Truckers' smartcards off to a slow start

Replacement of "geriatric" technology "bungled" by Brussels?
Written by Steve Ranger, Global News Director

Replacement of "geriatric" technology "bungled" by Brussels?

For more than two decades, truckers have been using tachographs to measure the hours they spend behind the wheel and the speeds at which they travel.

At the heart of these devices is a wax disc - but these can't always be swapped between devices and are vulnerable to damage and tampering.

The EU wants to use new technology to improve the security of the record of the driver's duty periods, so that drivers can't distort the number of hours they have worked. As a result, from May all new trucks will be fitted with digital tachographs and smartcards will be rolled out to 500,000 drivers.

The DVLA told silicon.com: "It will be possible to check more records with more information as well as making it harder to breach the drivers' hours rules. Consequently, there will be a more level playing-field for the industry and improved road safety."

But industry groups are already warning that the introduction has been badly handled and could cause confusion.

The system will work like this: a unit in the driver's cab will hold data on the driver and their periods of driving for about a 12-month period.

It will also hold data relating to faults, attempts to tamper with the system, speeding and when data has been accessed, for example, by the police.

Signals from the motion sensor in the gearbox are encrypted and attempts to interfere with them are also registered in the vehicle unit.

Drivers, the companies they work for, and agencies such as the police and Vosa will all have the smartcards to allow them to either use or gain access to the data in the device.

Each card will hold around 230 records of activities, or about 28 days' worth of data. It will store information such as driver details, vehicle registration, and the date, time and total distance travelled. Enterprises can use this information to better structure their businesses and ensure their drivers are following procedure.

But despite the May switchover, few drivers have applied for the new cards, even though, according to the Freight Transport Association (FTA), half of operators will buy vehicles with digital tachographs in the next year.

Since July 2005 the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) has issued 17,513 driver cards.

There are more than six million trucks in Europe at present and the total cost to convert the fleet from analogue to digital tachographs will be a minimum of £10bn over the next 10 years, the FTA predicts. By contrast, the DVLA argues the cost of the switchover should be "negligible" to operators but admits there may be costs for downloading and analysing the information.

FTA external affairs director Geoff Dossetter told silicon.com: "Our view is that digital tachographs are long overdue but the introduction has been bungled by the European Commission over the last few years."

The idea of a digital recording is far more viable than the old wax disk which he said is a "bit geriatric". But he added: "It's taken so long that the suggestion is that the technology has now been overtaken."

Another worry is getting drivers and back office staff trained to use the new technology, he said: "There will be tears before bedtime because it's very complex."

The British Vehicle Rental and Leasing Association (BVRLA) is calling for free smartcards for some groups of drivers to boost uptake, and is also critical of the way the introduction has been managed.

BVRLA director general, John Lewis, said in a statement: "The reasons for the slow take-up are understandable. Frankly, the government has not 'sold' the benefits of digital tachographs to the transport industry who see it simply as more red tape and more cost."

He added: "We're concerned that there won't be enough drivers with smartcards and it may be that our members will put off replacing vehicles until more drivers have them."

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