Truckers Get Connected

Boosting safety, productivity, and efficiency, sophisticated wireless technologies link vehicles, drivers, and shipping data to the world.

Just a few years ago, the advanced communications technology used by Old Dominion Freight Line’s drivers was more likely to be found in a science fiction movie than a truck cab.

Old Dominion, which provides freight delivery services across 44 states, supplies more than 2,800 of its drivers with handheld computers. The devices allow users to view delivery instructions; read and send text messages; record stops; and enter, store, and transmit detailed transaction data.

“They also work as a phone,” says Barry Craver, director of freight processing applications for the Thomasville, N.C-based LTL carrier. “They’re very much a multi-purpose tool.”

Old Dominion isn’t alone in embracing wireless technology, including global positioning system (GPS) navigation and tracking, wide area wireless networks, handheld computers, cellular phones, sensors, and monitors.

Carriers across the trucking industry are turning to wireless to boost fleet safety, efficiency and productivity, as well as to keep drivers connected to dispatchers, co-workers, and family members.

Carriers scoop up new wireless products and services as soon as they appear on the market, allowing trucking companies to provide faster, less expensive, and more reliable service. “Technology is a great customer service tool,” Craver notes.

More recently than many people care to remember, “getting connected” meant grabbing a bunch of gas station maps, filling a pocket with dimes, and switching the CB to channel 19.

Today, carriers can choose from an array of cellular- and satellite-based systems, supporting applications such as transaction reporting, GPS mapping, driver communication, vehicle tracking, and performance monitoring.

“The choices can be overwhelming,” says Dan Benjamin, an automotive systems analyst at ABI Research, a technology market research firm located in Oyster Bay, N.Y. “A lot of innovation is occurring.”

Wireless technology first found its way into trucks in the 1980s and 1990s, when package delivery services such as UPS and FedEx began using mobile data systems connected to bar-code readers to track pickups and dropoffs.

Around the same time, many short- and long-haul truckers began using cell phones to communicate with dispatchers and other business personnel as well as to summon help in an emergency.

Over the years, wireless systems have grown increasingly powerful while prices have steadily fallen. This has allowed carriers of almost any size to take advantage of wireless technology.

“It’s one thing for a $2-billion carrier to invest in a wireless system, but it’s quite another for a $2-million carrier,” says Brooks Bentz, a partner at business services firm Accenture, Hamilton, Bermuda.

World Without Wires

Old Dominion’s wireless pickup- and-delivery (P&D) system is based on handheld computers developed by Symbol Technologies, Holtsville, N.Y., which was acquired by Motorola in January 2007.

The Symbol MC9063 and MC9062 ruggedized devices run the Microsoft Windows Mobile operating system as well as applications designed by Odyssey Software, West Henrietta, N.Y.

The handhelds, featuring both a touch-screen display and full keyboard, link to either Cingular’s GPRS or Verizon’s Wireless CDMA 1xRTT network. Both networks operate at speeds up to about 70 kbps—slow by broadband Internet standards but more than nimble enough to handle text-based information.

As the work shift begins, dispatchers at each of the carrier’s 285 service centers use a wireless local area network to download delivery information to their drivers’ handheld computers.

Once on the road, drivers use their devices to record each stop and any resulting transaction. The data is then relayed back wirelessly to Old Dominion.

“The handheld provides real-time updates on driver deliveries and pickups as long as they are within wireless wide area coverage,” Craver says.

At the shift’s end, drivers return to the service center and the handheld once again connects to the wireless local area network. This time, the device uploads any data to Old Dominion’s IT system that wasn’t transmitted while the driver was in the field.

“The day begins with a download and ends with a final upload,” Craver says.

Craver, no fan of communications systems that are built directly into trucks, says mobility is a key attribute of Old Dominion’s P&D technology. “We wanted all the capabilities located in the device, not in the cab,” he says. “We want our drivers in front of customers when doing their paperwork.”

Yet Craver understands that mobility comes with a serious tradeoff—an inability to provide continuous communications regardless of terrain and other environmental conditions.

“That’s the reason why we use a smart application,” he says. “It can actually store driver transactions, then forward them when a connection becomes available.”

Cell Phones Calling

For Jim Skelton, senior vice president and chief information officer of Ruan Transport, a motor freight carrier located in Des Moines, Iowa, cell phones were the answer to his company’s wireless communication needs. But not just any old cell phones would do.

Skelton needed to find a model that could provide GPS tracking and other advanced features along with voice communication.

After reviewing best-in-class products for usability, flexibility, accuracy, dependability, and cost effectiveness, Skelton decided that the Nextel-615 best met Ruan’s needs.

The handset offers a variety of advanced features, including GPS, a 2.2-inch daylight readable display, multi-media messaging, and a data-based Group Walkie-Talkie service that helps trim the cell phone bill. Ruan has equipped 600 of its drivers with these handsets.

Like Craver, Skelton opted for a handheld device over a cab-mounted system because of the need to foster mobility. “Drivers need to get out of the truck and report the data,” he says.

The handsets also support Ruan’s existing track-and-trace technology. Ruan terminal operators can collect specific data—routes, location, stop time, drive time, and even visuals—from their drivers. The cell phones can also send arrival and departure information to the dispatch center using geo fencing with latitudes and longitudes.

