Monday, August 25, 2014

Google’s self-driving car will be able to speed, for safety’s sake

We here at OOIDA HQ got a pretty big kick out of the headlines last week about Google’s autonomous car and its ability to speed if traffic conditions called for it.

The reason, according to a Reuters news service account of a test drive of the vehicle in California earlier this month, is because “Google’s engineers have determined that speeding is actually safer than going the speed limit in some circumstances.”

The cars are programmed to go up to 10 miles per hour above the posted speed limit, when traffic conditions warrant, because the company’s research shows that sticking to the speed limit when other drivers are going much faster can actually be hazardous.

This probably isn’t earth-shattering news to those of you who’ve stayed current on OOIDA positions when it comes to highway safety. Your Association has been advocating for uniform speeds on highways for both commercial and non-commercial vehicles.

Probably the most succinct explanation for why a company would design a self-driving vehicle to break the law was provided by Gizmodo, a blog focusing on gadgets and high-tech (emphasis added):

“While no one’s going to confuse the Google car with a drag-racing hot rod, it is interesting that the company would deliberately design the car to break the law. The reason is safety: When cars all around the Google car are speeding, going slower than those cars would actually make driving conditions more dangerous.

In a nutshell, that’s the same argument the Association has been making when it comes to installing speed limiters or governors on commercial trucks. By hamstringing the trucks, a rule that is ostensibly designed to promote “safety” may actually increase the likelihood of a dangerous situation by creating an environment where faster vehicles are maneuvering in and out of lanes to get around the slower ones.

Back in November, our own David Tanner had a special report about how federal regulators are pursuing speed limiters for heavy trucks, despite not having any real-world data to suggest the devices actually make a difference in road safety.

It shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise that a company known for being on the cutting-edge of innovation would be smart enough to recognize the hazard associated with speed limiters. Hopefully the regulators will be smart enough to follow suit.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Technology is turning HOS on its head

In the evolving world of electronic logging devices and real-time communication, regulations intended to put a lid on driver hours now provide a floor. The maximum under federal regulation has become the minimum through the laws of business.

There was a time, not all that long ago, when hours-of-service compliance was primarily the concern of the truckload driver. Sure, dispatch had to know a driver’s log status for planning. Did the driver have enough hours to handle a particular load? But a dispatcher didn’t necessarily know what a driver’s log looked like – exactly how many hours were left in a day, for example – unless the driver told him.

ELDs and mobile communications changed that. Now dispatch can know a driver’s available time down to the minute. They are also aware if a driver pulls over for a time, perhaps to nap, and they can be in constant communication with that driver – with all that implies in terms of potential harassment.

Now hold that thought.

Over the past 20 years carriers have been sharing more and more information with customers, who can now watch the progress of a truck on an iPhone. The more information carriers provided – ever more frequent updates, for example – the more shippers asked for. Why not? Whether the information is truly meaningful to the customer or not, it costs nothing to request. But customer requests quickly became market demands.

In logistics they call it visibility – always knowing where the freight is. We’re told it results in efficiencies for transportation customers, and maybe it does. But there is no doubt at all what it means for carriers and brokers: pressures to meet always increasing, ever more precise customer expectations.

Those pressures, like light rays magnified, converge on the driver. For one thing, sophisticated load planning software can maximize utilization of drivers’ available hours. And when a carrier knows the details of an individual driver’s log, they can apply subtle – or not-so-subtle – pressure within those legal hours. Carriers can push drivers up to the legal limit, filling their ELDs with logged hours and minimizing their options.

Please keep in mind that among those options is the choice to shut down and rest, to pull over and nap, to do what a driver knows is the right thing to do when fatigue flows in like a mist. No device yet invented can detect driver fatigue better than the driver. No algorithm can better decide when it’s time to call it a day. No set of regulations can better protect the public than a driver’s ability to decide – without pressure – when to run and when to get off the road.

Compelling a driver to stay on the road because there’s time left on an ELD is a very serious form of driver harassment. It endangers the public no less than forcing a driver to break the HOS rules. Yet in addressing driver harassment in the context of ELDs, the FMCSA simply looked the other way. They essentially restated current regulations in a tougher tone of voice, forbidding dispatch to force a driver to break HOS rules. That fails totally to even acknowledge the new reality created by ELDs.

