One way system

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Sitting near the front of a speeding coach on a Duseldorf autobahn a few weeks ago, I became intrigued by a mechanical voice issuing periodically from near the steering wheel. Closer inspection revealed it to be an on-board routing computer instructing the driver to turn left or right while the unit’s display panel showed the appropriate section of map.

It all seemed rather distracting and I cautiously retreated further back into the coach for the return journey. What, one wonders, will it be like for truck drivers in a couple of years’ time faced not only with a talking routing computer, but a digital tachograph, a congestion charge tolling system, some sort of link to central fleet management systems and maybe an on-board management system to monitor fuel usage or driver performance? Small wonder that interest in what the UK’s Freight Transport Association terms the ‘integrated black box’ is increasing.

According to Roger Worth, manager of the freight logistics research programme at the UK Department of Transport, while there is an expectation that the department will sort out integration of such a burgeoning mix of technology, the odds are that it will be left to market forces and industry to solve the problem. In a competitive environment that will inevitably mean an assortment of systems to choose from while any attempt at standardisation could be many years into the future.

Ageing concepts
Given the time scales associated with standardssetting bodies that seems unlikely. Discussion on the development of digital tachographs began in 1992. A specification was finally published ten years later with the aim of creating prototype units and approving devices this year, and implementing systems on all new vehicles by August 2004. Inevitably in this protracted timetable technology has undergone one or two fundamental transformations and the specification – based on ageing concepts – is essentially unworkable.

‘We should have had prototypes in March,’ says James Hookham, policy director at the Freight Transport Association, ‘but no one has actually made any yet.’ The specification is basically flawed and incompatible with other high-tech equipment now appearing in drivers’ cabs. ‘Technology was different in 1992,’ he adds, ‘and the result is rather like stipulating a cassette player in the DVD age.’

The FTA is arguing for an integrated, future-proof approach to on-board IT systems which eventually need to manage not only tachographs but also road tolls, fleet management and vehicle monitoring requirements. It wants the EU ruling on implementing digital tachographs delayed until 2006 with the emphasis shifted to integrated systems instead.

All very sensible and logical, but don’t forget that this is an EU initiative and we know what that means: arcane bureaucracy, delays and ineptitude.

Meanwhile, with congestion charging proving such a winner in London, pressure is growing to introduce other forms of road use payment with the emphasis on global positioning systems (GPS) to track heavy goods vehicles and bill them accordingly. Long before the first digital tachograph prototypes appear, freight companies could be faced with national (rather than EU) requirements to implement this sort of tolling system. Inevitably that has implications for cross-border distribution unless national governments decide to sing along with a standardised technology.

All new in-cab requirements share the same basic technology needs: a processing unit, some form of data communications and possibly GPS, a driver interface, printer and smart card.

Craig Sears-Black, marketing director at Isotrak, believes that a single integrated system will not only be easier for drivers to use but will also cut costs. He estimates that separate systems could add up to e5,000 or so for each vehicle with an additional e600-plus per truck for administration and systems maintenance. The return on investment for many of these tools is nebulous – fleet operators will not be getting any money back for implementing road tolling technology, for example.

An integrated ‘black box’ would at least bring corporate benefits while keeping the tax collectors happy.

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