Truck News


Utilization Magnified

If it's no longer in your possession, care or control, it's lost. And if it's a substantial asset, like a trailer, losing the use of it even briefly will kink your return on investment, strain your cr...

If it’s no longer in your possession, care or control, it’s lost. And if it’s a substantial asset, like a trailer, losing the use of it even briefly will kink your return on investment, strain your credibility with clients, dent your goodwill with the driver dispatched in vain to pick it up, and throw your equipment utilization figures into the dumpster.

And yet trailers disappear into the operational black hole by the dozens every day. By one account, three to five percent of a fleet’s trailers are lost at any given time.

Fleet managers reluctantly bump up their trailer:tractor ratios to compensate, wincing all the while at the impact on the bottom line.

On the brighter side, this problem of the vanishing trailer has spawned a thriving and fiercely competitive industry bent on installing a tracking device on every trailer in the land. As one supplier views the raw data from Statistics Canada, the market in this country alone is half-a-million registered trailers.

A new competitor quotes these figures from International Data Corporation: The telematics market will grow to US$42 billion by 2010, from US$1 billion in 1998. This supplier describes telematics as the provision of wireless, location-based information to and from vehicles.

Whatever the eventual figures, trailer tracking has become a hot topic. Not only does it address fleet equipment utilization problems, but with its inherent asset visibility it also takes up the challenge of carriers sharing with shippers timely data concerning the status of their cargo.

The birth of the trailer tracking industry coincides with the coming of age of the various technologies that support it: Global Positioning Systems (GPS) and digitized mapping, wireless communications via cellular or satellite, the Internet, and – not to be taken for granted – user-friendly computer intelligence.

Combining these technologies in their various hardware and service packages, the suppliers currently offer a wide range of optional functions.

All start from the basic where’s-my-trailer? function. But having installed the hardware and subscribed to the service, you can opt to have that trailer report not only its location but also its status. A prime example: If your drivers are weary of being dispatched to fetch trailers that haven’t yet been unloaded, you can check the load status before you send them.

Or you can have the trailer report certain events – door open/door closed, tractor connnected, temperature change, trailer idle beyond parameters, power status and so forth.

Decide what you need to know about your fleet – or about an individual trailer in your fleet – and these suppliers can get the information to you.

In fact, the outstanding feature of this industry is the remarkable degree of flexibility and dynamic adaptability it offers fleet managers.

Consider for example how you can configure basic trailer position reporting to suit your needs and budget. Will daily reports suffice? You can choose hourly reports if need be, though with increased frequency comes increased cost. And you can decide this on the fly with most trailer tracking systems, changing back to a more economical level of service whenever that suits your needs. Dynamic adaptability. Or if weekly contact is good enough for one trailer, while you need hourly for another, that too is your choice to make.

Given the accuracy of GPS and digitized mapping capabilities, suppliers can tweak your software to convert latitude and longitude to, for example, a specific sector of the yard in which your idle trailer awaits.

You can turn scheduled reporting of current position on its head, by asking for an immediate report when a trailer passes any position you specify. Or, turning it around again, you can ask for an alert from a trailer that doesn’t move within a user-specified period.

You also get a sweeping menu of options around what you can do with trailer position reports. Some suppliers will convert the collected data into equipment utilization reports, or show you how to import the data into the software you currently use to generate utilization reports.

With some trailer tracking services you can give your customers access – limited at your choosing – into the trailer position data that you receive. You can limit access to only those trailers that concern a certain shipper. And you can do so for any and all shippers.

Some trailer tracking services will further act as a kind of data hub for your trailer fleet, streaming out copies of such activity reports as concern your selected customers.

In at least one tracking system, you can opt to store less-critical data for download when the trailer reaches home. This saves the cost of time on the airwaves but still gets you the activity data you need for calculating equipment utilization.

Suppliers generally suggest you budget about one-half hour per trailer for basic equipment installation – a bit more if you opt to install the sensors required for reporting of events and status beyond trailer position. They use the terms covert installation or stealth installation to describe how they configure the equipment to subvert detection by would-be trailer thieves.

Depending on the supplier you choose, you can buy the hardware or avoid the up-front capital investment and lease it as part of a tracking service package.

The other early decision you’ll have to make is whether to go with a cellular-based or satellite communications service. Although cellular systems do leave coverage gaps, they generally deliver tracking services at a slightly lower cost than those that are satellite based.

