Automated clearance systems get an "A" for performance, but they could work better with others.

There's no doubt about it - automated clearance systems work. Every day thousands of drivers are being told to ignore the lines of waiting trucks and drive right past weigh stations and port-of-entry facilities. Their credentials and weights have been checked remotely using technology developed as part of the Intelligent Transportation System (ITS) program.

Although getting it all to work reliably is a fairly complex undertaking, the technology itself is relatively simple. A self-powered two-way RF (radio frequency) tag or transponder is attached to the truck's windshield. As it approaches a roadside check facility, the transponder identifies the truck to the site's computer, which then accesses a central data base holding all of the vehicle's current safety and registration credentials.

At the same time, the truck passes over a weigh-in-motion (WIM) scale that calculates both gross and individual axle weight on the fly. If all is in order, a green light on the transponder tells the driver that they can bypass the station. A red light and audible warning tone indicate that the driver has to pull into the facility.

Over the past four years, two separate automated clearance systems have grown from limited demonstration projects to fully operational networks covering some of the major truck corridors in the U.S. and even extending into Canada. And the response from fleets using the systems is uniformly positive. Drivers like avoiding the lines, transit times are shorter, and there may even be cost advantages from better fuel economy and lower accident rates.

However, while fleets are finding that the bypass systems work flawlessly, they still have some concerns about the way those systems are developing. As things stand now, the industry is watching the evolution of two competing, and incompatible, systems.

Theoretically, the two could be made interoperable, but there are some significant barriers - including different "philosophies" on who should pay for the clearance system infrastructure. At presstime, the two groups had just had their first face to

face meeting, and that was only after pressure from a state transportation agency involved in both programs.

HELP Inc. The largest of the two automated clearance networks is HELP Inc.'s PrePass system, which has 44 operating sites in over 11 states, and more on the way. As of July 1, 1998, some 43,300 vehicles were equipped with the system's RF tags, and another 13,000 were in the process of being registered. Daily clearance activity is right at the 10,000 level, according to Dick Landis, the executive director and CEO.

Started as a technology demonstration test called the Heavy Vehicle Electronic License Plate/Crescent Project, HELP is now a non-profit corporation with equal state government and industry members on its board of directors. HELP sites are built and operated under contract by Lockheed Martin IMS. Using capital funds provided by Lockheed Martin, HELP provides the PrePass facilities at no cost to states. Transponders are also supplied to fleets free of charge. Fleets pay a fee of $0.99 for each automated clearance, with charges capped at four clearances a day.

"We operate with a simple memorandum of understanding with the states," says Landis. "We use private sector funds, and there's a 30-day out clause if the states feel we're not performing. As for carriers, we give them the transponders, and they only pay when they use the system. If they don't like, they can turn the transponders off with just a phone call."

Advantage CVO The second system runs along I-75 from Florida north to Michigan and then along Route 401 in Ontario, Canada. Originally called Advantage I-75, it began in 1995 as an operational test of automated clearance technology with funds from the Federal Highway Administration, the six states in the I-75 corridor, the province of Ontario, and the Canadian Ministry of Transportation. The test phase ended last year, and the system moved into full operation under the name Advantage CVO Partnership.

Currently, Advantage CVO has 27 automated clearance sites, including seven in Ontario. Later this summer, the system will begin to branch out from the I-75 corridor with three sites on I-65 in Kentucky and Indiana, followed later this year and next with four sites on I-16 and I-95 in Georgia. Approximately 4,700 vehicles from 130 fleets are equipped with Advantage transponders, and automated clearances are averaging about 12,000 a week, according to operations manager David Hunsucker.

Advantage CVO has no clearance or enrollment charges. The only cost to fleets is a one-time charge for the transponder. "We'll sell it to them at cost for $45, or they can buy it from any supplier of their choice," says Joseph Crabtree, the manager of ITS technology for the Kentucky Transportation Center, which provides the operating staff for the system.

Although federal support ended with the test, five of the six states have agreed to provide the funding need to continue operating Advantage CVO. For its part, the partnership is attempting to streamline the system and bring the costs of electronic screening down to under $100,000 per site, according to Crabtree.

Different and the same As similar as the two systems are in operation, the differences in funding sources seem to be the major stumbling block to development of a national network that would take full advantage of automated clearance.

