Clouds of uncertainty are gathering around the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) plan to issue a new rule that in 2012 will force truck and bus operators having serious hours-of-service (HOS) violations to install electronic on-board recorders (EOBRs) in all their vehicles.

EOBR design specifications noted within the new 183-page rule in particular are generating concerns-- especially on the law enforcement side of the HOS ledger.

“We’ve always thought EOBRs are the way to go as a way to enhance HOS compliance and highway safety, while leveling the industry playing field,” Steve Keppler, interim executive director for the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance (CVSA), told FleetOwner.

“From a technical perspective, this is very doable for carriers because all they have to do is install a device that meets the rules,” he explained. “However, from a law enforcement perspective, we need to know how to interact with all the devices that may be used to comply with the EOBR mandate. That’s why technology standardization, from where we sit, plays a critical role in this.”

EOBRs—colloquially known in trucking as “black boxes”-- are devices attached to commercial vehicles that automatically record the number of hours drivers spend operating the vehicle, replacing the paper-based method which relies on drivers to properly record their daily on- and off-duty regimen.

Under the new EOBR final rule, carriers found with 10% or more HOS violations during a single compliance review will be required to install EOBRs in all their vehicles for a minimum of two years.

The rule also details new technical performance standards for EOBRs installed in commercial motor vehicles, including requirements for recording the date, time and location of a driver’s duty status. That is one reason the rule goes into effect on June 1, 2012, FMCSA stressed, giving EOBR manufacturers sufficient time to meet the rule’s performance standards and to manufacture products to meet industry demand.

Ruben Mirensky, CEO & president of software firm Optipoint Custom Tracking, told FleetOwner that most fleets perceive the negatives of this to be threefold: Training will be needed; it will make even minor violations more evident; and it will cost too much.

Yet Mirsenky thinks major savings for fleets could be engendered by switching to EOBRs. By his rough calculations, an estimated 4.2-million drivers in the U.S. spend 110 hours a year completing paper logbooks, with transportation company managers spending a further 50 million hours annually reviewing and storing log records.

On top of that, back office personnel at these companies spend an average three minutes per logbook each day reviewing them for accuracy and completeness. Industry experts estimate that, taken together, the total annual cost of compliance with the federal paper log rules is $63.3 million.

Yet CVSA’s Keppler added that the performance criteria necessary for collecting that information is what will be critical-- especially if FMCSA plans to expand the rule to cover all operators, not just those with HOS violations.

“From our perspective, we’d rather the agency wait and issue a broader rule covering the entire industry, rather than take this piecemeal approach,” Keppler said. “The concern is that the performance standards in this rule might change if the agency broadens the rule down the road – and that would lead to confusion for both industry and law enforcement.”