eCMR – the electronic consignment note

Bringing papers into the digital age

Aug 08, 2023

Food, car parts and building materials are continuously crossing Germany and the rest of Europe by truck. Each journey involves administration and there are also papers to be signed at various points. At least, that is how it has been until now. The Silicon Economy digital consignment note is bringing these paper-based processes into the digital age and, thanks to its open-source approach, is creating the first uniform solution for the whole of Europe.

© Fraunhofer IML

Within Europe, the consignment note is called a “CMR,” short for the French “Convention relative au contrat de transport international de marchandises par route.” Young people might describe its function by saying “the consignment note rules,” which is fairly close to the mark when it comes to what the consignment note does: It sets out the rules for international road freight transport contracts. It has been doing this for quite a long time – since 1956, to be exact. That was when the CMR member states agreed on a protocol setting out what a consignment note needed to contain so that goods could be transported smoothly across national borders.

For example, the CMR specifies what goods are being transported, who is sending them, who is providing the transport and who the end-recipient is – including transfer errors and a series of different formats.

With this in mind, researchers at Fraunhofer IML from the “Silicon Economy” development projects have developed a service to generate, store and transmit digital consignment notes in human-readable and machine-readable formats. “It was important to us to use established templates and international standards so that the user would know immediately how to fill out the consignment note, including the digital version,” says Patrick Becker of Fraunhofer IML, product owner of the “eCMR” Silicon Economy project.

Blockchain and digital signature

Because the service is a web-based platform, it can be used on standard PCs and mobile smart devices such as smartphones. All that is needed is a browser and internet access. To make the process secure, the service uses the token manager from the project for the establishment of the European Blockchain Institute, via an interface. The electronic consignment note’s unique ID and the “hash value” are stored on the blockchain. The hash value is like a document’s individual fingerprint: If a user edits the document by just one character, the hash value or “fingerprint” will change. “As the recipient of the document, I can use the hash value to check whether the fingerprint on the blockchain matches the fingerprint of the digital consignment note. That allows me to see at any time whether the data has been modified or even manipulated on the way,” explains Patrick Becker.

© Fraunhofer IML - Katsimitsoulias

The digital signature also adds to the authenticity of the data. The “advanced signature” (defined by an EU regulation) links the digital signature to the active user account and the document’s hash value. The digital signature and the subject of user management remain a challenge for the project team at the moment, as it is still unclear what requirements the relevant authorities might have with regard to the digital signature. For example, it is still uncertain whether any further authentication is required, such as an identity card, and how this would be verified.

Additional protocol for digital format

It has only recently become possible to use electronic consignment notes on German roads in the same way as their paper predecessors. Since 2008, there has been an additional protocol, similar to the original CMR protocol that all CMR member states have agreed to, but for the electronic version, which each individual country needs to agree to again. This additional protocol entered into force in Germany in April 2022, and forms the legal basis for using digital consignment notes in the country. The sooner the individual member states agree to the additional protocol, the sooner they can use the electronic consignment notes. At the moment, there is a looming danger of a “tariff jungle,” where more and more service providers are offering their own solutions for electronic consignment notes. “The problem is that, when there are hundreds of these eCMR service providers and I have customers in the Netherlands, Spain and Portugal, for example, with each country having its own eCMR service provider, I need to work with all of them just to track the shipments,” explains Patrick Becker. “That’s why we’re using an open source solution for the eCMR, which is very different from other e-consignment notes. Because we make all the source code completely public, any business can adapt it as needed while still communicating and exchanging data with the various bodies because they’re all working on the same basis and using the same international standards,” says Becker. 

Significant interest in the eCMR

The practicability of the electronic consignment note was tested on a cross-border shipment for the first time by Fraunhofer IML together with an international logistics provider in August 2022, on a route between Germany and the Netherlands. The test demonstrated that the eCMR already functions effectively and is easy to use. The project team is now turning the results and the feedback into concrete specifications to develop the service for the logistics industry There are plans to integrate additional functions and validate them in subsequent test phases. The eCMR’s open source approach in particular has generated a lot of interest among logistics associations and organizations, but also among logistics companies. After all, every business that transports goods abroad must provide a consignment note. It also makes sense for five companies not to work with five different solutions. “The subject has now gained so much momentum that we are receiving a large number of inquiries from companies that want to test it with us. It’s nice to see supposed competitors sitting around one table and working together on a European solution – because we need one,” says Patrick Becker.