Peeking into the Pandora’s box of trucking technology

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Updated Jun 23, 2018

The glitz surrounding trucking’s newest technologies – autonomous trucking, electric trucks and electronic logging devices – has tended to obscure darker scenarios. Notably, the technology that makes autonomous operation and ELDs possible also opens the door for major advances in terrorism and cargo theft.

There have been warning signs. One was a 2016 announcement that researchers had plugged into a 2006 tractor’s diagnostics port and largely commandeered the truck’s network, though it wasn’t as advanced as a remote ELD hack. By mid-2017, the Transportation Security Administration noted 17 truck-ramming terrorist attacks, including high-fatality cases in Nice, France, and Berlin, Germany. While these were low-tech schemes, they were apt reminders of the deadly potential of a heavy truck in evil hands.

University of Tulsa mechanical engineering senior Hayden Allen works on a project aimed at making ELDs more secure.University of Tulsa mechanical engineering senior Hayden Allen works on a project aimed at making ELDs more secure.

When Senior Editor Todd Dills investigated for our September 2017 issue whether widespread ELD use would open the door for security issues, informed opinions diverged. Some, notably ELD producers, said the threat is virtually nonexistent because of built-in security measures and because of how ELDs are designed to interact with the electronic control module.

Others were less certain. “I think we’re at an inflection point in the industry,” said Sharon Reynolds, Omnitracs’ chief information security officer.

Now a University of Tulsa team tips the balance further toward legitimate concern. Working with a consortium led by the National Motor Freight Traffic Association to increase ELD security, they’ve developed a CAN (Controller Area Network) Data Diode hardware device.

It “prevents communication from the ELD to a commercial vehicle by virtually eliminating the connected logging device as a remote cyberattack target,” says the university. As described, it could be of particular help for independent owner-operators: “a low-cost network isolation solution for commercial vehicle operators who cannot afford sophisticated fleet management applications to keep their vehicles secure from mandated ELDs.”

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Many independent owner-operators are, for obvious reasons, buying simple low-cost ELDs. Unfortunately, small fleets and small ELD vendors can’t spend as much on security as larger entities do.

Glenn Atkinson of ELD maker Geotab, as reported by Today’s Trucking, touched on that idea at a recent conference: “It’s surprising the number of small to medium-sized companies that aren’t aware of what they’re putting in their truck.”

Some owner-operators already are replacing their ELDs because of cost, performance or lost support as the crowded field of vendors begins to thin. They would do well to understand the wired and wireless connections of any given system and what security measures are in place. An informed selection could turn out to be cheap, effective insurance as science-fiction nightmares begin to come true.