What’s the difference between e-CMR and sign on glass?


‘Goods are not made for traveling’

This is what a professor in transport law once told me. It crossed my mind again writing this article.

To deliver goods undamaged at the final destination, they are packed in cartons, containers, seal bags and what so ever. It surely helps. According to an educated guess, based on my own experience over 98 percent of all these shipments, makes it in one piece to its final destination.  

But that still leaves over 1 percent where mishaps of some sort occur. The shipment arrives damaged, incomplete or not at all at its final destination. Or the customer does not pay. One percent does not seem a lot. But in European international B2B transport alone it adds up to five million shipments. And on a national scale throughout all EU members you can multiply this figure at least by 10. Reaching a dazzling of 50 million packages and pallets that somewhere in the process encountered something pitiful.

From the civil law point of view, it is always interesting to identify who is responsible and to determine whether the shipper, the transport company, or the end user finally has to pick up the bill for that, or even has to pay for consequential damage. To clarify these matters in international road transport we have the United Nations convention on the Contract for the International Carriage of Goods by Road (CMR) since 1956. This convention is ratified by 55 countries in Europe, Asia and Africa. And I predict that more countries will sign in the near future.

Advantage of standardisation

The CMR convention clarifies the rights and obligations of all the involved parties such as the shipper, the transport company and the consignee and it stipulates the liabilities of those parties.
To proof beyond doubt that the goods are in the same conditions, numbers and without any damage transferred to the next link in the logistic chain, the International Road Union developed a standardized consignment-note with carbon paper copies in 1956: the well-known CMR waybill. The advantage of a standardized consignment note is that every (HGV) truck-driver knows in which box the shipper or consignee need to sign for the receipt of the cargo. He also knows where the instructions are written and what and where has to be filled in (his remarks), in case of damage.
Insurance companies, authorities, lawyers and judges use the CMR consignment note also as the ultimate proof. In short we can say that the CMR is an enormous success story with a lot of convenience and efficiency for the entire logistic chain.

In 1956 it was obvious that CMR-convention should be based on a paper consignment note because who could have anticipated the huge leap digitalisation was going to make. That’s why in 2004 a taskforce within UN developed a series of warrants for the digital version of the CMR consignment note. In 2008 that resulted in an additional e-CMR protocol to make sure that a digital CMR (e-CMR) at least has to meet the legal standards of the paper version.

Introduction of the e-CMR protocol

The new additional e-CMR protocol does not choose or prescribe any particular technology. Being a member of the original taskforce I think that was a good decision. Because where security and hackers are in a constant battle, you do not want to find yourself stuck with one specific kind of technology.

However the e-CMR protocol states very clear that all parties involved should agree on what technology they are going to use. And of course those technologies should apply to a large number of guarantees as unicity, traceability, reliability, connectivity to the one who is signing and accessibility. The good part of this is that with current digital technology those standards are rather common goods than exotic.

Assuring quality of the paper replacement

However one condition is very specific for the e-CMR protocol. The digital CMR consignment note always has to be written, signed and supplemented by the use of some kind of electronic means and is created using those means in such a way, that the signatory can maintain the means under his sole control. From a transport legal point of view that is utterly understandable. Hence just as with the paper version of the CMR where its carbon paper copies, prevented meddling  afterwards, also the e-version of the CMR should have at least this quality.  All involved from shipper, transporter, addressee, insurance and in their wake all authorities must be able to rely on the fact that not one of the parties in the complete chain can change the e-CMR afterwards without any trace.

That makes the e-CMR the unopposed solution for the entire logistic chain. This because all involved share the same data in the e-document as where this document is under the sole control of the signatory. Hence all other parties can verify the complete procedure at any time! So the conclusion is that an e-CMR is always part of a data driven logistic chain solution where all parties involved can generate or supplement their data independently but under their sole control.

e-CMR is a logistic chain solution

The sign on glass solutions (SOG), as they are commonly practised in the B2C market, uses a very different technology not only because SOG’s uses a wide spectrum of security systems. From very advanced to rather poor. But even the most advanced SOG-solutions do not even come close to the level of conditions of the e-CMR demands where it comes to the sole control of the means for all its users. The why is easy: SOG was never designed as a logistic chain solution but as a proof of delivery tool.

Is that a shortcoming? No. As long as the risk of liability is low and hauliers use it for inland shipments it is not. But if this liability increases or authorities like in Belgium ask all road transporters to comply to the e-CMR demands, one can ask himself a few questions. And one of them should be if the time hasn’t come to adopt the e-CMR protocol as the new standard for the digital consignment note. Just like we all did in 1956 only now without the involvement of paper.

Goods are not created to travel. And that is why their transport always will be accompanied with mishaps of any kind. Clearness and legal security are most necessary there, and that is exactly what is rock solid anchored in the e-CMR protocol. That is why I ask the transport sector to accept and join this new digital standard. I see it as my mission to accomplish just that.