The government's efforts to mandate the use of onboard electronic recorders (EOBRs) has generated a lot of opposition over the last few years. Many, if not most, reputable fleets see an EOBR requirement as a way to level the playing field by getting rid of fly-by-night operations that cut corners. But even if those fleets have already voluntarily moved to recorders, I sense a real unease with the idea of a mandate.

It's not that an EOBR requirement would bring any new restrictions on drivers since their only function is to make enforcement of current hours-of-service rules easier and more uniform. No, I think the discomfort felt by fleets that run perfectly legal logbooks comes from the Big Brother aspect of government monitoring by electronic minders.

While most in the industry are focused on the furious arguments over the need for a federal mandate, it looks like the whole question is quietly and quickly becoming irrelevant. I predict that almost all fleets — not just those subject to HOS rules — will voluntarily adopt onboard recorders in short order. And these recorders will go well beyond keeping track of driving hours, reporting on driver behavior in great detail.

We're not talking about anything that's really new. Telematics technology has been around for years, offering remote insight into both vehicle performance and driver actions on a second-by-second basis. There are a fair number of fleets already using some or all of those capabilities as key elements in their operations management and productivity improvement efforts.

So, what's pushing telematics into the mainstream for fleet management?

A few things. First, the cost of the technology is dropping dramatically. Vehicle and driver information is really only valuable when it's combined with precise location data. For example, 55 mph is fine on the highway but not acceptable in a school zone. The low cost of GPS has added reliable location information to all sorts of devices, from cell phones to simple data recorders. That makes adding telematics to a vehicle of any size practical.

Also related to cost, there are now many hosted options that make it quick and easy to set up an effective fleet management telematics system using those lower-cost devices. A web-based tool means even the smallest fleet can take advantage of this kind of management tool to increase productivity and improve safety.

More importantly, though, remote monitoring of driver behavior is beginning to have actual dollars attached to it, hard operational dollars that fall right to the bottom line. Consumers are already being offered insurance policies that base rates on their actual driving habits as recorded by an onboard device. And now insurers in the fleet side of the business are following suit.

I haven't seen a program that bases a fleet's insurance rates on electronic monitoring of actual individual driver behavior, not yet anyway. However, one of the country's largest commercial vehicle insurers, Travelers and its long-haul fleet insuring subsidiary Northland Insurance Co. are making these types of systems available to their customers. And while they aren't promising direct rate reductions, they are telling those fleet customers that the information provided by these telematics devices can be used to improve safety and “reduce the substantial costs of running a fleet.”

That's far more persuasive than a federal mandate, and far more likely to bring a rapid, widespread and enthusiastic adoption of electronic onboard recorders.