Regulators understand that some drivers will drive as many hours as they legally can. That’s the reason for limits in the first place. But they also understand that HOS is intended to define how long a driver is allowed to work. It was never meant to define how long a driver is required to work. But that’s what’s happening.

For the moment, these circumstances do not apply universally, only to technologically advanced fleets. But due to market demands more fleets are acquiring technology, and if an ELD mandate goes into effect and automated logs are in every truck, this problem will surely metastasize. 

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

That ‘deep dark well’

The death of Robin Williams and the revealing stories about his struggle with depression have prompted statements from everyone from the president to his best friends. Many are posting comments about depression on Facebook. One that I liked was posted by “Land Line Now” Senior Correspondent Terry Scruton.

If you read “Roses and Razzberries,” you know Terry. If you listen to “Land Line Now” on Sirius XM, you know Terry. But there’s a side of him you don’t see, one that is particularly insightful and frequently profound.

Terry’s friends and family do see that side of him and we were privy to that this morning with a post on his personal Facebook. I have his permission to share this with you. 

I’m seeing a lot of posts today about depression in the wake of Robin Williams’ death, and understandably so. I’ve never suffered from clinical depression, but I know plenty of people who have and I thought I'd offer a few thoughts from someone on the outside looking in. 

The constant refrain I've heard throughout my life when dealing with people who have depression is “you don't get it. You don't understand.” You’re right. I don’t. But what you need to understand is that I’m trying.

My college girlfriend was bipolar and I got that refrain from her all the time. It made me feel small, ineffective and useless. It still does when I hear it today, even though I’ve learned so much more since those days. One thing I’ve learned is that depression is a disease. It’s not just a state of mind. People with depression don’t need to “cheer up” or “get over it.” They need medical help. The hard part is convincing them of that. Convincing them that there is hope. That they can get better.

I’ve heard that suffering from depression (I refuse to call it “being depressed” because that makes it sound like “being sad” and it’s so much more than that) is like being in a deep dark well with no way out. Here’s what it looks like from the other side: Since we can’t come down there with you, we just keep dropping buckets down the well, hoping you’ll grab one and we can lift you out to safety. But having never been down that well ourselves, we don’t realize how dark it is down there. We don’t realize that you might not even see the bucket or know that it’s there. We also don’t realize that sometimes those buckets might accidentally hit you on the head. Sorry about that. 

But know this: We’re not going to stop. No matter how deep or how dark it gets down there, there is always someone, somewhere who is going to keep trying to fish you out, whether you realize it or not. We are here. Buckets at the ready. You are never as alone in the dark as you think you are.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Lauer. Lawyers. Lies.

On Monday morning NBC’s Matt Lauer interviewed Tracy Morgan’s attorney, Benedict P. Morelli. Lauer handled the details of the wreck better than expected – especially in light of the recent teardown series on the industry put out there by CNBC.

One criticism of Lauer: He tried to slant the accountability from motor carriers. Clearly he lacks an understanding of the industry and how some motor carriers operate. He clearly was fishing for Morelli to say that only drivers are responsible for crashes when they happen. But that wasn’t even close to the worst of it. Morelli was so full of bad information it was appalling.

Morelli said there were “75 deaths a day from big rigs. It’s been increasing.”

Seriously – 75 a day from big rigs? If that were true, it would add up to 27,375 a year – which is so far from the truth it made me cringe. Then scream. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says the actual number of truck-related deaths in 2012 was just over 3,900. And that number doesn’t reflect the fact that the truck driver was usually not at fault.

It’s not in the article on the website, but he states it at about the 4:05 mark on this video.

Watch the whole thing, though. Morelli’s “facts” are the gold standard for the misinformation that we in the trucking industry battle. Morelli not only butchered the actual facts, he said Walmart driver Kevin Roper had been driving his truck for more than 13 hours. DRIVING?

