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Telematics for the massess

Telematics pundits point out that electrical engineering has by far outstripped mechanical engineering as the most important source of innovation in private and dedicated trucking in recent years. Unt...

Telematics pundits point out that electrical engineering has by far outstripped mechanical engineering as the most important source of innovation in private and dedicated trucking in recent years. Until recently, telematics – the transfer of data between mobile units and home base over wireless networks – has usually been employed by large long-haul fleets with deep pockets or special requirements. But with stiffening competition between telematics providers, the rise of cellular network systems providing improved coverage at a reduced cost, and a growing variety of applications hitting the North American market from overseas due to standardized protocols, medium and even small private trucking companies are taking notice.

An assortment of issues on both the supplier and user side is making the technology more feasible for private-fleet adoption. Rising equipment, fuel and labor costs on the private fleet side are forcing private carriers to look for ways to more efficiently manage their operation. At the same time, reduced pricing and simplified implementation is making mobile communications much more attractive.

“There have always been a number of competitors in the marketplace but some ended up providing technology that didn’t work sometimes. Today you have solutions that are running extremely well and that has forced the hand of the dominant players to reduce prices,” says Brad Aitken, director of TransCore Link Logistics’, Link Trak. TransCore’s GlobalWave system of wireless communications employs both GPS and geostationary satellites to provide tracking, communications and a host of data services such as fuel mileage data, engine performance, fault code notification and geofencing.

Some of the innovations that have come into the marketplace in recent years have also made the technology a lot simpler to implement, both on the supplier and the buyer side.

“Our challenge is getting the word out that these solutions have a great ROI and can have a profound impact on your business whether it’s a small organization running 5 trucks or ones that are running in the hundreds,” says Mansell Nelson, vice president of product management, Rogers Business Solutions.

Anne Taylor, vice president commercial division, Air IQ Inc., a wireless, subscription-based application service provider (all of the software is located at AirIQ’s own facility as opposed to being in the computers in a fleet’s offices), says the most important driver in the ROI equation for her commercial clients is improving fleet utilization rates through fleet awareness.

The interest in the mobile tracking and communications technology is also due to the growing sophistication among Canadian private fleets. TransCore’s Claudia Milicevic noted increased interest from Private Motor Truck Council member fleets when her firm presented at the association’s annual conference this summer.

“Especially with fuel costs rising, more and more private fleet managers are looking to make up for those costs by generating extra revenue,” Milicevic says.

One way to do that has been to generate revenue on the back haul. Keeping trucks full on the back-haul is important to Randy Swarbrick, fleet manager for Ippolito Transportation Inc., a grower, packer and shipper of fresh produce that operates 64 tractors throughout Ontario and Quebec and the U.S., but it is only one component of his telematics ROI. Swarbrick implemented a full-scale satellite communication system from Cancom eight months ago. “This is a valuable tool for us, both from the point of view of our own product hauling as well as our for-hire segment. Cancom estimated the return on investment at about a year-and-a-half. But the way we’re using it, I figure it’s about eight months,” he says.

Cancom’s OmniTRACS, which is engineered and designed by Qualcomm of San Diego, provides Swarbrick ubiquitous coverage and real-time communications. “We’re a back-haul carrier as well, so if there’s an empty truck heading home and I see a load somewhere through my load brokers, I can send them to pick it up. A cell phone can often be out of range,” Swarbrick says, citing some of the other benefits: “We used to have our drivers calling in on a daily basis. When they weren’t calling on us, we were calling them and disrupting them in their rest period. Now we know exactly where the trucks are and it saves us a lot of calls.” Customer service also benefits. Customers can call in to get accurate updates on delayed shipments. In the next phase of upgrades to Ippolito’s telematics solution, its grocer clients will be able to check on the status of shipments themselves. Knowing exactly where trucks are, who is driving them, whether the truck is idling or is shut down has payoffs in fuel consumption, security and when there is a breakdown. Ippolito drivers still carry cell phones, but their airtime usage – and cellular network costs – have gone down. Its paperwork load has also been reduced. “We’re now getting all our international fuel tax reporting automatically. That’s why the payback is not just on the communications side of things. It’s a whole handful of benefits.”

TransCore’s Aitken points out that even private fleets picking up and delivering among their own network of facilities stand to benefit from captured data such as detention time. The accurate capture of how long a private fleet’s trucks have to wait to be loaded or unloaded at different locations is the first step towards addressing such inefficiencies.

Choosing the right telematics features to address the unique requirements of any given trucking operation is key. Remote tire pressure monitoring, for example, isn’t something Swarbrick decided he needed, yet he has direct access to the onboard computers in his rigs. Despite running a fleet of reefer trailers, he doesn’t monitor his reefers remotely. Not yet at least.

“Our drivers are responsible for the refrigeration units, but Cancom is updating our system to put in a new trailer tracking system to capture temperature. It will be powered by the trailer unit itself.”

In other words, a telematics buy-in is hard to justify without a real dollar benefit, Mike Ham, vice president of business services, Cancom, says, “Our system needs to make trucking operations more efficient. Without this technology, you’d typically need more people working phones or with the drivers, which means higher costs.” This philosophy has gained Cancom a 35% share of the truckload market, which Ham estimates is about 100,000 vehicles in Canada. “So it’s not technology for the little guy, it’s not technology for the big guy. It’s technology for anybody running trucks where the ROI works.”

