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Asupposedly notorious fact is that the furthest tire from a driver's seat is the last to get checked. So put a pressure sensor in every tire and wire it to an alarm. Problem cured. Is your driver spee...

Asupposedly notorious fact is that the furthest tire from a driver’s seat is the last to get checked. So put a pressure sensor in every tire and wire it to an alarm. Problem cured. Is your driver speeding on a desert freeway 2500 kilometres from home? No problem. Send him an e-mail telling him to slow down. Has someone “borrowed” your reefer to haul his own cabbages? Pull up a digital map on your computer, read off the street name where Global Positioning Satellites (GPS) indicate the truck is parked and send out one of your big guys to get it back.

These tricks and a blizzard more come courtesy of the convergence of heavy computing power in ever-smaller, cheaper packages and wireless communications, such as cell or satellite, into a capability popularly called telematics.

In the commercial transportation arena, even though some do not use the term, telematics has come to mean the merging of two generations of technology. The first wave included integrated systems that bundled onboard hardware, wireless service and software designed specifically for fleet management. These systems were also designed to be integrated with other fleet management functions, ranging from everyday dispatch applications to complicated enterprise management systems that tied in the firm’s back office functions. The new generation of technology builds on the amount and kinds of data that can be economically sent between vehicle and head office and adds new features dealing with safety, security and information transfer that makes for smarter decisions in the field.

For example, National Wireless, an Oakville, Ont.-headquartered wireless communications provider, is using SaskTel’s LoadTraK to create customized work orders and forms and is able to send weather conditions and fuel prices to the cab.

“We customize our own solutions so customers can get what they need. One customer of ours travels down the west coast through 20 major centres. They wanted to track fuel prices. We created a template so that the dispatcher just fills in the fuel prices and sends the form over the air,” says Greg Epp, business manager with LoadTrak. He adds that the company is working to integrate data into software packages so information can be transferred without people having to touch it.

LoadTrak information can also be blended with traditional applications such as routing, scheduling and optimization, explains Dan Baker, vice president, sales and marketing for National Wireless.

Telematics is enabled by items as small as a 50-cent radio frequency identification tag and as big as a $500 million communications satellite.

The telematics market is being driven by two trends, according to Mike Ham, vice president business services for Mississauga-based Cancom Tracking, which, incidentally, does not use the term telematics. “The trucking industry has become a moving warehouse over the last decade. Manufacturers and shippers rely on the trucking industry to be on time, flexible and provide information. As the industry becomes more complicated there is a greater need for information for driver and operations management,” Ham says.

Cancom’s Canadian customers range in size from 1000-unit fleets down to a fleet of one truck. “Eighty-five percent of our customers have 100 trucks or less. Over 50% of our customers have 25 trucks or less. Small carriers can move and look like big carriers on the basis of costing and customer service,” says Ham.

Too, he notes:””If you were to compare the number of fleets that have adopted OmniTRACS in Canada as compared to the U.S. you will find a higher adoption rate among Canadian operators. Canadian companies are as progressive or more progressive as their U.S. counterparts in adopting technology as a viable business solution.”

The complete list of functionalities all of the vendors offer runs for pages – everything from e-logs, customer monitoring of loads, and increasing amounts of data delivered to drivers to anti-theft devices such as remote starter disabling, the creation of fleet management reports and complex pick-up and delivery routines. However, when it’s all said and done, telematics vendors must be able to demonstrate return on investment (ROI) to cautious fleet managers. “The ROI comes from being able to get by on a lower trailer/tractor ratio, you don’t ruin so many tires, you are more careful with your employees, you recover that expensive load that got stolen and your insurance rate did not go up,” says Neil Knudson, president of Vistar Telecommunications in Ottawa.

One Vistar client combined the system with an automatic tire-inflation system and an alarm connected to Vistar’s GlobalWave system. Says Knudson: “Save the cost of a tire and pay for the system.”

Reefer management can also be automated via these wireless systems. Take the example of shipping of plasma products. The manual method requires that the driver stop every hour and note the temperature. But with data collection and transmission systems that can be wired into the reefer control board, reefer temperature can be automatically set and recorded.

Coastal Pacific Express (CPE) in British Columbia, which hauls mostly perishable goods using a fleet of 200 trucks and 418 trailers, will soon have this remote capability. “We will be getting the integration with the reefer board so we can start and stop the reefer, change the temperatures … Let’s say the reefer starts to malfunction and deviates from the proper temperature. We can call the driver and have him do some diagnostics, or get to a dealer or a cooler, and potentially save a whole load of bananas from a trip to the dump. That would pretty well pay for the system,” explains risk and IT manager Rob Gow.

