuss in this newsletter concerns ELDs across the industry but will focus on Isaac.
ELDs sound like a smart way to boost safety on the roads, especially for overworked truck drivers. However, many drivers abhor the devices.
Here’s why ELDs are controversial. As a rule, many simply dislike having a piece of monitoring technology as they work. It is akin to, as one trucker buddy recently told me, having “the government monitoring [your] every move for days and weeks on end.”
There’s also the fact that HOS regulations don’t match with a driver’s typical workday. Drivers are paid per mile, not per hour. A truck driver might spend hours (unpaid!) waiting at warehouses to be loaded or unloaded. That eats into the 14-hour working day mandated by the federal government — even though the driver is not making any money during that time. The result is fewer hours in a day when a truck driver can earn cash.
Here’s what an Isaac ELD looks like. (Courtesy of Isaac Instruments)
It’s also worsened the already-challenging issue of truck parking. Previously, a truck driver may have parked at a lot for a few hours to get some rest during the day. But having to work through one’s 14-hour day means that more drivers want to work throughout the day and sleep throughout the night. There’s just one problem: Truck parking spots are scarce. One study from the American Trucking Associations found that drivers spend nearly an hour every day searching for parking, which amounts to a 12% pay cut every year. Fleets with ELDs were more likely to struggle to park, according to a study conducted before ELDs were required.
Before the ELD mandate, as truck driver Skylere Young recently told me, “The drivers weren’t racing the clock. It was more of, ‘We will get there when we get there.’ Now it’s, ‘Hurry up and get there no matter what.’”
“It’s a race against the clock now,” Young added.
On the other hand, there are some benefits from this new law. Drivers saw an unusual pay increase in 2018, when the effects of the ELD mandate came down. That’s because drivers had to work fewer hours a day, increasing demand for trucking labor. Better tracking of drivers’ locations through GPS means they can track how much time they’re spending at warehouses waiting to be loaded or unloaded. Then, they have a better chance of getting the pay they deserve for that time.
I was ready to learn on a very snowy day in Quebec last week why ELDs could actually be good for truck drivers. Here is what I discovered.
Trucking technology could halt bad litigation
One point I certainly learned in Quebec was that new trucking technology isn’t confined to ELDs. There’s also GPS, monitoring systems that can measure steering wheel usage and, of course, cameras.
In a roundtable discussion with some of Isaac’s leaders, I asked the elephant-in-the-room question: How can the industry make these gadgets acceptable among 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 — drivers initially don’t like it,” he said.
Isaac’s Melanie Simard, who is the company’s director of compliance, client service and technical support, jumped in. Before joining Isaac, Simard was a truck driver herself.
Simard mentioned that truck drivers — at first! — are really wary around their Isaac technology. Some even cover the tablets with Scotch tape or place tissues over their road-facing cameras. (Driver-facing cameras are illegal in Canada but permitted and increasingly common in the U.S.)
These cameras can capture what happened during a truck accident and accurately depict the circumstances in case of a lawsuit. Isaac’s technology also records the driver’s speed, force upon the pedal and other nitty gritty data points that could help exonerate drivers.
Such evidence is more in demand than ever. So-called “nuclear verdicts” are sweeping the industry. As CNBC reported in 2021 on trucking lawsuits, “When considering verdicts of more than $1 million, the average size increased nearly 1,000% from 2010 to 2018, rising from $2.3 million to $22.3 million.”
This affects accident-free fleets, too. From 2011 to 2020, truck insurance premiums increased by almost 30%, according to the American Transportation Research Institute.
The trucking industry blames overactive lawyers and plaintiffs for these nuclear verdicts. But, as plaintiff attorney Michael Leizerman previously told FreightWaves, “nuclear injuries” are on the rise as well. The number of fatalities resulting from large-truck-involved crashes increased by 36% from 2010 to 2019, according to federal data.
Regardless of the larger industry conversation, Simard said she wishes she had had a road-facing camera in her early days of truck driving. Back then, Simard said, a passenger vehicle merged from the shoulder of a road and cut her off. A major collision followed. But she didn’t have the proof that the passenger driver was a key contributor to this crash.
“If I would’ve had that camera, it would have been so much simpler,” she said.
ELDs can help with training
During the conference, Isaac executives pointed out another benefit of the technology in their customers’ cabs: training.
Let’s say a truck driver has a bad habit of breaking too hard or turning too sharply. The Isaac tablet immediately senses that, sends an alert to the driver and sends a warning to the fleet’s back office, too. Then, fleets have the option to have a conversation with drivers. Isaac’s technology also uses road-facing cameras to capture exactly what happened.
Here’s what it looks like to get an alert on an Isaac tablet. (Rachel Premack/FreightWaves)
How fleet managers can look over recent “critical events.” (Rachel Premack/FreightWaves)
Fleets can then use this footage in training for new drivers, who can see real-world examples of their colleagues rather than, say, stock footage in unfamiliar surroundings.
In an informal survey at the conference, 42% of Isaac customers said they use Isaac Coach and have an incentive plan to ensure safe driving. An additional 32% use Isaac Coach but sans incentive plan.
Admittedly, I had issues believing that drivers would welcome these sorts of alerts and disciplinary activity. However, if this prevents accidents and dangerous driving, I suppose neither I nor drivers could protest too strongly.
Simard mentioned in her presentation that critical drivers do indeed warm up to such alerts, as it makes them better drivers.
There is some confusion around technology
Some of the pushback on ELDs could be around the fact this technology may not be intuitive for most drivers.
During Wednesday’s set of events, an intriguing amount of time was spent discussing how drivers can adjust the brightness of their tablets and increase the size of icons.
I don’t have any further insight on this. I just found it interesting how much time we spent discussing how to adjust brightness!
Goodbye, weigh stations
There were many vendor booths outside the conference room.
One from DriveWyze really caught my attention. This company integrates into Isaac tablets to allow drivers to skip weigh stations up to 90% of the time.
It’s available in 45 states and provinces; New York is a notable outlier.
Being able to skip weigh stations this much would certainly be a benefit for ELD-despondent truckers.
It’s probably not enough to get truck drivers to embrace their ELDs
I have received probably north of a thousand emails from truck drivers about their dislike of the ELD mandate. Some early research indicates that their reservations have a basis in fact.
A 2020 study published by researchers at Michigan State University and the University of Arkansas compared crash counts and driver inspections before and after the ELD mandate, gathering millions of data points. The academics found that drivers indeed were less likely to violate HOS rules.
However, truckers at small fleets were more likely to speed and engage in other unsafe driving practices. Crash counts even increased for small fleets, according to a University of Arkansas news release published in 2021 about the study. That’s particularly concerning as the ELD mandate was largely targeted to owner-operators and small fleets.
“The stricter hours-of-service enforcement seems to have led more drivers to try to compress their routes into the time allotted,” according to the news release.
More challenging to capture in any research studies: the idea that such technology will help to erode trucking culture — emptying out truck stop diners and forcing a group of workers who prefer open roads and freedom to cubicles. As Paul “Long Haul Paul” Marhoefer said in a 2020 Radiotopia podcast on ELDs, “[I]t’s changing us, and the way we do business … the codes and culture of trucking are eroding before our eyes.”