The writing on the wall

Updated May 13, 2013

Forgive me if I’ve got Europe on the brain these days. I’ll be spending a good portion of this month in Germany, “on assignment,” as the big-shot network journalists like to say. So it’s inevitable, I guess.

I was thinking this morning about my Autobahn blog from last week, particularly about the section recounting how trucks in Germany are strictly regulated to 55 mph. I got a chuckle thinking about the incandescent, boiling rage that would erupt in the States if somebody told truckers here they would be allowed to go 55 mph – and no faster, ever. Trust me, I have many, many four-wheeler friends who would be delighted to see such a law passed. But doing so might be the one thing that would provoke nationwide truck strikes and a general meltdown in the driver population at large.

I don’t think such a law will ever happen, of course. The very nature of a law goes against the deeply-ingrained notion of American equality: If you get to drive 70 mph, then I get to drive 70 mph.

And also it’s worth noting that Germany is about the size of the state of Oregon and Western Europe is – and I’m guessing here – probably about the size of the American Midwest. So going 55 mph there isn’t the massive productivity- and time-killer it would be in the States.

But, in many other ways, a truck-focused trip to Europe is like looking into a crystal ball. You can learn a lot about how fleets will be doing business here in the States soon by checking out what’s happening over there.

There are a couple reasons for this. I’m thinking about writing a blog soon asking if Europe is now the technological center of the world in terms of new technology. Not to tip my hand, but it’s pretty obvious that a great deal of the new truck technology we’re seeing here in the States today is originating in Europe.

The other point is that we now see clearly that technology and regulations go hand-in-hand. In other words, technology makes it easier for governments and their regulatory agencies to manage, monitor and enforce regulations on fleets and, now, individual drivers and vehicles.

This could be a problem here.

I don’t buy into the stereotype that long-distance truckers are “loners.” I tend to see them as simply highly independent. These are people who, by their nature, don’t need – or want – to be micromanaged. By anyone.

Tell me what you want hauled, where you want it to go, when you want it to be there and get the hell out of my way, seems to the basic professional view held by most drivers I talk to. And anything that contrasts with that philosophy is unwelcome – to put it mildly.

This strong streak of American individualism runs counter to a European philosophy, which broadly speaking is much more tolerant of accepting and following rules.

To this point, European truck drivers put up with a few technologies that I can already envision American drivers grumbling about.

The first – and least intrusive (to American minds) — are dash-mounted video cameras.

Last week a 747 cargo plane crash was caught on a dash camera in Afghanistan (not Europe, I know – but bear with me). And earlier this year, when a meteor flew in from space and blew up a sizable portion of the Ukraine, the event was caught on a multitude of dash cameras.

I remember thinking at the time, God, the music those Ruskies listen to is HORRIBLE! And, more to my point, Geez, does EVERYONE over there have a dash-mounted video camera?

Turns out, yeah. They do.

In Russia, these days, a good way to make a quick ruble is to throw yourself in front of an on-coming car and collect a nice little insurance settlement. Also, it’s accepted that having a video record of a car accident is very good thing in court proceedings.

There are already a smattering of fleets here that use dash cameras. Could the practice become widespread?

I’d say yes, given the ever-decreasing size and power of digital video recorders and the obvious benefits a video record would have for a driver seeking to prove they weren’t at fault in an accident. All in all, I’d say get ready for this one. It’s a no-brainer.

What about EOBRs? The mandated use of on-board data recorders is already a hot topic here in the States and most drivers are firmly opposed to the idea.

If you’re in the “opposed” group, you’re not going to like what I’m about to tell you next: Based on what I’ve seen in Europe, an EOBR is only the first step of what will eventually happen here.

In Europe, each and every CDL has an imbedded electronic chip on it. Moreover, a truck cannot be started unless said CDL is fitted into a slot on the EOBR (usually mounted on the bulkhead over the driver’s head). It’s a bit like sliding a card into an ATM – only it stays there the entire time the truck is in operation.

Once in position, the electronic chip on the CDL copies and stores data off the EBOR for a specific period of time. If you get pulled over by the Polizei, the first thing they do is scan your CDL to see what you’ve been up to. Got an Hours of Service violation when you tried to stretch things a bit the other night? Or did you drive too fast through a commercial area three days ago? It’s on that chip. And you’re going to get a ticket for it. It doesn’t matter if the cop actually witnessed the crime or not. He’s got electronic evidence in hand. And you’re busted!

Another technological inconvenience European drivers have to put up with are on-board breathalyzers. Mostly this is a Swedish thing right now, but it looks like it’ll spread across the rest of Europe fairly soon.

And it’s exactly what you’re already thinking: Each truck in a fleet is equipped with a breathalyzer. Once the driver’s CDL is in the EOBR, the truck still won’t start until the driver blows into a breathalyzer tube and passes. Oh, and don’t flunk. Because the unit will beam a “Fail” message to fleet HQ if you do and you’ll probably get fired.

Most drivers I know here would object to this purely as an affront to their professionalism. On the other hand, a slip of paper in a courtroom proving a driver wasn’t impaired at the time of an accident is probably worth 40 million times its weight in gold. So, it’s hard to argue in terms of pure, cold Vulcan logic.

Will we ever see these technological impositions here? I’d say yes, to one degree or another. For older drivers, who remember trucking’s glory days, these “advances” must seem incomprehensible. But those guys are few and far between and getting scarcer by the day. And new drivers just entering the workforce today really don’t and won’t know any better.

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