Operators beware: Ghosts could be haunting your ELDs

The federal electronic logging device mandate is visiting haunting apparitions upon motorcoaches — ghost codes that can shut down engines, jam transmissions or welcome hackers on board.

“A lot of things can happen with ghost codes caused by ELD devices,” said Louis Hotard, director of technical service for ABC Companies in Winter Garden, Fla. “The biggest complaint we are hearing today is about ghost power-train codes that can shut the bus off and cause transmissions not to shift correctly.

“Sometimes you can unplug the ELD, restart the coach and it will run fine. Then in four or five hours the problem will come back,” Hotard said.

ABC is the North American distributor of Van Hool motorcoaches.

“We have heard it has been a challenge for the operators,” said JP Pelletier, vice president of engineering for Motor Coach Industries in Winnipeg. “There are numerous systems on the market and there are not really any standards in terms of how these systems are designed.

“All of these systems are self-certified so they go on the list as approved, based on the supplier or manufacturer making the statement it is a compliant device,” Pelletier said.

The modern motorcoach is a finely tuned electronic device that also happens to carry an engine, transmission and people. The linked computerization of devices evolved along with the complexity of drive train control systems, heating and ventilation, lighting and passenger comforts such as Wi-Fi and USB ports, Hotard said.

“There are so many functions you want to have done on the coach, without the multiplexing you would have tons of wire and more mechanical relays. When you turn on the headlights, there isn’t a switch on the dash that turns on the headlights — you told the computer to turn on the headlights,” he said.

“The computer turns the inside lights on and off, handles the stability control and cruise control and tells the engine and transmission what to do.”

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration ELD mandate for trucks and motorcoaches became effective on Dec. 18, 2017, to improve tracking of drivers’ hours of service and records of duty status. Due to issues operators were facing in equipping thousands of vehicles with ELDs, the administration delayed full enforcement until April 1.

The sudden shock of injecting the new device into delicate multiplex systems, some nearly two decades old, has prompted a lot of allergic reactions.

“This may be the first time people are hooking things into the multiplex system of the coach. It is not a plug-and-play operation,” Hotard said

There are international standards for the basic electronic connection device, the J1939 diagnostic port, and the operating system, the controller area network (CAN), that ELD devices use to monitor and track vehicle operations.

“The devices are communicating with our CAN network. That alone gets our attention,” Pelletier said. “If the devices are not installed correctly, that catches our attention. If someone makes a decision to splice into the OEM wiring made by any manufacturer, not just MCI, that really gets our attention.”

The multiplexed systems were not designed with plans for ELD devices to stick their noses into vehicle management systems. The electronic controls don’t even like it when something tries to steal a bit of electricity.

“One guy tried to hook a radio into the power line for the CAN,” Hotard said, and created a lot of problems on the coach.

Differing demands

ELD manufacturers also have faced challenges in adapting to the differing demands of trucks and motorcoaches, as well as differences between older and newer coaches. There are 371 self-certified ELDs registered with FMCSA.

“Trucks operate on 12-volt systems, motorcoaches on 24 volts,” Hotard said. “If the ELD provider is catering to both markets they need to handle both. Some of the ELDs made for trucks are not necessarily for motorcoaches.”

Motorcoaches also differ over model years, partly because newer systems operate at higher data transfer speeds.

“A 2018 vehicle might have a different issue than a 2005,” Hotard said. “Because of the 20-year useful life of buses, a customer might have different versions of multiplex — or even no multiplex — on buses from the same manufacturer.”

Motorcoach manufacturers cannot design accommodations for 371 ELDs, Pelletier said.

“Frankly, it is not possible for us to install, test and evaluate every one of those devices in any short period of time,” he said. “Ideally, the entire industry would use one device and we could ensure that that device functions flawlessly with our vehicles.”

Although FMCSA has said it will remove any unworkable ELDs from its registry, its listing currently identifies none as revoked.

The manufacturers of motorcoaches and ELDs are working on fixes for the ghosts.

“A lot of ELD manufacturers are having to tweak their systems,” Hotard said. “Most bus manufacturers have adapted specific plugs for the ELD so it can extract data without screwing up the rest of the bus. We are providing a dedicated plug just for the ELD. It is called a gateway module — it allows the ELD to read data from the CAN line but protects the CAN line from faulty data from the ELD.

“We work with each individual customer and model and help them, whether it is programming or equipment. Sometimes we have to work with the ELD provider,” he said. “Operators should be aware that they should consult their bus manufacturer when they hook stuff up so they can get a clean way to install it.”

Scrutinize suppliers

Pelletier advised operators to select electronic device suppliers carefully.

“Pick a system that you have some confidence in and a manufacturer that is going to be around for the long-term,” he said. “Have confidence that it will meet your requirements. Don’t necessarily buy the one that costs the least.”

ELDs do not meet basic cybersecurity standards and could give hackers access to vehicle operations at the control module interface or over cellular telephone connections that transmit data, the National Motor Freight Traffic Association has warned its members.

“As far as NMFTA has been able to ascertain, the current ELD rule, as written and implemented, requires both two-way CAN bus connectivity and Internet connectivity,” the association stated.

“This creates some genuine concern regarding the cybersecurity posture of the ELD devices themselves as they create a bridge between the Internet and the CAN bus network of the vehicle.

“If the ELD devices could be exploited to send malicious traffic to the vehicle CAN bus, it could have serious consequences to the safe operation of the vehicle. While existing and proven device manufacturers hold the majority of the ELD market, the new mandate has brought a number of new entrants into the market hoping to capitalize on the opportunity.”

NMFTA cited a cybersecurity expert’s analysis that ELD systems it tested “did very little to nothing at all to follow cybersecurity best practices and were open to compromise.”

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