How to Pick the Best ELD for Owner-Operators

April 23, 2021

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Key Takeaways

Maintaining ELD compliance is the responsibility that falls to a commercial vehicle owner-operator. With lots to do, and not much time, owner-operators and small fleet managers need solutions that make their lives easier. Here’s where technology can do the heavy lifting by automating workflows and helping drivers stay on track, making compliance less painful. But there’s no shortage of ELDs on the market. Read our guide for finding the best ELD for owner-operators and what they should look for in a device.

What is an electronic logging device?

An electronic logging device (ELD or e-log) is used to record driving times for commercial motor vehicles (CMV). Typically, the ELD plugs into a vehicle’s onboard diagnostics (OBD) port. This port connects to a vehicle’s engine control module (ECM), the primary computer system for a vehicle’s engine performance. When connected, the ELD captures data on a vehicle’s engine, location, speed, and more. 

What the ELD mandate means for owner-operators

In 2017, a U.S. ELD mandate went into effect. This mandate, issued by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), was passed to ensure that drivers in the trucking industry have a safe work environment and create an easier system to track and manage records of duty status (RODS). By the end of 2019, the FMCSA expected all motor carriers and drivers to use an ELD to record hours of service (HOS) electronically and send logs to the Department of Transportation (DOT) to stay in compliance. As of December 2019, AOBRDs (Automatic On-Board Recording Device), which were the first replacements for paper logs, are no longer in compliance.

While exemptions to the mandate exist—mostly short-haul and agricultural—many long-haul or over-the-road (OTR) owner-operators will need to have an ELD for their truckers. 

Selecting the best ELD: 8 things owner-operators should consider

There are lots of ELD solutions on the market. At minimum, owner-operators want an ELD that’s reliable, easy to use, and has lower upfront costs. But what else should they look for? Keep the following in mind as you review options.

  1. Dedicated device vs. bring your own device (BYOD)?

Will a dedicated device or a “bring your own device” (BYOD) work better for your business? While all ELDs connect to ECMs via connectors and adapters, how you read and access the devices’ data varies.

Dedicated or hardwired devices are an older form of ELD that offers logging functionality in a single package. In some models, logging data is stored on a drive and later transferred to a computer or laptop. Other systems have two pieces of hardware: the ELD and a display or tablet. The device will usually come preloaded with the software needed for logging HOS.

BYOD allows drivers to use their own tablets and smartphones to log and track HOS using mobile apps. Since 95% of truckers now use smartphones, it makes sense drivers might prefer to merge gadgets and streamline operations by using familiar devices. Using apps found in Android or Apple app stores, drivers can easily download logbook apps and pair devices with the ELD hardware via Bluetooth or WiFi technology.

2. The full cost and value of the ELD

When the ELD mandate first passed, the trucking community feared the technology would be expensive to own and maintain. Today, that’s not the case, and many ELDs are affordable. The FMCSA reports the average ELD price is around $495 per truck per year, with an annual range of $165 to $832 per truck per year. Compared to other associated costs of owning a truck—insurance, fuel, and maintenance— besides potential savings on violation fees, ELD pricing is manageable.

Of course, for an independent owner-operator, profit margins can be tight. Reducing costs and finding value is top of mind. Here are questions to ask yourself:

  • Are there hardware costs, or is hardware included in a subscription?

  • If licensing, what are the subscriptions’ terms? Are there monthly or annual fees?

  • If the ELD connects to a cellular plan, is it included in license terms? Or is there an extra cost incurred?

  • What’s included in the ELD solution? Do extra features cost more?

  • Is there a fee incurred for breaking the contract?

When calculating the cost and value of the ELD, it’s best to assume you’ll keep the device for a few years. Provided that you like using the solution, planning for the long-term can help you figure out average monthly costs and the value the device brings.

3. Ease of installation

Implementing new technology can sometimes be intimidating, especially if there’s little onboarding support and documentation. When evaluating the best ELD devices, look for one that’s easy to install so you can get up and running quickly. Certain ELDs need to get installed by a mechanic for proper implementation. Other ELDs are more user-friendly; they don’t require added tools or help to install and can be up and running in minutes. 

4. Ease of use

Technology is at its best when it makes life easier. An ELD solution is not useful if you’re struggling to interact with it or using it is too complex. For instance, the ELD’s purpose is to automate tracking HOS and make keeping RODS simpler. Yet, not all software systems and user interfaces are made equal. Here what to latest out.

For truck drivers, is it easy to:

  • Edit, review, and certify hours of service logs?

  • Set duty status? And will driving statuses update automatically?

  • View countdown clocks and track hours left on shifts?

  • Set up alerts and reminders to help stay in compliance?

  • Display and transfer electronic logs during DOT inspections?

