Fleets are familiar with systems like PrePass or NORPASS that broadcast truck and driver identification information, allowing their trucks to drive by document checkpoints. And in recent years, weigh-in-motion technology has become more common, also letting legally loaded trucks cruise past weigh stations and their long lines without even slowing up. Now a combination of existing truck electronics and a new wireless communications technology promises to add roadside safety inspections to that bypass list. Not only will fleets with well-maintained equipment save valuable driving time and fuel, but government officials say they will be able to significantly step up inspection activity where it counts.

Wireless roadside inspection (WRI) might sound like a high-tech pipe dream, but it's actually an integration of three well-developed existing technologies. An early version of the concept has already been shown to work in federally sponsored “proof-of-concept” testing, and the full system is about to undergo a major two-year demonstration test on some of the most congested roadways in the country.

The foundations of the system are the standardized J1939 and 1708 data buses found on every modern heavy-duty truck. They allow information from an array of vehicle sensors to be collected by the truck's electronic control units (ECUs). The sensors include those already found on trucks monitoring brake systems and other electronically controlled components combined with others already available for things like sensing tire pressure as well as GPS location data. In essence, the onboard data buses allow the truck to do a self-inspection of its critical safety components in real-time.

The second part of the equation is the move to automate truck-enforcement efforts. Well-established projects like PrePass and NORPASS already provide a substantial part of that automation, automatically delivering vehicle, driver and fleet information to weigh stations and other inspection sites without requiring a truck to stop. Currently, PrePass has over 425,000 commercial vehicles enrolled in its bypass system, and NORPASS has about 100,000. Wider use of weigh-in-motion technology is already extending the usefulness of these document-based bypass systems into actual vehicle status.

The third and final element needed to make WRI a reality is a technology originally developed for passenger cars as part of a global Intelligent Transportation System (ITS) effort known as Vehicle Infrastructure Integration (VII). The basic premise is that vehicles and roadways would be more efficient and safer if they could all communicate. The method developed to do that is a broadband wireless standard known as DSRC, or dedicated short-range communications. Using a special variant of the WiFi 802.11 wireless standards, it operates on a frequency already set aside by the Federal Communications Commission just for free real-time wireless communications between vehicles and highway infrastructure facilities.

“We wanted trucks to be part of VII because commercial vehicles drive almost all of our decisions about roadways. Commercial vehicles are more advanced and more standardized than cars, and they have much higher economic value. It made no sense to have passenger vehicles alone drive this project, so we pushed for funding for commercial VII [CVII],” says Richard McDonough, who is the New York Dept. of Transportation's project manager for CVII.

The concept of remotely and automatically inspecting a truck was first put to the test by the Univ. of Tennessee while working with Volvo Trucks North America and the National Transportation Research Center. Using an established “commercial motor vehicle roadside technology corridor” on I-40 outside of Knoxville, TN, the project was supplied with a Volvo tractor equipped with “Trusted Truck” technology, which provided the onboard ability to capture the necessary vehicle inspection data in real-time. The data was then transmitted wirelessly for processing to a third party, which also accessed vehicle and driver documents. Based on that data, the driver was instructed to either bypass the roadside inspection facility or pull into the site.

While the test didn't initially use DSRC for its wireless link, it did show that the WRI concept works, says Jan Hellaker, Volvo Technology NA's vp-business development and government programs. “We were focusing on the vehicle technology and the business model for fleets,” he says. “The technology works and it looks like a great idea, but we want to see fleet acceptance before it's deployed.”

The benefit for fleets will come from improved productivity and driver satisfaction. It should also level the playing field for those that bear the costs of good maintenance programs by allowing inspectors to focus on trucks most likely to have safety violations.

Just as the benefits of PrePass and NORPASS have brought large numbers of fleets to voluntarily adopt those programs, Volvo believes user value should also drive WRI, according to Hellaker. He points out that one important aspect of the I-40 test was that the onboard system transmitted only a “yes” or “no” health rating to the truck. If it was “yes,” the truck was told to bypass the site. If it was “no,” the truck would be instructed to join the general population at the inspection station for random checks. “It did not automatically have to be inspected, it just could not bypass the station,” Hellaker explains.

