Integrated Technologies Hold Promise for Improving Transportation Security

Speaking to an audience of transportation leaders at the annual conference of the American Trucking Association's Safety & Loss Prevention Management Council in Scottsdale, AZ, Marc Mitchell, transportation practice director for Enterprise Information Solutions Inc. (EIS), outlined the promise that integrated technologies hold for improving the security of the nation's freight carriers and the goods they transport. He also warned against expectations driven by hype and fear that amount to the search for a silver bullet that simply does not exist.

"There is no single new technological discovery that promises to radically change or solve the security issues we face today," Mitchell told the audience. "However, we are currently at a juncture where a number of key technologies have matured to the point where it is now possible, and affordable, to integrate them in a manner that minimizes freight loss and ensures the security of goods in transit.

"For example, the ability to communicate wirelessly with equipment on the road to track and monitor a vehicle's location and communicate directly with its engine system, conveying instructions that restrict or impair its mobility are all capabilities that have been around for more than a decade. But is it only recently that solutions are coming to market that combine all those functions into one package that is affordable, given thin business margins of the transportation industry. Furthermore, the combining of technologies means the solutions can address more than just our security needs. For example, they can assist in route optimization, pickup and delivery assignment communication and equipment utilization. In this way, ROI justification can include additional efficiencies beyond those of security alone and make purchasing decisions easier to commit to."

Mitchell also cited RFID as a technology that is not necessarily new but is now providing many potential benefits for ensuring that valuable merchandise doesn't "grow legs" while moving through the supply chain. "This technology promises to allow freight to be actively and automatically confirmed as being where it is supposed to be and/or moving to where it is supposed to go with much greater ease than is possible with today's optical identification techniques," he said. "While merchandise sensors have been guarding the gates of American malls for some time, the additional capabilities of RFID to store more than just an ID number and to have important data and events transmitted to the freight while it moves through the supply chain, offers technological capabilities that go far beyond mere tracking for security purposes. It has now expanded the scope of added values from which to draw increased return on investment."

However, it is with the mention of RFID that Mitchell includes a note of caution to ensure "an irrational exuberance does not warp our expectations and unjustifiably influence buying decisions." Mitchell went on to state: "Currently there is perhaps no greater hyped concept within logistics technology than RFID, with considerable spill-over into the mainstream public press. In the past five years, I've observed vast amounts of 'IT snake oil' sold to and bought by transportation operations. It is important that hype combined with the fear that accompanies worst case cargo loss scenarios not be allowed to encourage more of the same."

The use of evolving technologies also plays a role in the lingering aftermath of 9/11 and the vastly increased awareness of dangerous cargoes such as gasoline, biohazards and other potentially toxic substances that move daily across our highways and down our streets. We rely on these materials and their movements to satisfy the requirements of our daily lives, but with the new and increased scrutiny and fear, whether justified or not, have come increased demands to apply these emerging technologies to protect us from malicious acts the materials could be used to commit.

"It is true that many of these new technologies offer a way to respond to potentially dangerous situations," said Mitchell. "However, just as the current 9/11 inquiry panel is focusing not on how we responded once the hijacked planes were in the air, but on how we could have been alerted in advance to prevent such an event from occurring, the commercial trucking industry seems to be seeking proactive measures, and not reactive ones. It is true that certain geo-location technologies promise to serve as an early warning mechanism for material moving where it otherwise shouldn't be. However, it will not come through the simple deployment of a silver bullet in the form of a collection of microchips and antennas in a truck cab. Only by combining geo-location with the business context of exactly what is being moved and exactly where it is supposed to be moving can you determine, with sufficient lack of "false positives" or cost prohibitive human monitoring, if a truly dangerous situation may be developing. Such a solution goes far beyond what can be soldered on a circuit board and entails an entirely new and complicated level of technology integration."

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