By James Menzies SURREY, B. C. –Take a look around almost any major trucking yard and you’ll see them there. Abandoned and neglected, these long-forgotten trailers sit perched on tired landing gear.
These trailers are costing their owners money, and it’s usually because they’ve simply slipped through the cracks.
Advancements in battery technology and improved affordability are making untethered trailer tracking (UTT) systems a more appealing option for fleets.
While the obvious reason for implementing a trailer tracking system is to prevent theft, the real payback is achieved through improved asset utilization.
The US Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) recently released the results of a pilot project on UTT systems. Two major American fleets were involved in the project -Celadon and Landstar. In a post 9/11 world, the FMCSA’s interest in the subject was obvious.
“There are three times as many trailers as tractors and there are many empty trailers sitting unwatched and they can be subject to theft and potential terrorism,”Amy Houser, and engineer with the FMCSA said during a recent Webinar.
Following the September 11 terrorist attacks, the FMCSA became aware that there were trailer tracking technologies available that weren’t widely used. This piqued the agency’s interest in light of the heightened threat of terrorism and escalating concerns about cargo theft -a $50 billion a year problem in the US.
The FMCSA launched its pilot project to explore not only how UTT systems can improve security, but also how they can improve fleet efficiencies.
“In a hot economy, which certainly isn’t the case right now, we’re looking for more capacity and we can’t find our trailers,” pointed out Dan Murray, vice-president of research with the American Transportation Research Institute, a partner in the pilot program. “Sometimes they’re left in the lot and sometimes our shipper customers are using them for just-in-time inventory storage. At $20,000- $40,000 per trailer, we can’t afford to have these assets lying low.”
Mike Gabbei of Celadon said the company owns 8,100 trailers -350 based in Canada. His fleet established five objectives when taking part in the project: determine trailer idle-time; decrease the cost of fuel consumed while chasing trailers around; avoid connecting to the wrong trailers and wasting driver productivity; improve its ability to bill customers for trailer detention; and improve cargo security.
Celadon equipped 3,000 trailers with Qualcomm’s T2 UTT solution, which was integrated into the carrier’s operational system. When data in Celadon’s operational software did not match the information transmitted by the trailer tracking system, an exception report was filed.
“We improved the data quality in our system from order entry right through to the collection of the invoice,” Gabbei explained. “We can provide customers with accurate, up-to- date information and by knowing where our trailers are, we are eliminating wasted fuel and improving driver and tractor productivity.”
Allen Hoffer reported similar success on behalf of Landstar, which installed 8,500 SkyBitz units on its van trailer fleet. Hoffer said Landstar increased its revenue-per-trailer and loads-per-trailer due to improved equipment utilization.
A unexpected benefit was that Landstar also improved its owner/operator retention rate, “based on the fact we weren’t sending them out to chase trailers that weren’t there. We would send them to a trailer and get them out on the road, which increased their profitability.”
If not for its use of UTT, Hoffer said Landstar would have spent $35 million to acquire new trailers to haul the same amount of freight it was able to deliver by improving its utilization of its existing trailer fleet.
The company now is looking at equipping its specialized trailer fleet with the technology.
With all the benefits achieved through the more efficient use of equipment, it’s be easy to forget what UTT systems were first designed for: preventing cargo theft.
Hoffer said Landstar reported about 300 lost or stolen trailers in 2002. In 2007, with its UTT program in place, that number dropped to 30 – a 90% reduction. Hoffer did concede that a 100% theft reduction is not a realistic target, even with an untethered trailer tracking system.
“There’s a number of reasons why,” he explained. “A trailer could be moved inside a metal building which would cause a disruption in reporting. And also, it could be a person who is familiar with Landstar and familiar with the systems, so they may be able to locate the system and disable it.”
UTT systems are also gaining acceptance here in Canada. Brad Aitken, director of business development with TransCore’s GlobalWave, says improvements in battery life and cost reductions have made the systems more attractive.
“We’ve been selling these systems for 10 years but in the last year or so, we’ve really seen an up-tick in the business,” he told Truck News. He noted batteries now can last five years or more. As recently as a few years ago, batteries tended to die after two or three years of use.
Surprisingly, it’s small-and medium-sized fleets that are the earliest adopters, he said, generally those that don’t have an in-cab tracking system in place and want a more cost-effective way to track their equipment.
Jamie Williams, president of PeopleNet Canada, which partners with AirIQ and SkyBitz to offer UTT solutions, confirmed “there’s an awful lot of interest in Canada.”
He added the main motivator for Canadian fleets is the ability to reduce their operating costs.
“The technology is giving them a better view of their assets at all times. If they have unused assets in their yards and at customer sites, it’s just a cost. They’re trying to drive out as many inefficiencies as possible and one is unused assets that aren’t moving and aren’t making them any money.”
Coastal Pacific Xpress of Surrey, B. C. had two purposes for adopting an untethered trailer tracking system.
“One is that we’re self-insured,” IT manager Clint Hall told Truck News. “And even more importantly, a lot of our trailers do sit in yards and we’re interlined so we have a lot of carriers touching our equipment.”
Using geofencing (the ability to map out an area and send an exception report when a trailer leaves that area), CPX established a number of landmarks.
“When a trailer is within that landmark for a certain amount of time, it sends a message saying ‘I’m here,'” Hall explained. CPX has been using untethered trailer tracking for more than a year. While Hall admitted it’s difficult to calculate an exact return-on-investment, he said the company is well past the evaluation stage and is confident it is benefiting from the use of the technology.
Similarly, Berry & Smith Trucking out of Penticton, B. C. has been rolling out a UTT program in its fleet. When contacted by Truck News, controller and IT manager Dorothy Vankoughnett, relayed the story of a trailer that was inadvertently hooked up and hauled off by a driver from another carrier.
Using its UTT system, Berry & Smith was able to locate the trailer in the other fleet’s yard – and was able to bill the company for the use of the trailer to boot.
“Had we not had the tracking, we wouldn’t have known where it was,” Vankoughnett said. “In the past, it has taken us a couple of weeks to find one of our trailers.”
The company has recently placed an order to equip the remainder of its van trailer fleet with the systems.
Establishing a payback on UTT systems isn’t easy, since there are many intangibles at play. How, for instance, can you measure the cost of the trailer thefts that didn’t happen because the system was in place?
TransCore’s Aitken said most fleets achieve a payback simply from downsizing their trailer fleet.
“We have one fleet that held off buying five new trailers in 2008,” he said. “One of our large
customers in the US held off buying 400 new trailers. They’re able to get more done with less equipment.”
For companies interested in implementing a UTT program, there’s no shortage of options. Popular providers include: SkyBitz; GE Trailer Fleet Services; TransCore; Shaw Tracking;GeoLogic Solutions; AirIQ; and Qualcomm, to name a few. Fleet managers should do their homework, since there are many variables to consider, including: battery life expectancy; size (can it be mounted covertly?); response time; and cost.