PHASE II

While the Tennessee project looked at other remote vehicle inspection technologies, including a roadside infrared camera (see related story), it also refined WRI by eventually adding a prototype of the DSRC wireless technology to its tests. Encouraged by the results, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) is now ready to launch a much more demanding two-year demonstration of the full WRI package on two heavily traveled sections of highway in New York.

“The contract and funding has been approved, and the Dept. of Transportation has signed off on it,” says McDonough. “We're just waiting for the [New York] state comptroller to approve it. That's standard for any state contract.”

New York has already installed VII on a stretch of I-495, the major artery connecting Long Island with the rest of the New York metropolitan area, and it will also add the wireless system to a 13-mi. stretch of the New York Thruway (I-87) where it feeds large amounts of commercial traffic into the same region.

TRUSTED TRUCK

“These are great corridors for commercial vehicle operations,” says McDonough. The test will start with a Volvo VT 880 tractor equipped with the Trusted Truck technology and then add four state DOT maintenance trucks fitted with a similar package, he says.

“CVII is really a pipeline,” says McDonough. “The public and private sectors will decide what content passes through that pipeline. WRI is really a subset or an application of the system we're trying to develop, along with e-screening, WIM and border inspections.

“We're confident the technology will work,” says McDonough. “The question is, will there be a return on investment in the long term.” And that makes WRI central to the success of this new proposed system.

The new short-range communications ability of DSRC “gives access to more robust information from the data bus than just dashboard light indicators,” continues McDonough. “That means it's not just useful for inspection and enforcement, but it also has fleet maintenance and management potential.

“And since it allows vehicle-to-vehicle communications, it has safety implications, too. For example, one of our maintenance trucks plowing could talk to a truck coming up on it. It's those types of benefits that will get more trucks on the road with this equipment in the long run.”

Enforcement, of course, is also a primary factor in Federal and state interest in WRI. Currently, trucks are far more likely to undergo a weight check than a roadside safety inspection, with FMCSA reporting that there are 117 million weight inspections every year, compared to only 3 million roadside inspections.

Since brakes, lights and tires account for 67% of all out-of-service violations and they can all be monitored and diagnosed using onboard systems, WRI holds the potential to greatly increase the number of truck inspections. And that, says FMCSA, will benefit safe carriers by minimizing disruption to their operations while improving enforcement among carriers operating unsafe equipment.

Whether fleets view WRI as a carrot or a stick, the one common question will be cost to the truck operator. The good news is that most of the onboard hardware is already standard equipment, and other components like tire-pressure sensors are already widely used by many. And because DSRC is intended for passenger cars as well as trucks and will be deployed around the world, not just in the U.S., volume production should keep that hardware cost low, perhaps even as low as under $100. Better yet, the wireless frequency used by DSRC is free, eliminating all communications service costs.

So when can you expect to start bypassing roadside inspections? The New York demonstration project will be joined by two others shortly, and wider scale field tests with a much larger number of trucks should begin by 2010, according to an FMCSA presentation to the Transportation Research Board last summer. According to that timetable, widespread use of WRI would follow around 2012.

Seeing red, infrared

Wireless roadside inspection (WRI) isn't the only technology vying to provide remote safety inspections of trucks traveling at highway speeds. A system using infrared sensors has already been tested under slow speed and might eventually be capable of handling vehicles traveling at 55 or 65 mph. With the goal of saving fuel by allowing more trucks to bypass inspection stops, the N.Y. State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) is working on a system that would prescreen trucks and identify those with potential equipment problems.

Called Smart Infrared Inspection System (SIRIS), it uses infrared sensors to look for unusually hot or cold brakes, wheel bearings and tires, explains Joseph Tario, senior project manager for NYSERDA. “Our hope is that it will allow us to stop the 20% that need to be inspected because there's an indication of poor maintenance and let the other 80% keep moving,” he says.

The SIRIS prototype currently being tested in New York only works at speeds under 30 mph, says Robert Foss, project manager for its developer, International Electronics Machine Corp. “There's a lot of work left before we get to a high-speed SIRIS,” he says. “There are some basic physics problems [with infrared sensing] to be overcome.”

Even a slow-speed infrared system might have applications beyond prescreening for roadside inspections. “Fleets with terminals could use it to look at the same trucks over and over,” says Foss. “That would let them develop trending data for analysis, which could have a big impact on long-term maintenance requirements.”