It will be interesting to see if Morelli is going to go into a courtroom with a load of lies and a very poor understanding of the hours of service. Let’s see, how many weeks has this guy been on the job prepping to represent Tracy Morgan in court with the facts? And he still doesn’t get it? Maybe Morgan has been paying him way too much.

Last week I blogged about the mainstream media having a field day with twisted truths and half-baked statistics, which of course results in a push for lawmakers to rush to respond with more regs and sadly perpetuates the killer trucker stereotype.

Here (again) are the real facts.

The most recent year of complete crash data released was 2012. Here are some key points:
  • There were 3,464 fatal crashes involving large trucks.
  • 3,921 people died in crashes involving large trucks..
  • Research shows that of those 3,464 wrecks involving large trucks, 75 to 80 percent of those wrecks were not the fault of the trucker.

What the media should be focused on is how MOST people on the road are dying.
  • There were 26,540 fatal crashes that did not involve large trucks.
  • 29,156 people died in crashes that did not involve large trucks.

Funny thing, Morelli complained to Lauer that the press had first reported in error that his client was dead. Then it was erroneously reported that Morgan had lost a leg in the accident. Morelli was actually outraged that those rumors were reported by the press. Ironic, eh?

Monday, August 4, 2014

FedEx defies the feds, fights Internet pharmacy indictment

Trucker or Cop?

That’s the question FedEx is asking in a legal battle with the U.S. Department of Justice. Charged by the feds in a criminal indictment with knowingly delivering prescription drugs from illegal Internet pharmacies, FedEx issued a defiant public statement in July:

“We want to be clear what’s at stake here: The government is suggesting that FedEx assume criminal responsibility for the legality of the contents of the millions of packages that we pick up and deliver every day. We are a transportation company – we are not law enforcement. We have no interest in violating the privacy of our customers.”

With a not-guilty plea in court last week, FedEx signaled a public fight based not on the specifics of the indictment, but on legal philosophy.

Comments on The Wall Street Journal website picked up on a conservative issue here. “Statism is the (government’s) goal,” wrote one reader of the FedEx indictment. “Control of everything that makes America free. If your neighbor is breaking the law, it is your responsibility to turn them in.”

The conservative Washington Times came out squarely in support of FedEx. “With millions of other Americans, we’re rooting for FedEx on its day in court,” the paper said.

Millions is an overstatement at this point. The FedEx case has yet to make waves in the general media. Maybe it will, maybe it won’t. Either way, FedEx has a point.

How responsible are carriers – or individual drivers for that matter – for the shipments in their trucks? Are they obligated to inform on customers they even suspect of illegal activity?

Last year, as part of the same war on illegal Internet pharmacies UPS decided not to fight the feds. The company accepted a $40 million fine and agreed to work with Drug Enforcement Agency and the Food and Drug Administration against the Internet pharmacies. Some conservatives in the WSJ site claim the company “caved.”

UPS is hardly alone. In another, similar controversy federal authorities also forced cooperation from Internet service providers, major corporations like Verizon and Comcast.

The issue is very similar: the feds wanted these companies to inform on customers who download illegal music, movies, and TV shows. The service providers negotiated a nuanced deal with the government allowing a series of warnings before an illegal downloader is denied Internet service altogether. But ultimately, that’s what will happen.

So in the end, Verizon, Comcast, et al, are in the law enforcement business – like it or not. This settlement cannot be a good precedent for FedEx.

A couple of questions: first, is the issue FedEx outlined here – the privacy of customer information – worthy of a constitutional battle (assuming FedEx will ultimately lay out a constitutional argument)?

Apparently FedEx thinks so. I’m not so sure, at least not in this context. If we were talking about heavy drugs like heroin or terrorist tools, it wouldn’t matter how many millions of packages FedEx handled. The government would demand cooperation and – without a doubt – FedEx would provide it. So just how illegal does a shipment have to be before FedEx cooperates?

And speaking of millions of packages, would an individual driver with a single truckload shipment be able to make the same privacy argument based on principle alone? I don’t think the State Police would buy it and, for that matter, neither would a judge. But that’s just my layman’s opinion.

