Will the flawed ELD hours-of-service rule hasten or hinder autonomous?

  (Photo: Shutterstock)

(Photo: Shutterstock)

The much-debated hours-of-service (HOS) regulation limits truckers to driving no more than 11 hours a day within a 14-hour workday. Drivers must then be off duty for 10 consecutive hours. It’s a little different in Canada where truckers are held to driving no more than 13 hours a day within a 16-hour workday. Drivers must then be off duty for eight consecutive hours.

Those are the rules, and for now they’re sticking to them.

Can the HOS regulations be ridiculous and partly about safety at the same time?

The answer is yes. As FreightWaves wrote on December 17, 2017, the day before the official ELD mandate went into effect:

“The hours-of-service regulations are ridiculous. The government believes these rules applied universally will make the roads safer. But what they actually do is take away the driver’s own ability to manage their time and work schedule. A driver that is tired will push himself further to maximize his hours of driving time and will forgo opportunities to drive when conditions (traffic, weather, and his own body) are best…Now that ELDs are here, we can focus our collective energy on repealing mindless HOS rules. Imagine if the ATA, TCA, OOIDA, The Alliance, and other vested industry interests got behind creating a new HOS framework that considered the driver’s own intellect, we would all be better off.”

Dean Croke, FreightWaves Chief Analytics Officer, also points out that the real reason behind the ELD Mandate was to reduce the competitiveness of the smaller paper-based log fleets who were statistically proven to be 30% safer in terms of serious accidents, but who could also run more miles per tractor week because of the flexibility paper logs afforded them. Larger fleets on e-logs found it hard to compete in certain markets and therefore actively sought to level the playing field through regulation.

"Unfortunately," says Croke, "the 14-hour clock reduces incentive for drivers to take a break when tired. Also, many drivers are unable to sleep during the 10-hour break when it occurs after sunrise. They may only get about 4.5 hours of restorative sleep. The 70-hour work week sees drivers driving at midnight, which is the worst possible time."

So is there anything about the ELD Mandate that is about safety? "There are some safety elements to it," Croke says. "It's hard to justify there is no safety value whatsoever to the HOS rules. For example, the requirement to have a 30-minute break after 8 hours of driving is a great idea. Prior to that you could drive 10 hours straight without stopping, which is insane.”

The next big fight?

While a collective fight for more HOS exemptions and flexibility right now, regardless of technology, makes sense, few are predicting substantive changes anytime soon. In contrast, fleets with ELDs stand a good chance of getting company-specific exemptions on a case-by-case basis.

First, the HOS rule remained much the same from 1936-2004. In other words, change in the industry is known to take time. OOIDA is still fighting ELDs as a whole and have recently partitioned the FMCSA for much-needed regulatory relief, for instance.

Second, the rule doesn’t mean the same thing to all parties involved. Up until the ELD Mandate hit in Dec 2017, smaller owner-operators, for instance, had been making out quite well using paper-based logs and all of the flexibility that afforded them, not to mention improved levels of safety compared to larger fleets on e-logs, although some would argue things will be different come the real enforcement date of April 1.

Third, there are so many layers to the transportation ecosystem which makes it almost impossible for a one-size-fits-all regulation to cater perfectly to everyone, not to mention other modes of transport and even players within the same industry fighting to make sure no other sector gets an unfair advantage through regulatory relief. This is the crossroad where safety and economics meet head-on.

But what would the economic impact be if automated assistance systems expanded the workday for all drivers? That just might be the next big question—and big fight against possible HOS restrictions—especially if the current fight to significantly change the current HOS rules fail.

What about if HOS regulation turns out to actually hold up technology, which in turn inhibits the country’s economic growth? The trucking industry will win the regulation argument if it can prove that autonomous technology actually improves safety even as it allows for a longer driving day.

For all the hype, autonomous adoption remains waiting in the wings. Autonomous adoption will be led by commercial freight, where the real ROI resides. The adoption of personal autonomous vehicles is projected to be far slower in market penetration. Similarly, even the IoT revolution may not happen as fast as currently predicted: Uber and Lyft report that their own widespread adoption is being slowed by lack of city partnerships.

No one predicts we’ll be running unmanned Level 5 autonomous Class 8 semis on a freeway near you by 2020. But the question of how fast—and under what urgency—will the on-ramping of Level 1 and Level 2 actually develop. There is money to be made from platooning systems, and hands-free, feet-free technology such as what Tesla currently calls Autopilot.

The increased efficiencies from technology could technically extend the HOS of drivers, who would serve in a kind of engineer capacity. Drivers could be in the vehicle, ready to take over after a long haul. They would be refreshed after and potentially able to make a quicker turnaround, and hop right back on the road toward the next destination.

In other words, to a certain extent, drivers could be on-the-road in a virtual continuous cycle since there would be plenty of time to rest and relax while the Autopilot put in the simple, monotonous duty. With such possibilities dawning with new technologies, that just might be the best direction to apply resistance to the HOS regulations.

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