For small fleet managers, is it easy to:

  • Edit and review logbooks and communicate issues with drivers?

  • View every driver’s e-log so you can dispatch and plan better routes?

  • Setup rulesets based on where your drivers are to minimize violations? (i.e., border crossings to Canada)

  • Check your fleet’s status at a glance to quickly assess what’s happening?

  • See driver status and location so you can keep customers updated?

5. Multifunctional

An ELD system connects with a vehicle’s ECM. An ELD can be part of a fleet management system, a hub that connects and distributes vehicle data. More sensors and tools built into the hardware give drivers a wealth of information and can help improve other aspects of trucking.

For instance, a telematics solution can help with:

  • Real-time fleet tracking. GPS built into the hardware gives you precise location data using satellite systems, even in challenging geographical environments. 

  • Engine diagnostics. Find out why engine lights are on and troubleshoot diagnostic trouble codes (DTC).

  • Fuel management and efficiency. Fuel data gives you insight into how fuel is being consumed, allowing you to make adjustments to improve fuel economy. ELDs can also be used to track International Fuel Tax Agreement (IFTA) compliance.

  • Driver safety. Engine data can reveal unsafe driving behaviors such as cornering or braking too hard.

  • Driver productivity. ELDs already help with paperless HOS reporting. Some ELDs may include mobile apps that help drivers simplify pre- and post-trip vehicle inspections (DVIRs). 

Owners can view reports for a variety of situations as the system collects data. For example, if you wanted to save money, you could look at engine idling reports to learn about wasted fuel. Or schedule preventative maintenance, which costs less than emergency services. You could reduce high-risk driving behaviors, potentially saving money on insurance. Using GPS and geofencing, owners could set up alerts to notify them if valuable equipment or loads leave a predetermined area. This is on top of the ELD itself, helping drivers stay in compliance, avoiding violation fees. Additional data helps owner-operators stay productive, lower operating costs, and manage compliance.

6. Ancillary devices and accessories

When owners combine the usefulness of an ELD with other solutions, they can achieve goals beyond compliance. Look for an ELD solution that pairs with other devices or sensors. They can include tools such as dash cams, asset or trailer trackers, environmental monitors, power monitors, and more. For example, when a Samsara AI Dash Cam pairs with the Vehicle Gateway, owners can mitigate risk and review incidents by analyzing footage and data. You can also protect yourself in the event of  false claims or insurance fraud.

7. Cloud platform

When an ELD is part of a cloud-based platform, there’s even more flexibility and ways to improve productivity. Drivers and fleet managers receive data in real time. Dispatchers can notify customers of ETAs without calling drivers. And there’s less administrative work for everyone since everything is already stored in the cloud. Whether your fleet issues devices to your drivers or has implemented a BYOD policy, you’ll want a mobile app compatible with both iOS or Android operating systems.

8. Customer service and support

As a customer, you want assurance your device is reliable and that the provider will stand by their product and offer support if something goes wrong. Evaluate a provider on the quality of  support they offer.

Proactive support is when a company anticipates your questions or concerns before they become a problem. 

  • Does the ELD provider have an onboarding program, training, or documents to help you get started? 

  • Do they have a knowledge portal where you can get answers to questions? 

  • Do they keep you informed of updates or known issues so you can plan accordingly?

Reactive customer service is when you initiate a support request. Excellent service can be difficult to gauge before you become a customer. But some signals indicate support quality. 

  • Check the provider’s site for customer service instructions. Is it easy to get in contact with the company? 

  • Trucking hours are not 9-5, so can the provider offer support when you need it? 

  • Does the provider offer service on the channels you’re on, whether it’s by phone, social media, or email? 

  • Reading provider reviews on independent sites can give you a sense of service quality.

The best ELD for owner-operators and small fleet managers

Owner-operators and small fleet managers need an ELD solution that is:

  • Easy to install

  • Reliable

  • Simple for drivers and fleet managers to use

  • Offers additional features beyond compliance without charging you more

If those factors are important to your business, consider the Samsara ELD compliance solution—a reliable FMCSA-registered system that installs in minutes. With the Samsara Driver App, you have the flexibility to customize your ELD solution to fit your needs, whether you’re issuing devices to employees, or choose to implement a BYOD policy. 

Aside from offering real-time GPS tracking and engine diagnostics, Samsara is a partner that offers a single unified platform for compliance, efficiency, and safety—without paying extra. Owner-operators get access to the same functions and tools large fleets have, helping them compete in the trucking industry. It can help with dispatch, routing, maintenance, safety, fuel management, and more. And as your business grows, Samsara also offers other devices—such as dash cams, asset trackers, and temperature monitors—that can help you achieve goals beyond compliance.

Whether you’re looking to switch ELD providers or are just curious about what Samsara offers, request a free trial today to get started.

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