Routing Into The Future

by Ingrid Phaneuf

TORONTO, Ont. –Who’d have thought that ants could contribute anything to reducing the cost of commercial trucking? Researchers studying swarm intelligence believe they are able to do just that.

They say ant colonies can solve problems like finding the shortest path to the best food source or assigning workers to different tasks, all thanks to their ability to transmit information, via the antenna of individual messengers, rapidly and efficiently throughout the entire swarm. In fact, a computer scientist at the Universite Libre in Brussels has already used research on swarm behaviour to create mathematical models for solving human problems, like routing trucks and scheduling airlines. Sound complicated? Not really. When it comes to truck routing vs. swarm efficiency, just think cell phones and laptops instead of hairy feelers.

Ants use feelers to tell each other whether the coast is clear, where food sources are, etc. Truckers use communications technology: dispatch and maps, of course, as a central source of direction; CBs, which are perhaps the most widely used and the oldest form of communication truckers use amongst themselves; and now wireless communications, which bring reactivity to a whole new level.

But is there one source that’s better than any other? Experts say no, because, like ants, truckers rely on a critical mass of information rather than one single source for the best routing information. In other words, a whole swarm will not react to the information retrieved by a single ant, but rather to the same information garnered from several sources. The same goes for truckers, dispatchers and carriers, who are increasingly reliant on several simultaneous sources of information to create highly cost-efficient routes.

Back office to shipper

Central to the creation of a route is the back office, where route efficiency is analyzed and calculated. Understanding how much a route is costing and whether the price being charged for the haul is right is the essential work of the back office. For this, the back office must rely on information that’s tried and true, if only because that’s what shippers have come to expect. Hence, more static sources of information are used, such as maps and routing mileage software.

“We developed our first truck routing software solution in 1986 and now, 23 years later, we’re the industry standard used by 94% of top carriers in North America,” says Craig Fiander, vice-president of marketing for ALK Technologies, which provides the routing solutions offered by companies such as TransCore. ALK’s PC*Miler mileage is used to do everything from determining driver pay to calculating bills for shippers. And updates are available both annually and quarterly, to provide both carriers and shippers with the latest information on new route restrictions. Key features for cost control include fuel-optimized routing and exact truck-specific toll cost calculation.

Routing information is also available to drivers in-cab, says Fiander, via the PC*Miler Navigator all-in-one GPS device and/or software for use on laptops or smart phones. Key safety features for drivers include spoken truck-legal directions and restricted route warning screens.

The beauty of PC*Miler back office and in-cab software is that it doesn’t rely on sporadic wireless communications networks to provide routing and navigation information, says Fiander. “But our clients are able to override routing information based on their own preferences,” he says. Annual and quarterly update software available to clients incorporates new information received from users and government officials.

“We have an automated process that pulls in information from drivers and fleets at their discretion and we verify that information,” says Fiander. “And we can also overlay information received from automobile drivers to analyze routes in terms of traffic trends.”

While wireless communications networks are admittedly spotty and not the most reliable source of information as yet, up-to-date traffic information is just one area where truck-specific live routing information provided via wireless technology can come in handy, admits Fiander. “Connected live services, like real-time traffic, are a particular strength and focus of ALK Technologies. We will incorporate these into our PC*Miler Navigator and CoPilot Truck software as the devices on which we are shipped start to integrate wireless communications.”

Going wireless

The increased popularity of wireless communications tools for truckers is no surprise. Spotty or no, live connectivity is a bonus for truckers in a world where driving conditions, be they weather-, traffic-or driver-related, can turn on a dime. So why use mobile communications when you’re already on the CB? It’s all about knowing that the information you’re getting is reliable and truck-specific.

Wireless communications companies like Shaw Tracking and PeopleNet aim to offer carriers such reliability via service provider Maptuit, which offers truck-specific, real-time navigation information to both drivers and dispatch.

The company, based in Toronto, is the first of its kind in North America to offer truck-specific routing information in real-time.

“We got into this 10 years ago, because while GPS was available to automobile drivers, there was very little real-time data specific to trucks,” says Luke Wachtel, executive vice-president of sales and marketing for Maptuit.

Wachtel adds that mistakes when it comes to reliability of information are possible, but that “we never make the same mistake twice. Every one of our clients uses a connected product. If a driver gets information from us that’s incorrect -for example, if he finds that an overpass is too low -he has the ability to provide us with feedback right away and we react by immediately verifying and updating the information.”

According to Wachtel, North America’s largest five fleets are currently using the technology and actively sharing information with each other.

“There is a sense of communal information sharing -fleets even verify their information before they send it to us for further verification.”

Information can be shared immediately within the fleet or, once vetted by Maptuit staff, shared with the community at large.

“Mostly the dispatchers will forward information, and so a layer of verification is already provided,” says Wachtel. “But then we verify as well, for instance if we receive news that an overpass on Route 34 is only 13 feet high, we will go so far as to call the local sheriff or highway authority to have that information verified.”

Wachtel points out that real-time information on route restrictions, bridge certifications and overpass heights is especially important given stimulus funding projects across North America which have resulted in increased infrastructure construction and repair.

“Repaving can reduce the height of an overpass that was previously high enough. Just one incident where a trailer top is saved from being crushed can make subscribing to a real-time service pay for itself,” he points out. So can incidents resulting from mudslides and other unpredictable extreme weather conditions, he says. “During Hurricane Katrina, our customers were relying heavily on updates via wireless communications. They had to reroute when roads were washed out.”

Mobile communications is gaining acceptance with the trucking industry, says Wachtel.

“I can say with some objectivity that the commercial trucking market is increasingly moving towards connected consumer products,” says Wachtel, adding safety also plays an important role in the desire for connectivity.

Measuring ROI

“There are so many variables affecting return on investment,” says Wachtel. “And out-of-route miles are just one.”

So how much money can you save by maximizing your use of routing technology specific to commercial trucking? How much are accidents and out-of-route miles costing you now?

“There are
over a hundred variables that can affect the cost of a route -from an accident to your driver missing a turn because he or she is new or the route is new,” says Wachtel. Clearly there’s a very real return on your investment when you’re reducing miles and accidents. Just ask the ants.

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