>From Advantage CVO 's perspective, "electronic screening benefits the states because it's more efficient, but 'pay-for-pass' fees penalize carriers for participating," says Crabtree. Although he doesn't rule out eventually imposing some sort of registration fee to pay for administrative costs, Crabtree believes that the states should continue to bear the operatingcosts.

Avoiding tax dollars simplifies and speeds up installation of the system in HELP's view. "We don't have to wait for public funding," says Landis. As for the clearance fees, carriers only pay when they use the system, and many consider the time saved to be of equal or greater value, he says. Since the cost of the transponder is built into the fee, HELP can also adopt new RF tag technology without worrying about fleet investment in obsolete transponders.

While both sides make good arguments, fleets are finding themselves caught in the middle as the two system compete rather than cooperate. For example, Tennessee, one of the original Advantage I-75 states, has agreed to let HELP build an expanded automated clearance system and will probably drop out of Advantage CVO. As things stand now, Advantage transponders will not work at HELP sites, nor will the HELP tags provide automated clearance at Advantage facilities.

As the transportation manger at one private fleet puts it: "It (automated clearance) works really well. The only issue for us is that we wish the system was nationwide. Instead, we're struggling with two programs that aren't compatible. I'm all for the open market, but I wish they would put the good of the industry ahead of their own competition. It's going to happen anyway, but if they don't cooperate, it's just going to take longer."

Although automating clearances at weigh stations and state ports-of-entry may seem like a fairly minor issue, fleets are getting impatient because many see how such a national tag system could be extended to a wide variety of valuable functions. The federal government is already conducting test of automated international clearance systems with Mexico and Canada based on similar technology. Moving beyond regulatory compliance, information generated by a national clearance system could also form the basis for low-cost asset management systems. And those are just the most obvious applications.

Both Advantage and HELP say they're open to discussing the issue of interoperability, but until the middle of last month, the two had not even been able to agree to meet. Apparently under pressure from Tennessee's transportation officials, however, the two did sit down together for the first time in mid-July.

"We talked about a wide range of issues that ranged from minimal coexistence to fuller relationships," says Landis. Although no date was set for a second meeting, Landis said the two would get together in the near future to "continue ongoing discussions."

When they do, the trucking industry will be hoping for some good news.

"Over time, (automated clearance) will be a good thing, but right now it's limited to a few states," says Dean Cannon, president of the truckload carrier Cannon Express. Currently all 900 tractors in the fleet are equipped with PrePass transponders.

"It has some benefits already," Cannon says. "I don't like the charge for each pass, but really it's a wash when you consider the time saved. A truck can spend up to half an hour in line at a weigh station. And our drivers certainly like it.

"Still, it's a limited network," he adds. "It's going to take a national organization like HELP (to expand it). The individual states aren't going to be able to do it alone.

"We were one of the first fleets to use the I-75 system," says Scott Wolf, vp-corporate services for Averitt Express. Today over one-third of the fleet's 2,000 tractors are equipped with Advantage CVO transponders, and another 120 are now being fitted with PrePass tags.

"Drivers get the greatest benefit because of the time savings," he says. "It's also a source of pride for them to be associated with a company that's involved in such a project."

Averitt is headquartered in Tennessee, which has just begun switching from the Advantage CVO system to HELP. "I'd have to say that it's less expansive to buy the tags than to pay for each pass, but if we want to bypass on I-40, we'll have to use PrePass," says Wolf.

"There's no question that we'll have some trucks with two different devices installed because a large part of our fleet operates on both Interstate networks," he adds. "Fortunately, you don't need to hard-wire the transponders any more because they're powered by lithium batteries, so the installation is simple.

"Still, it would be better if (the two systems) were interoperable."

"We're saving roughly half an hour on a 2,000-mile trip," says Carm McKissick, director of transportation for Service Transport. Currently, the LTL carrier is using PrePass for 15 teams running between Nashville and Long Beach, bypassing six or seven sites in each direction. With 25 roundtrips a month, the fleet estimates that the automated preclearance has cut 25 hours from that monthly lane.

"We also like it from a safety standpoint, because it keeps the trucks out of those long lines where they're more likely to have an accident," says McKissick. "By avoiding the stop, it also lets the person in the sleeper stay asleep. And fewer stops means better fuel mileage.

"On top of that, our drivers love it. It helps morale because they see it as something we're doing to make their trip easier," he adds.

"My only concern with PrePass is the price," McKissick says. But, he adds, if the system ever expands to other portions of the Service Transport's operating area, "we'd definitely turn on our entire fleet."