The Drivewyze-PrePass/HELP battle has gone nuclear in just the last few weeks

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The two biggest players battling for market share to install weigh in motion (WIM) technology have found themselves dragged into public political battles in two states in the past few weeks.

The long-standing competitive battles between privately-owned Drivewyze and nonprofit HELP, with its PrePass sytem, was a backdrop to an ultimately short-lived attempt—driven mostly by one state senator—to change the governing structure for trucks in Oklahoma. If one had to pick winners and losers, the rejection of that attempt by a state senator could be seen as a victory for HELP, since it is the system in place under the current governance by the Oklahoma Corporation Commission. The rejected legislation would have moved regulation of trucking in the Sooner State to other state agencies.

But in the case of Missouri, HELP vs. Drivewyze has very clear battle lines, and one could say that for now, the two companies have fought to a tie. That’s because both companies have signed contracts with the state to operate WIM and related technology concurrently, and will continue to do so for at least three years, the length of the contract.

Interviews conducted by Freightwaves with some of the key players at Drivewyze and HELP showed vast disagreements over many things. One thing they didn’t disagree on is that they are the two major players in the WIM field, with some regional competitors but no other national-scale provider.

The companies find themselves at times battling another competitor: governments. Both companies were pushed aside by the state of Georgia last month for a system that is state-run.

So they’re competitors, big ones. But Karen Rasmussen, the CEO of HELP, was succinct when asked if what recently played out in Missouri between the two companies was normal. No, she said. It was clearly unique in the history of the HELP-Drivewyze battle.

Summing up what happened in Missouri is difficult, because it has so many moving parts. But we’ll try.

First of all, at its most basic difference, the HELP PrePass system uses a series of transponders to connect to the truck, while Drivewyze uses a cellular-based system. It’s more complex than that but this is a fundamental variance. The two different systems can operate side-by-side at weigh stations and WIM facilities throughout a state.

HELP’s PrePass WIM product was used in much of Missouri, and Drivewyze was trying to get a foothold in the market. It did sign an MOU, was tested for several years, and then the MOU ended in August 2016. Questions were raised about the fairness of the process, with Drivewyze alleging that close ties between HELP and some state officials had blocked Drivewyze and ensured the position of PrePass. A report in the St. Louis Post Dispatch led to a state auditor’s report that was highly critical of some of the actions of those officials.

But in the end, both companies are holding three-year contracts to operate their systems side-by-side in the state, though for Drivewyze it is a new deal after the earlier MOU lapsed.

The release of the auditor’s report last month and the subsequent press coverage led John Esparaza, the chairman of the HELP board of directors–it is a non-profit—to release a lengthy statement detailing their view of what occurred in Missouri. Its key points are:

–Drivewyze failed in its first MOU because of failure to comply with state statues;

–The office of state auditor Nicole Galloway, who led the report critical of the relationship between HELP and various Missouri officials, rebuffed many of HELP’s efforts to provide information. “(A)lthough not mentioned in the Auditor’s report, HELP proactively contacted the Auditor’s staff prior to the report being released and offered to provide information, but was told that HELP was not the subject of the audit,” Esparaza said.

–The WIM sensors that will be used by Drivewyze’s system during its three-year contract were paid for years ago by HELP when it installed its PrePass system

–HELP has a “stringent Conflict of Interest policy” designed to guard against the types of issues that can arise from the fact that some state officials who might serve with HELP on its nonprofit board could also be in position to be making decisions on which company will be supplying WIM services to the state.

(As to the charge that Drivewyze’s first MOU was ended because of a failure to comply with state statutes, there is no indication of that in the auditor’s report. “The MSHP canceled the project due to the lack of access to existing WIM data and a lack of action related to installation of other assets necessary to implement the firm’s preclearance and bypass system,” the report said. “However, due to a lack of clear performance expectations being documented in the MOU, the MSHP did not have clear criteria to evaluate Drivewyze’s performance on the pilot project. As a result, MSHP did not have a clear basis to cancel the pilot project, and initially failed to clearly communicate to Drivewyze in writing the reasons for the cancellation of the project.”)

