Eye On Technology: Here I Am, There You Are

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Remember the days when rows of truckers, phones jammed to their ears, propped up the walls at truck stops? Or when they disappeared onto the highways with empty trailers, unreachable by their dispatchers? Or, … comparing then and now, with mobile communications capabilities, satellite positioning, engine monitoring and more replacing stacks of dimes and the rotary dial, sounds rather like the “when I was a kid’ tales parents use to put their children to sleep.

By 1998 Ontario based SLH Transport, which currently has 425 power units, 3400 trailers, 1500 employees and over 425 hundred owner-operators on tap, began moving away from landline communications to something befitting over-the-road transport. They purchased two capabilities from Cancom: OmniTRACS, which provides two-way communication on the fly between truckers and dispatch, and SensorTRACS, which collects and transmits vehicle and driver information.

“What drove us to [implement] this was the desire to provide our customers with real-time load information. We also wanted to reduce congestion and wasted time on phones and two-way radios,” says Gord Gillespie, SLH vice-president operations and business development.

Over a one-year period SLH implemented the Cancom solutions in one area after another, although some specialized fleet operations are just getting these remote communications capabilities this year. The goal was to have high level integration of the Cancom solutions with the SLH dispatch system.

“When we initiated the program we wanted it to be seamless. The interface between Cancom and our dispatch system is extensive,” explains Gillespie. “We did not see onboard, real-time communication in itself being a satisfactory solution for us to both enhance our dispatch/driving operations, and meet ever changing customer requirements. You have to seamlessly get that valuable information interfaced with your operating system information. The biggest bang for your buck is automating the system-to-system transfer.

“We had to do a tremendous amount of programming to highly integrate OmniTRACS with our dispatch software. Every function the driver does automatically updates the dispatch software. Information shows up automatically on orders so that we can provide that information to our customers accurately in real time, without looking it up on another system, and have detailed accurate information for our invoice processing.”

The system is so automated that dispatchers require hardly any training. “Because we integrated it and made it virtually invisible to our dispatchers, they don’t work in the Cancom system at all,” explains Gillespie. Drivers received a lot of training, since they have as many as a dozen forms they must work in with their in-cab keyboards. But once they caught on to the advantages of driving, instead of fooling with pay phones, they quickly gave up their objections to having satellite communications and monitoring in their trucks. “Now they all want it. They make more money driving than sitting still,” says Gillespie.

Gillespie, as a representative of a company in a cutthroat industry, is mum on the exact costs and financial advantages of having the Cancom systems – “go buy one and find out for yourself,” he jokes – but he ticks off key advantages of OmniTRACS: “There was an opportunity to reduce empty miles, because we could reach drivers any time with new load assignments. It has reduced telephone and radio expenses and driver delay time. Information drivers provide appears on the dispatchers’ computers – a significant improvement for our dispatchers and planners, as well as our customers. Our dispatchers can focus more on planning. When a driver has delivered a load, he pushes a button in his truck, dispatch gets this and the next assignment is automatically sent to the driver. There is no manual intervention at all.”

From a safety perspective, adds Gillespie, “We wanted to provide drivers with the immediate ability to contact us with en-route information, or for us to send information to them in a timely and reliable manner.”

Billing is easier and faster, and since excessive wait times at customers triggers an alert, sales representatives, armed with satellite positioning and dwell-time data, rather than hearsay, can discuss delays with clients, find solutions, negotiate compensatory rates, or “fire” customers that are not willing to work in a mutually beneficial partnership arrangement.

OmniTRACS is also tied into the payroll program, where drivers’ work is validated and wages calculated. Company drivers, who are paid by the trip, can see at the end of each day how much they have earned. “From the satellite position and time detail, payroll can accurately be calculated,” says Gillespie.

SensorTRACS tells SLH what the drivers have been doing; e.g., speeding, over-revving or excessive idling. This record-keeping, by driver and unit, monitors compliance to driver policies, and provides insight as to which vehicle specifications are better performers in their operation. “It lets us identify and recognize our really good drivers and highlights where we should provide additional training for other drivers to improve their skills. We can also use this as a tool in our vehicle spec’ing as we know what units and components perform best for us” says Gillespie. And, he notes, “There has been a noticeable improvement in fuel economy.”

The limits of the capabilities provided by solutions like OmniTRACS and Sensor TRACS are constantly being expanded by the level of detail clients want, budgets and changing regulations. For example, SLH is developing its Web site to allow clients to get load information online, instead of from dispatchers, and wants to look at automatically e-mailing them exceptions.

As for the Canada-U.S. security situation, Gillespie says, “New international rules are still a work in progress to some extent., and the Cancom information may very well assist us in meeting the new regulations once they are finalized”.

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