Want to know what the next generation of technology used by transportation operators will look like? Glance at the nearest Android smartphone or Apple iPad.
The explosion in wireless phones and tablet computers that use apps to draw data from the Internet may lead to the biggest transformation in transportation technology since that venerable antique, the Web browser, hit computer screens.
The “consumerization” of information technology is rolling into trucking.
Wireless devices designed for consumers already are changing the design of “industrial” products used by shippers, motor carriers and truck drivers, according to speakers at the eighth annual ALK Transportation Technology Summit in Princeton, N.J., this month.
More companies are using smartphones and tablet computers to deploy systems once run solely on proprietary in-cab devices or desktop computers. Others are changing proprietary computer devices to make them more “app-like.”
“It’s because, predominantly, of apps,” said Christian Schenk, vice president of product marketing for trucking technology provider Xata. “It’s because of how many people are interacting with apps on a daily basis” on smartphones, whether on Apple IOS or Android devices. “There’s an expectation from a user interface perspective similar to that in the consumer world,” said Michael Kornhauser, senior vice president of enterprise solutions at ALK Technologies. “That’s changed a lot over the last five years.”
Those expectations are likely to evolve more rapidly in the next five years, as wireless networks become ubiquitous apps proliferate and are used by everyone from the CEO to the truck driver. A study released this month by developer Epic Digital predicts mobile device usage will overtake desktop use by 2014. “Nearly 90 percent of our production income comes from businesses expanding their traditional media to mobile devices,” Epic CEO Eric Peterson said.
Apple’s App Store opened just four years ago, with about 500 apps. Today, Apple offers more than 725,000 apps, and Google about 438,000 apps for Android, according to recent announcements. Since 2008, more than 40 billion apps have been downloaded from those two stores alone. That’s not counting apps downloaded from RIM, the maker of Blackberry devices, and other stores, such as the Amazon Appstore, which competes with Google’s Android app market.
“People don’t understand the magnitude of the wireless industry,” Schenk said. “We have more than 327 million subscribers using wireless networks in North America. The commercial side of the business doesn’t always take into account how the consumer side can change the industry.”
Case in point, the growth of Android transportation apps. “In 18 months, Google’s transportation apps grew from 438 to 14,216,” Schenk said.
What’s driving that growth in transportation? In part, the person behind the wheel. “The truck driver is a consumer,” Schenk said. “He or she is going to buy devices and apps just like you. They’re going to want to leverage the technology they have.”
A recent Aberdeen Group study found 86 percent of truck drivers already have a mobile device, Schenk said, with 44 percent owning a smartphone. That doesn’t mean other devices, such as rugged on-board computers for truckers and communications devices or desktop computers will disappear. But they probably will interact more with mobile devices and act more like mobile devices.
In many cases, data requirements may be too great for use with a “thin-client” device, Schenk said. “You can’t offload everything into the Cloud.”
“There are compelling reasons to look at smartphones and tablets, but the excitement is more in the software than the hardware,” said Randy Boyles, vice president of tailored solutions at PeopleNet. “We’re interested in ruggedized displays in the cab of the truck.” One such display is PeopleNet’s tablet. If the iPad is a sleek Ferrari, the PeopleNet tablet is a monster truck. The 120-gigabyte device is built to take the shock of the biggest pothole and wear and tear the road can throw at it. Its interface, however, shows the influence of consumer tablets such as the iPad.
And ALK and other companies are developing mobile app versions of software programs previously run on proprietary mobile devices or desktop computers. ALK’s CoPilot, a navigation program, is available as an app for Apple IOS and Android devices, including CoPilot Truck North America. And there’s a growing aftermarket for products designed to make consumer devices more rugged, such as the hard-shelled Hammerhead Capo Case for the iPad.
Trucking companies already are designing mobile apps not just for customers but also their drivers, said John White, president of $1.5 billion carrier U.S. Xpress. The usxpressmobile app provides drivers with out-of-the-cab functionality, allowing them to review dispatch schedules and customer information by smartphone.
“With mobile apps, drivers no longer need to be tethered to the truck to do their work,” White said. “They can be dispatched straight from the mobile phone.”