So does FedEx stand a chance in court?

Probably not in the first round. The 33-page indictment makes it crystal clear that FedEx management knew exactly what it was delivering and for whom. At the initial hearing last week, the federal prosecutor noted that more particulars, more documented accusations, were on the way.

If the government’s charges are true – and there is every reason to believe they are – FedEx is going to have a hard time looking like a champion of individual freedom and not a greedy corporation skirting the law time and time again.

The judge in the FedEx case seems to sense a long battle. Urging speed on the attorneys, he is quoted as saying he wants to try this case “in my lifetime.”

The next hearing is in September. 

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Call it the celebrity effect

Mainstream media have clamped down on trucking in the wake of the wreck on the New Jersey Turnpike that involved a tractor-trailer and a limo van carrying celebrity comedian Tracy Morgan.

Our media counterparts out there in the “mainstream” are having a field day and those of us here at Land Line are simply ill. And you, our readers, have to feel sucker punched every time you open Facebook or click on a news website.

That alone is bad enough. It’s tragic in the minds of the reporters here at Land Line. We work hard to understand the facts, the actual statistics, the databases the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration uses … I could go on. But you get the picture. We like to have things, well, right.

Mainstream is now a pawn in a bigger battle being waged in Congress and by FMCSA.

The spin cycle on the D.C. Beltway is using the mainstream media’s current infatuation with “if it bleeds, it leads” truck wreck coverage.

Lawmakers and bureaucrats alike are using half-truths and half-baked statistics along with outright misrepresentation of facts to justify ever more and more regulations on trucking.

The swell of criticism of trucking cannot be quelled with one swing of the axe. Putting a stop to this is a lot like eating an elephant. The only way to do it is one bite at a time.

That means writing letters to the editor. Writing the networks – hint, hint, NBC, cough, cough. Pushing back every time you see another one of these so-called investigative reports that simply regurgitate whatever they are being fed by the agency and lawmakers and in press releases.

That communication has to come from everyone. Not just us.

So, to help you out, here are some dandy facts you can use to counter the crap “news” out there.

The most recent year of complete crash data released was 2012. Here are some key points:
  • There were 3,464 fatal crashes involving large trucks.
  • 3,921 people died crashes involving large trucks (not 10,000).
  • Research shows that of those 3,464 wrecks involving large trucks, 75 to 80 percent of those wrecks were not the fault of the trucker.
What the media should be focused on is how most people on the road are dying.
  • There were 26,540 fatal crashes that did not involve large trucks.
  • 29,156 people died in crashes that did not involve large trucks.
Every life is precious. That can never be forgotten. But there’s a bigger picture out there and this easy grab of vilifying large trucks is diverting the time and attention away from the bigger problem: personal vehicle drivers.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

OOIDA member’s dashcam video paints unflattering picture of Colorado repair shop

A funny thing happened to OOIDA Member Nick Richards the last time he took his truck to the shop, and not of the “funny ha-ha” variety.

Richards, a company driver for a small outfit in Montana, used his dashcam to record a bizarre scene in the repair shop of LKQ Western Truck Parts in suburban Denver earlier this month. Along with the dashcam footage, the video has footage Richards shot with his cellphone.

An OOIDA member from Livingston, Mont., Richards said he began having problems with the new transmission immediately after it was installed in his truck He said the temperature spiked all the way to 300 degrees. At that point, Richards brought the truck into the LKQ Western Parts shop.

“I had moved exactly four loads with the transmission,” he said. “We knew it was bad right away.”

Richards posted two versions of the video on YouTube, which have combined to receive over 1,000 hits in the past week. The dashcam video purportedly shows at least two members of the service department discussing using a screwdriver to poke a hole in the transmission cooler.

Richards and his boss, Jerry Peters of Jerry L. Peters Trucking in Conrad, Mont., said they believe the video shows the shop trying to come up with a reason to void the warranty on the transmission.

The video shows two men standing near the hood of Richards’ 1994 Kenworth W9, while a third man outside of the frame suggests hammering a screwdriver into the cooler. The shop also told Richards the reason his transmission was overheating and growling was because of a faulty carrier bearing.