Increasingly, cellular data networks are making the ROI work for small to medium trucking operations. “With this new breed of solutions hitting the market now, we’re seeing a huge uptake in interest and questions. I get three calls a day on this technology. I’d love to tell you I get three sales a day, but it’s not far behind because the affordability is here today,” says Mike Wilush, data solutions manager, National Wireless, which, over the last five years, has shifted its focus from wireless voice communications to wireless data. A partnership with Bell Mobility for cellular service as well as with several satellite providers allows it to meet a variety of specific needs.

“Which network is required depends on your region of coverage. If I’m a regional carrier, I could do very well with cellular technology. If I’m long-haul and I’m driving in remote areas, a satellite solution may be the only choice,” Wilush says. Currently, most of his clients have relatively simple requirements – capturing global positioning coordinates. Some organizations want a cookie crumb trail of GPS readings every 10 seconds. Others are satisfied with transmission every hour to gauge progress in a long haul.

Nelson says the cost difference between moving a kilobyte of data over a ground-based network versus a satellite network is in the order of eight to 10-fold. At the same time, cellular networks are upgrading their throughput capabilities and expanding their reach. The Rogers GPRS Edge network (general packet radio service) has evolved to where it can handle three times the data of a regular phone line and, currently, coverage is within reach of about 94% of Canada’s population.

“Where we see a lot of the new opportunity is in the less-than-load market,” Nelson says. “There are two problems with satellite. It is inherently expensive and it doesn’t work in urban canyons where you don’t have line of sight to the satellites. So the whole less-than-load industry in cities is ripe for cellular solutions.”

Paul Romanchych, general manager of corporate business, Bell Mobility Inc., explains how Bell’s Assisted GPS, works in urban centres: “Assisted GPS looks for a satellite signal first, because that’s the most accurate. If it can’t get that, it works on cellular tower triangulation. You’re always connected to three towers in our network, so with our triangulating software we can actually tell where you are.”

With roughly 75% of the world using the GPRS standard now, the North American market is also benefiting from applications already developed elsewhere, further improving the economics of land-based telematics solutions. “As much as we like to think we’re very advanced in North America,” Nelson says, “when you look at what they’re doing in Europe or Asia, you wonder why we think that.”

Trailers “get smart” with new tracking technology

by James Menzies

The trailer has always been referred to as a “dumb asset” – but it’s getting an education thanks to GE Trailer Fleet Services.

The company (formerly known as TIP) has continued developing its VeriWise asset intelligence system, providing more options and allowing customers to track their trailers the same way many fleets now track power units. The company says the asset-tracking industry is evolving and trailer tracking is the next big step. GE Trailer Fleet Service’s mobile solutions center made its Canadian debut in Vancouver this summer, allowing customers and the media to experience the technology first-hand.

“Our VeriWise system helps manage critical issues important to both trucking companies and to every driver,” announced Thomas Konditi, general manager of asset intelligence with GE Trailer Fleet Services. “Drivers are naturally concerned about security so new technologies that can improve security across Canada are of interest. Trucking companies want better security and safety for their trailer fleets too, but they are also keenly interested in how to increase freight transport productivity without increasing the size of their current trailer fleets.”

The VeriWise system was first introduced in 2003 but at the time it offered only location tracking capabilities. Since then, the company has added options including: door and cargo sensors; geofencing; hook/drop notification; and low battery notification.

It has also extended the life of its lead acid battery to 120 days untethered, with the ability to recharge in only four to six hours when connected to a tractor.

“The only reason you’d need it to last 120 days is if it’s not hooked up to a tractor,” points out Patrick Brennan, media relations manager with GE Trailer Fleet Services. “If you have a trailer sitting that long, then you have an asset management problem.”

GE’s VeriWise uses a dual satellite system comprised of 36 low-orbiting GPS satellites. This network provides complete coverage, even in the mountains or major cities, preventing the “urban canyon” blackouts that were the traditional knock against GPS satellite systems.

The company says the maximum time that will elapse before a location request is answered is 15 minutes, with 96% of requests responded to within 10 minutes. Customers told GE a 30-minute window was acceptable, but the company reduced that in half with its latest edition of VeriWise.

One of the new additions to the VeriWise system is Hook/Drop Status capabilities.

Brennan says the feature is especially useful now, as there are more hook/drop applications today thanks to the driver shortage and new Hours-of-Service rules. Some users have identified other benefits of the feature as well, including one fleet that found a customer was using its trailer for its own deliveries.

“The carrier thought the retailer was taking a week to unload the trailer, but they were doing local deliveries with it and they got free use of that trailer for a week!” recalls Brennan.

Needless to say, the retailer was at a loss for words when presented with data obtained through the system’s hook/drop status and cargo sensor functions.

Another feature that helped this customer realize what was going on was the optional door sensor, which detects and records every seven-inch door opening.

The VeriWise cargo sensor is another new option, which detects whether or not the trailer contains freight at any given time. The company is working on an infrared optical cargo sensor which will be available soon, but at a steeper price.

Geofencing is yet another option, allowing fleet managers to ensure their trailers are where they should be at all times. If a trailer leaves a predetermined area, an exception report will immediately be sent to the fleet manager, allowing him to determine why that trailer’s not where it’s supposed to be.

GE officials say the new enhancements are just the tip of the iceberg, and further features are already in the works. The company is currently working on a system that will work within reefer units and it also plans to integrate its technology with existing RFID systems so customers know exactly what’s inside each trailer.

Brennan says he’s optimistic trailer tracking systems will be widely embraced by the industry.

“We feel this will become a standard option on all trailers, much like air ride suspensions,” he boldly predicts. “It’s just a matter of timing and market acceptance.”

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