For now though, CPE uses Vistar’s trailer tracking services to, for example, improve asset management and facilitate theft recovery. “It helps us out a lot to locate our trailers. It’s a huge plus. It is integrated with our software system and is updated in our dispatch software,” says Gow.

Monitoring idling time and being able to do in-cab messaging are two of many functionalities Cancom offers. Ham discusses their ROI: “Most of the times a trucker stops is to make check calls, [each of] which can drag out to 30 minutes to an hour. Say a long-haul trucker does two to three trucks stop stops a day. You can turn off your engine 44 times a month, at one hour per stop. That equals $80 in fuel. It costs a dollar to bring a truck from 65mph to a stop and back up to 65mph. If you can reduce your truck stop visits by once a day, you save.

“We calculate that letting an engine idle 100 hours a month costs $750-1000 a year in wear and tear. I’ve seen ROI as short as six months. Any ROI under 24 months is generally thought of as a pretty strong business case.”

Where people are now seeing significant ROI is in tracking, logging hours of service, fuel tax, trailer and tanker monitoring, tire pressure and brake status. These are cost structures with all fleets that need to be highly managed, says Brian McGlaughlin, vice president marketing, U.S. and Canada for PeopleNet Communications. “It used to be just about locating and messaging. I still think you can get good ROI on just locating and messaging, but you can do much more.

“The shortcomings of the products in the past have been that they have lacked the computational power or the communication capability. You have to do both: communicate; pull [data] off the reefer, engine, brake … The on-board computer is not just pulling engine data and communicating with the drivers.”

The top 50 fleets in the U.S. have pretty well all adopted telematics, but, says McGlaughlin, “Overall adoption in the marketplace is 30-35%. There is still 65% of the market out there that hasn’t purchased this.” The 65% are largely from the 100-500 truck fleet market, which is 50-60% penetrated. There is lower penetration in the less-than-100 truck fleet market, he says, but adds, “If you have more than 10 trucks we can justify an ROI to you.”

It is important for a fleet, according to McGlaughlin, to find a reliable, knowledgeable vendor with a track
record. “Everybody can say they can do everything. The questions I would ask are how many years you have been in business, how many customers do you have and can I talk to some of them. Are you a profitable, stable business? Are you focussed on my business? Go to their Web sites and see who has good customer references.”

Compare vendors’ product costs with the functionalities they offer, because a higher price does not necessarily guarantee more functionality. Another thing to look for, according to McGlaughlin, is a modular system where you can buy just the functionality you need. The system should also be upgradable; a vendor with an ASP (application service provider) solution can transmit upgrades and new products to their on-board computers without the trucks having to be taken off the road.

AirIQ is one of the companies that provides its service over a Web site and Miguel Gonsalves, the company’s vice president, commercial transport, is bullish on that being the way of the future.

“An ASP model is an efficient way to get truck-fleet communication,” he says.

Vendors are optimistic about the future of telematics, although the adoption rate is said to be slow and steady rather than explosive. After all, says Ham: “We see time and time again that the amount of data being sent over the network is increasing more and more.” Fleets with older systems, and which are feeling the cost of repairs and limitations in system capability, are looking for more powerful equipment. Better communications capability fits in with the needs of the LTL fleets.

“The tanker market has been slow to adapt, but because of security it has become more receptive,” says McGlaughlin. He also foresees more demand for tools, such as PeopleNet’s PerformX, that lets drivers see their own performance; e.g., overspeed ratio, idle time versus a target and an alarm to advise the driver when he hits a certain over speed ratio.

McGlaughlin also forecasts greater use of exception monitoring, which, rather than sending rivers of A-OK data from trucks, notifies a fleet only when something is not going properly; e.g., excessive speed, out of route, log violations an hour before the violation, sudden stops, or nearing a prohibited landmark. Exception monitoring reduces data clutter and can halve communication costs.

Load security is also helping drive the market. “We are finding more and more interest coming our way because of new regulations that are being implemented in the transportation of dangerous goods and Homeland Security,” says Knudson.

“As with any technology people have to be convinced that it will help them. But if a competitor is using the technology, they will be the first to gain,” says Knudson. “The greatest efficiency goes to the company that uses it. This is definitely not a technology in search of a home.”

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