The U.S. Department of Transportation is expected to impose stricter requirements this fall concerning how transportation fleets and public utilities monitor their assets and employees, according to Norman Ellis, vice president of business operations-homeland security for Qualcomm Wireless Business Solutions, speaking at last week’s IWCE 2004 trade show and conference in Las Vegas.

Ellis predicted the USDOT would formalize a supplemental rulemaking issued by the agency in August 2003. The new rules would prevent drivers from deviating from routes assigned by dispatchers. Currently, it is common practice for drivers to vary their routes due to road construction, accidents, traffic or a desire to find less expensive fuel. “There is some concern that a truck could end up going where it isn’t supposed to go,” Ellis said.

The concerns are greatest concerning the transport of hazardous materials, according to Ellis. “Some are wondering whether terrorists could do the same thing they did on 9/11 with a truck carrying chlorine gas.”

The USDOT also is expected to require drivers to communicate with dispatchers every two hours and require dispatchers to contact law enforcement if they do not hear from drivers after three hours. The new rules could take effect “this summer, but no later than this fall,” Ellis said.

Separately, a coalition of organizations—including Qualcomm, the American Transportation Research Institute and the National Safety Council’s Certified Utility Safety Administrator program—are almost finished with field tests of futuristic methods to prevent unauthorized access to vehicles and cargo.

During the last six months, field tests have been completed in Illinois, Texas and New York State, with the California test scheduled to be completed this week, Ellis said. Four different hijacking scenarios were conducted, involving hazardous materials in bulk, liquid and gas forms, as well as truckload explosives. The tests involved nine carriers, six shippers, six consignees and about 100 vehicles, Ellis said.

Communications systems that were tested included satellite and terrestrial wireless backbones. Monitoring systems that were tested included vehicle disabling systems, such as a global login/biometric identification system that would transmit a wireless alert if the system failed to recognize the driver attempting to log on, if the driver attempted to log on too many times, or if the driver attempted to drive the truck without logging on at all. “The system allows the fleet owner to remotely prevent the truck from starting, if the driver hasn’t logged in properly,” Ellis said.

Another product tested was a “distress finger” wireless alert system that would enable a driver to send an SOS in the event of a hijacking—“If a driver has a gun to his head, he’s not going to be able to get to the panic button located in the dash,” Ellis said. Also trialed was a smart card that would contain driver information, a shipping manifest and the driver’s pre-assigned route; such information would allow authorities to conduct verification checks at weight stations.