Drivewyze announced May 7 that it had opened its first WIM station under its new agreement near Joplin. (Editor’s note: the initial publication of this story a day earlier stated that Drivewyze had not yet opened any facilities but was planning to do so soon.)

In response to the PrePass statement, Drivewyze issued a statement of its own. It makes several points: 

  • Drivewyze “met the terms of its original agreement” with Missouri.
  • It asked to share in the cost of collecting data generated when a truck rides over a WIM sensor, “rebuffed by HELP and the subsequent Drivewyze supplied-WIM construction efforts were prohibited by the parties in the report.” Drivewyze is working on installing itw own sensors.

In his interview with Freightwaves, Heath expressed satisfaction at how the Missouri situation played out with the auditor’s report. “We were encouraged that the truth has come out, and we were really encouraged that there are public agencies that are willing to investigate unfair market practices and sort of look out for fair competition,” he said.

Rasmussen, in an interview with Freightwaves, took aim at state auditor Nicole Galloway, whose office produced the report on the HELP-state relationship. Galloway, a Democrat, was appointed to the office in 2015 following the suicide of her predecessor. She is the only Demmocrat holding a statewide office in Missouri and is running this fall to be elected to the office in her own right.

“The challenge for us is this auditor…is very new and young but this is the first time she has had to run for election on her own,” Rasmussen said. “She’s obviously looking for an issue.” Galloway will turn 36 next month.

Politics will never be that far away from a process that requires the state to choose a winner, or multiple winners, to serve the weigh station needs of its relevant law enforcement and transportation departments. The Georgia situation mentioned earlier is proof of that.

Heath talked about the politics that the company sometimes faced. “There can be an unnatural resistance to change,” he said. “I also think politics plays a strong role in certain states, that is the case. “

The question over conflicts of interest in the Drivewyze-HELP standoff in Missouri are not complete. Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley, a Republican who is running for the U.S. Senate, has said he is “actively investigating” the dispute. In its prepared statement, Drivewyze made sure to remind everyone of that fact.

A look at the HELP board of directors shows that the situation in Missouri, with a public official serving on the board, is not unique. Several state officials are listed as HELP directors.

In the case of Oklahoma, Lynne Jones of the Oklahoma Corporation Commission was a member of the board of directors. The OCC regulates some aspects of trucking in the state, including being the venue to adjudicate enforcement.

The author of a legislative attempt to move the OCC authority to other state agencies, state senator Mark Allen, ripped Jones in a blog post that he wrote as his bill was dying in the state’s lower chamber after passing the Senate. His blog post could also have been read as critical of officials for acting on the behest of HELP to thwart Drivewyze’s efforts to operate in the state.

Heath echoed claims similar to that of Senator Allen, who said state officials had worked to hinder Drivewyze’s efforts in Oklahoma. He said efforts to finalize testing have not been accepted by the OCC, “and you can imagine that is a challenging position to be in. We have never run into that situation before. We have been told that it is a lack of resources.” Heath said Drivewyze has been hearing about the resource issue for three years.

Both Heath and Rasmussen said they welcome competition. Clearly, they’ve got it, with a dash—or maybe more than a dash—of politics thrown in.

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John Kingston

John has an almost 40-year career covering commodities, most of the time at S&P Global Platts. He created the Dated Brent benchmark, now the world’s most important crude oil marker. He was Director of Oil, Director of News, the editor in chief of Platts Oilgram News and the “talking head” for Platts on numerous media outlets, including CNBC, Fox Business and Canada’s BNN. He covered metals before joining Platts and then spent a year running Platts’ metals business as well. He was awarded the International Association of Energy Economics Award for Excellence in Written Journalism in 2015. In 2010, he won two Corporate Achievement Awards from McGraw-Hill, an extremely rare accomplishment, one for steering coverage of the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster and the other for the launch of a public affairs television show, Platts Energy Week.