“They told me the carrier bearing was bad, and that’s what’s causing the transmission to go bad,” he said. “They told me before we went any further we’d have to get that driveline replaced. It sounded really wrong to me, so just to make sure I was on point, I called both Kenworth in Spokane (Wash.) and Kenworth in Billings (Mont.) and talked to their transmission guys. And they both told me there’s no way in hell a transmission would run hot because of a bad carrier bearing.”

Richards said he refused to sign documents that would have voided the warranty on the transmission, and opted to leave the shop instead.

“What they told me is if they were going to give the truck back to me, I was going to have to sign a piece of paper voiding the warranty,” he said. “I refused to sign. I told them I was going to call my boss … I got in the truck and left.”

A spokesperson for LKQ said the company is reviewing “the context of this video and the customer service issue at hand.” A message left with the service department of the Denver shop was not returned.

Both Richards and his boss, Jerry Peters, said the transmission was sent to them by LKQ as a replacement for another faulty transmission Peters purchased from the company in April.

“At this point to be completely honest, I’m kind of done with them,” Peters said. “I don’t have time to sit around here and fart with transmissions. We’re almost at the end of July and I’m still screwing around with this.”

Peters estimated he had spent approximately $20,000 on the transmission snafu, and “I still don’t have one that works.”

Both men said they found the dashcam footage to be upsetting.

“I mean, when they were talking about punching a hole in the tranny cooler … or when they started on the carrier bearing … they’re looking for a back door way out,” Peters said.

Richards said the footage made him “angry as hell.”

“When you hand your truck over to someone, you’re handing your livelihood over to someone. You don’t do that to someone’s livelihood. This is how I take care of myself. This is how I pay my bills. … You’re cutting people’s throats doing things like that.”

There can be only one

What a week this is shaping up to be on Capitol Hill.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Senate had a choice to make – adopt a House-approved bill that would shore up the Highway Trust Fund through May 2015 or change things up and force another one of those all-too-familiar showdowns we’ve come to expect in Washington.

Long story short, the Senate made changes, opting to shorten the duration of the “patch” until December 2014.

In a day or so, we’ll have a better handle on which version of the patch will emerge and head for the president’s desk to be signed into law.

Senate transportation leaders say they prefer a shorter extension so that Congress can get back to doing what they should be doing for transportation – passing a four-, five- or six-year highway bill.

Forcing another vote on transportation before the end of the year could prove to be tough with this being a midterm election year.

The Senate action this week puts pressure on the House of Representatives right before both chambers are scheduled to break for a month-long recess at the close of the workday on Thursday.

House Speaker John Boehner has said his chamber will reject a portion of the Senate’s version that pays for the extension through pension tax reforms. That would shift responsibility back to the senate to vote on House changes with just hours to go before recess.

While we’re on the subject of timing, the U.S. Department of Transportation says it will begin limiting the money it pays out to states for infrastructure projects starting Friday, Aug. 1, due to shortfalls in the Highway Trust Fund.

If the patch does not get full approval, states will still be able to operate their transportation departments, but not at 100 percent.

Eventually, the winner in this game of chicken will cross the road. Let’s hope it doesn’t fall into a deep pothole on the way across.

Friday, July 25, 2014

FTDMA debuts Super ELDS in NPRM

We now join a press conference already in progress. The executive director of the Federal Truck Driver Micromanagement Agency (FTDMA) is discussing a new Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM), which includes its latest safety initiative, Super Electromagnetic Logging & Driver Superintendent (Super ELDS), a personal monitoring device to be worn by professional drivers at all times.

“... so the Super ELDS will resolve the duty status issue as well as how much sleep a driver has had. We’ll have no more fatigue-related crashes. Questions?”

“Ed with Semi-Smart Recruiter Magazine here. That’s pretty cool. Can you wear a hat over it?”

“You may have to cut a hole for the antenna, Ed, but sure.”

“How does it work?”

“The Super ELDS maintains a driver log. It links to the truck engine by Bluetooth and monitors the driver to determine, among other things, on- or off-duty status.”

“Wow. How does it do that?”