Cancom Tracking Solutions offers a choice of cellular or satellite, with its Trailer – TRACS untethered products. Judy McDonald, account manager for trailer tracking, says costs will vary with fleet size and usage, but on average you pay about a dollar a day, per trailer, for the cellular tracking service. This includes leasing the hardware and air time. The same service via satellite goes up to as much as $1.40 a day per trailer, she says.

From its start two years ago, Cancom has 35,000 units in operation. McDonald says the company has commitments for 100,000 more, its biggest subscribers being Swift and Schneider.

McDonald advises that while both cellular and satellite technologies have solid support in the industry, fleet managers should closely scrutinize the history and financial footing of tracking service suppliers before making a commitment.

@Track Communications brought its TrackWare product into the market in the fall of ’99. Director of marketing Kirk Pouttu expects the company will have 40,000 units in the field by the end of this year.

Of the customers @Track has publicly announced, Mesilla Valley is the largest, with 700 units. Pouttu calls Dart Transit the company’s largest test prospect, with its more than 7000 trailers.

Through a partnership with Cellemetry Data Service, TrackWare routes tracking data via the overhead control channel of its cellular network. Pouttu says this is much more cost effective than competing wireless technologies because it enables carriers to generate revenue from an underutilized spectrum. “The end result is that customers of TrackWare get small wireless data packet transmission at a fraction of the cost of circuit-switched cellular or satellite technologies,” Pouttu explains.

To give you an idea of costs, you’d pay $499 for the hardware if you bought one unit. You’d negotiate from there for your fleet. Service rates look like this:

31 reports per month, $7.99/$0.15 for each additional report

62 reports per month, $10.99/$0.12 for each additional report

124 reports per month, $14.99/$0.08 for each additional report.

@Track averages service billing across the fleet, so that reporting not used by one trailer is available for another.

Pouttu advises prospective users to focus equally on the technology and the service provider.

Both Cancom and @Track carry over to trailer tracking technology and experience from their respective in-cab communications systems.

Terion Inc. introduced
its FleetView trailer monitoring system in January of 2000, and as of the end of April this year had 24,824 units in service. Its largest customer to date, XTRA Lease, has ordered 25,000 units, according to Kurt T. Kyvik, Terion’s senior marketing communications manager.

Terion’s cellular carrier agreements provide network coverage by the nearest cellular tower. This gives coverage anywhere there is cellular phone system coverage which, Kyvik says, is virtually all populated areas and rural highway systems in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico.

You can download software into the mobile unit so that trailers don’t have to be pulled off the road to have software features or updates added.

Kyvik pegs the hardware cost at just under $500, with volume pricing available.

Usage plans for fleets larger than 200 units start at $10.95 per trailer per month and there are a number of different plans depending on size of the fleet and how often the trailer is contacted.

Kyvik advises prospective users to look carefully at the cost of upgrades and adding features, including the cost of downtime, to any trailer tracking system they consider. Also critical is the financial viability of the service provider, he says.

Wireless application service provider AirIQ Inc. launched its trailer tracking products last September at Truckworld 2000.

Miguel Gonsalves, vice-president commercial transport, won’t say how many tracking units AirIQ has in the field, nor has disclosure been cleared with the company’s biggest customers.

Pricing is based on a full service model, including hardware and usage to fit the client’s requirements. Additional usage is based on a sliding scale that encourages use by providing volume price reduction. Gonsalves declined dollar figures here.

AirIQ uses cellular technology, which, Gonsalves says, represents the lowest cost option for clients. He advises potential users to choose the most widely available technology, to avoid upfront capital investment in either hardware or software, to check the financial backing of any prospective supplier, and to look for data delivery via the Internet. Gonsalves calls the Internet “the worldwide future of communications”.

Vistar Datacom has been doing evaluation programs to demonstrate the performance and capabilities of its GlobalWave tracking system for about a year, according to Stan Graff, director, transportation markets. He says the company has about 3000 units in the field, including one large fleet with more than 1700 being implemented right now.

The system uses a geosynchronous satellite that allows the user to poll any given trailer and see exactly where it is within about a minute and a half, Graff says.

Vistar sells the hardware for $550 per unit, though volume discounts apply. The tracking service costs $5 to $10 a month, for an average of one report per day. Vistar allows fleet averaging so that any reports not used on one unit can be applied to others in your fleet.

Graff advises fleet managers to avoid “an analog cellular solution because not only is the coverage like Swiss cheese, it will never get any better”. He predicts analog cell coverage will only decline over the next five years.

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