Something new for the small guys?

by Bruce Richards

Every now and again something curious pops up in the news, something that is a bit of a head-scratcher. Late in June one of those items came across my desk, and I was curious enough to do a little research to find out more.

It was a announcement from the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario, letting us know that the agency was spending (‘investing’ is the word they used) up to $5.3 million dollars to help eight “innovative businesses” in the Kitchener-Waterloo area of Ontario “succeed and grow.”

The goal is to help them get their products and ideas to market faster, while creating jobs and economic growth in southern Ontario, according to the news release.

It’s not entirely a coincidence, I suppose, that the Member of Parliament for Kitchener-Waterloo, Peter Braid, is a Progressive Conservative and a ranking member of the Harper government. Draw your own conclusions.

This money is being made available with such lofty goals as creating “high-value job opportunities” and leveraging additional investment from venture capital firms.

The announcement named the eight companies that will receive funding, with amounts ranging from $75,000 up to $996,000. The funds are in the form of a five-year interest-free loan and are dependent on each applicant finding its own ‘Angel’ investors.

One of the recipients will receive up to $750,000 to develop and implement a mobile tracking and management system for truck transportation companies, and that is the one that tweaked my interest. My first thought was ‘Why fund the creation of another such device?’ Here’s where my research led me:

The government release states that the company “has developed a mobile tracking and management system for truck transportation companies, allowing truck drivers to electronically document their position, provide delivery updates, communicate with other drivers, and access regulatory information.”

The company’s Web site indicates that a driver using their product can record hours-of-service on his/her smartphone or tablet, can communicate with dispatch, and can send and receive documents.

All useful tools, and it is certainly encouraging to see our government supporting innovation and job creation But this one still seemed superfluous considering that the trucking industry already has a number of suppliers offering on-board tracking devices that perform a host of different functions, including those that will be apparently be developed with the federal financing.

Most progressive fleets, certainly those within the PMTC, are already using on-board recorders to help manage their fleet and their drivers in order to maximize efficiency and productivity.

I saw what I thought was another concern with the product: tracking hours-of-service by entering data on a smartphone would seem to be only a minor improvement on a hand-written paper log unless the smartphone were to connect to the truck’s ECM, which, according to a company spokesman, it will not.

The lack of connectivity to the ECM may put the smartphone app at a disadvantage in the future if EOBRs become mandatory. The Canadian Council of Motor Transport Administrators is considering a Canadian standard for EOBRs for the purpose of tracking hours-of-service and it is likely that any such standard will require that the recording device be connected to the ECM.

So why would the government fund the development of another tracking device for trucking?

Well, the company feels it has a ready-made market among very small fleets and individual operators. According to a company spokesman, there has been considerable interest and uptake in those sectors.

The operator can track the whereabouts of the trucks via the GPS in the phone, “and there are prompts that will advise the driver to correct any obvious entry errors or changes in duty status on the log entries. These prompts should help eliminate log errors and used properly will be a distinct advantage for both the driver and the operator.”

Since smartphones are ubiquitous parts of our world, this system may prove to be a relatively inexpensive control tool for drivers and operators of small fleets.

Of course increased competition brought about by having more players supplying products and services to the trucking industry is generally a good thing for consumers. It tends to keep those suppliers innovative, leads to better products, and price competitiveness. So having another supplier of on-board tracking devices in the market may not be a bad thing at all, particularly if it helps the little guys.

So, what at first appeared to me to be federal money not-so-well-spent, may indeed help deliver a product that will be of use to small fleets or individual owner/operators. It should be interesting to watch what happens over the term of the loan. (We tried to reach Mr. Braid at his constituency office to discuss this but could not do so prior to press time).

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