Trucking technology is approaching a crossroads as safety regulations and economic necessity drive more trucking companies to purchase and plug into everything from electronic onboard recorders to network optimization software.
New safety regulations and initiatives that focus on truck drivers are perhaps the leading factors pushing greater adoption of trucking technology, but so are rising fuel prices and operating costs in an economy that doesn’t forgive miscalculations.
That economy also is pushing trucking companies to diversify operations, creating demand for systems and software that can integrate and support multimodal transportation offerings that until recently rarely made a direct connection.
The result is likely to be a wave of products and services hitting trucking operators and their customers over the next few years, driving automation much deeper into a trucking market that still relies more on rubber, paper and iron than electronics.
That will give shippers and third-party logistics providers greater visibility into their supply chains — not to mention the CSA safety ratings and potential liability risk of their carriers — and more control over their remote, rolling inventory.
Technology suppliers see significant opportunities. For example, there now are about 600,000 onboard mobile communications devices deployed in the trucking industry, according to onboard computing provider PeopleNet.
“We’re going to see upward of 2 million additional units enter the market in the next three to four years,” said Brian McLaughlin, PeopleNet’s chief operating officer.
That surge largely may be attributed to a pending Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration requirement that interstate truckers use EOBRs to log their hours.
But there’s also a pressing need for more efficient use of trucks and drivers, thanks to the steep reduction in trucking capacity during the recession and rising costs.
“What we’re seeing now is the rapid adoption of safety technology, of prognostics and diagnostics off the engine, of driver scorecards and advanced analytics and predictive analytics on loads, drivers and vehicles,” McLaughlin said.
Trucking companies, shippers and logistics providers will have to make more use of technology to create, secure and manage capacity, speakers at the 2011 ALK Transportation Technology Summit in Princeton, N.J., said this month.
They also believe it will be increasingly difficult for smaller trucking companies, and most carriers have fewer than 20 trucks, to compete with larger operators who bring scale to the business, unless they use technology to level the field.
“You’ve got to be able to depend on automation,” said Houston Vaughn, chief operating officer of P&S Transportation. Birmingham, Ala.-based P&S was founded as a 20-truck carrier in 2004 and now has more than 500 tractors. “We couldn’t have done that type of expansion without some automation.”
P&S worked with McLeod Software to develop a system that allows it to manage its fleet by exception, focusing on the 10 percent of the “chaos” that requires immediate attention rather than the other 90 percent that runs as planned, Vaughn said.
The good news is that technology increasingly is available even for smaller and midsize carriers that can help them automate functions such as driver hours-of-service logs and use real-time information to make better business decisions.
The rapid evolution of cellular communications technology and smart phones along with cloud computing, the Web and the software-as-a-service model will make it easier not only to deploy systems more broadly but also to develop them more quickly.
“The new era will be characterized by complete connectivity and ubiquitous location,” said Barry J. Glick, CEO of ALK Technologies in Princeton. “We’re seeing that already.” The key, he said, is “delivering the right information to the right person no matter where he or she is or what device they are using.”
That’s a feature of the current generation of open systems tools replacing the older, stand-alone proprietary products that often served as de facto barriers between various departments within a business and between business partners.
“There have been huge changes on the architecture side as to how we share information,” said Norm Ellis, vice president of transportation and logistics sales and service for Qualcomm, a trucking communications pioneer. “We’ve seen more and more systems integration from the truck cab deeper into the company.”
Qualcomm, like its competitors, is looking to move deeper into trucking.
The company that launched its mobile communications line in 1988 with Schneider National is aiming for the smaller fleet market. “We’ll reinvent and develop lower cost solutions that still deliver value but perhaps not as diverse a value base,” Ellis said.
Those lower cost solutions could be more narrowly focused on regulatory compliance, for example. The next generation of Qualcomm’s MCP50 system will have a list price of $799 and messaging plans starting at about $20 a month.
The next step is to develop an EOBR “app” that could be downloaded and installed on a laptop computer, Ellis said. Qualcomm would supply the application and a black box that would connect the laptop to the engine’s electronic sensors.
The iTunes app store model developed by Apple could have a profound effect on how transportation software is sold and distributed, PeopleNet’s McLaughlin said. “We’ve talked about having a driver app store,” he said. “That would bring a whole new dynamic into play.” Traditionally, trucking companies decide what software to buy and how drivers will use it. As the driver supply tightens, that may change.
“What if you could work for a fleet where you had a tablet computer in the cab and you could download apps on the road, whether it’s Facebook, Solitaire or Skype?” McLaughlin asked. “Would that be one more reason to go to work for them? Probably.”
Contact William B. Cassidy at email@example.com.