The phones can even keep track of products. Ruan’s milk-hauling operation, for example, can use the phone to convert gallons to weights, as well as track every transaction with an automatic time stamp. “The phones have become indispensable tools,” Skelton says.

Besides supporting voice, business, and location data, carriers are using wireless technology to monitor the performance of various truck components, such as engines, transmissions, and axles, as well as truckers’ driving habits.

Such vehicle telematics systems, using sensors that report back to a central computer via a wireless link, can help carriers spot weak components before they fail, cut fuel use, and pinpoint bad driving habits, leading to benefits such as cost savings and enhanced productivity.

Networkcar, headquartered in San Diego, Calif., offers a vehicle management system that collects and transmits data wirelessly from a vehicle’s engine computer and GPS.

The vehicle’s location and diagnostic details, including precise diagnostic trouble codes, are transmitted to fleet managers over the Internet in the form of immediate e-mail alerts, summary e-mail reports, and a web-based software application.

Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based PHH FirstFleet, which provides asset management, operational support, and financial services to truck fleet operators, used Networkcar technology in a recent truck fuel consumption study. The study revealed that both vehicle fitness and driver performance have a major impact on fuel use.

“We find specific advantages to ‘specing’ the guts of a truck,” notes Alex Popov, PHH FirstFleet’s vice president of fleet services. “There are also advantages to getting the truckers to drive within a specific ‘sweet spot.’ We could not have uncovered that information without using telematics technology.”

The Bottom Line

Many carriers invest in a particular technology with hopes that it will boost the bottom line. Their hopes are met in most instances, yet the savings wireless systems generate can be difficult to quantify.

“The return-on-investment in wireless technology is there intuitively, but it is hard to stick a pin into exact dollar amounts,” Bentz explains.

Craver agrees, adding that wireless’ benefits, even when not formally calculated, are usually easily observed. Delivering assignments directly to handheld devices, for example, eliminates the need for drivers to call in and wait for a dispatcher.

“The less time they have to wait, the more time they can spend doing what makes the company money: moving freight,” he says.

Carriers can also enhance the bottom line by smart shopping, as well as by acquiring a technology with reduced upfront and ongoing expenses. This is particularly true when an application can be handled by either a cutting-edge technology or by a more mainstream approach.

“The cost of equipping a truck with satellite technology still falls in the $2,500 to $3,000 range,” Skelton says. “Ruan’s cell phone strategy, however, costs approximately $500 per truck.”

It Pays to Plan

Careful planning can help carriers avoid buying needlessly sophisticated wireless systems. “Many systems are sold to companies that have not analyzed what they really need,” Skelton notes.

Detailed planning can also keep carriers from getting stuck with a technology that fails to meet their needs. “Companies sometimes try to get away with the least-expensive approach,” Craver says.

But this mindset can lead carriers to purchase systems that are either on the verge of obsolescence or provide only a partial solution. The carriers then attempt to patch gaps with costly add-on technologies that generate overlapping capabilities and add new operational and maintenance demands.

“In addition, the drivers are not happy about carrying around multiple devices,” Craver says.

Communications technology is evolving rapidly, and carriers and transport buyers alike may be pleasantly surprised by what’s coming down the road.

While most past wireless breakthroughs have been hardware-based—cell phones, satellites, and remote sensors—great strides are now being made in software-oriented technologies.

A.I. Gets Real

Artificial intelligence is shaping up to be a prime research area. “Application developers and map database suppliers are identifying more contextual information about the nation’s highways,” says ABI’s Benjamin.

If such research pans out, mapping systems will not only show current road conditions, but will be able to accurately predict what a stretch of highway will look like in terms of traffic load, construction, and weather at some future point.

Continuous, seamless vehicle and cargo monitoring is another goal developers are striving to reach. “Eventually, technology will be able to notify carriers that air pressure is low on a truck’s curbside rear tire, or there’s a leak in the roof,” says Bentz.

Such critical information will be instantly delivered to both drivers and company dispatchers via wireless connections.

Some observers worry that as wireless sophistication grows it will become increasingly difficult to find drivers, dispatchers, and other employees with the ability to handle all of the software and devices at their disposal.

But Benjamin is confident that as long as adequate training is provided, the workforce will be able to easily adapt to the introduction of new wireless systems.

“It’s only a problem if the technology is sprung on drivers as a surprise,” Benjamin says, noting that drivers appreciate technologies that can help them do their jobs faster and easier.

“Efficiency helps everybody,” Benjamin contends.

To build team support, it’s important for carriers to involve drivers and other key workers in wireless system planning, Craver adds.

While field-testing the Symbol handsets, for example, Old Dominion gave its drivers two models, featuring different features and form factors.

“During the pilot, we solicited feedback from the drivers as to which device they preferred,” Craver says. “We allowed drivers to make the decision.”

Go for the Goal

What’s most important, Craver says, is for carriers to plan wireless systems that can meet both future growth and needs.

“Don’t be shortsighted on your goals and objectives,” he advises. “Put more goals and objectives into your project than you plan to meet out of the gate on the pilot.”

That way, the system will be designed to accommodate new features and capabilities as the need, and the financial ability to add them, becomes available.

Wireless has been adopted by so many carriers, and is used for so many applications, that it has become an integral asset along with trailers, tractors, tires, and docks.

“Wireless projects never really end,” Craver observes. “It’s an ongoing process that carriers will revisit at regular intervals to stay connected.”

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