“Algorithms, Ed, algorithms. Next?”

“I’m Susan from Land Line Magazine. Will Super ELDS pass muster with the Supreme Court?”

“You would be referring to a previous FTDMA initiative, ILDS, the Intravenous Logging & Driver Superintendent. The new Super ELDS just measures brain waves and stuff. It doesn’t break a driver’s skin. We believe that’s what got the justices all riled up.”

“Yes, all nine of them.”

“Ahem. Next?”

“Gail with Trucking Tycoon Magazine here. How will Super ELDS benefit socially responsible, economically efficient, and environmentally conscious big fleets?”

“Good question, Gail. Super ELDS clearly establishes responsibility. So if there’s a breach of the rules, well, the state police will know who the breacher is.”

“No fleet breaches, of course.”

“That’s a pretty good bet, Gail, ha ha ha.”

“Will Super ELDS provide any other benefits for large efficient fleets with eloquent mission statements?”

“You need to ask the Super ELDS manufacturers, Gail. I believe one offers an anti-hanky-panky module for morally conscious carriers. Next?”

Land Line, again. In the Supreme Court decision on ILDS the justices used words like invasive, overreach and tyrannical. Wouldn’t these words also describe Super ELDS?"

“What’s the big deal? Super ELDS is like a helmet with suction cups ...”

“…and an antenna.”

“Yes, Susan, and an antenna. We promote safety whenever and wherever a driver is.”

“Even when he or she is off duty?”

“If a driver is not on duty, then he or she should be sleeping. We’re just making sure of that.”

“Then why did the FTDMA drop the Diazepam injection requirement for off-duty, not-sleeping drivers in NPRM?”

“Turns out it’s not practical to inject sleep aids through the skull, Susan. Besides, injections would break the skin, and we don’t want to provoke the Supremes, now do we?”

“... and what happened to the idea of remotely shutting the truck down when a driver runs out of hours?”

“Well, the Great Big Carriers Association pointed out that critical shipments might be delayed, the economy would grind to a halt, and ‘Dancing With The Stars’ would be canceled. So are you done with your silly questions Susan? Next?”   

“Ed with Semi-Smart again. Will the Super ELDS come in colors? Can recruiters tell prospective student drivers who don’t wear hats how cool they’ll look?”

“This agency does not regulate fashion, Ed, but by all means tell your readers they’ll look really cool in their Super ELDS.”

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Chicago has some explaining to do

An army of red-light cameras has apparently launched a robot takeover of Chicago. How else would one account for a series of unexplained surges in $100 tickets handed down from the city’s automated enforcement system?

In an expose, the Chicago Tribune says it has “clear evidence” to suggest there’s plenty of blame to go around, going so far as to say that some of the 380 cameras may have been altered or tampered with.

In a 10-month investigation, the Tribune found 13,000 “questionable” tickets and patterns at 12 intersections, and almost no accountability or follow-up from officials.

The tickets were questionable, according to the news organization, because some intersections that had been capturing one or two “rolling right turns” per day suddenly and without warning began capturing up to 56 violations per day.

Some ticket surges sometimes lasted weeks, the Tribune found. In its investigation, the news organization analyzed some 4 million tickets issued since 2007.

A company called Redflex Traffic Systems Inc., headquartered in Phoenix, Ariz., operates Chicago’s camera system.

Transportation officials have not yet offered an acceptable explanation for the surges or the lack of accountability, but the critics are all over it. Some have suggested that ticketing procedures were quietly altered behind the scenes to snare more violations and generate more money, or that somehow the cameras were malfunctioning.

One analyst quoted suggested that something “diabolical or mechanical or electronic and accidental” was afoot.

A small fraction of those who got dinged with $100 fines during the ticket surges have beaten their raps in court. Chicago law only allows a three-week window for someone to appeal a red-light camera ticket.

Chicago makes its photos and videos of red-light violations available online to vehicle owners. Officials say very few people appeal their red-light tickets once they see themselves on video or in a photograph violating a traffic law.

Those who win their appeals usually argue that the cameras don’t supply enough proof that they violated the law.