Tracking 101: Don’t Get Caught in the Techno Crossfire

by Ingrid Phaneuf

TORONTO, Ont. – Deciding which tracking technology to invest in can be pretty confusing, given the number of products currently on the market.

Should you rely on satellites or cell phone towers? Do you need to keep track of both trucks and trailers? Are you mainly concerned with managing and maximizing the efficiency of your assets, or are you a dangerous goods hauler who needs to meet the ever-increasing security demands in Canada and south of the border? Or perhaps you haul items like booze, cigarette or computer components and run through a high-theft area which requires extra vigilance?

Truck News talked to a few industry experts, to find out just what’s available and just where tracking technology is headed next.

Managing assets and maximizing their efficiency is what it’s all about for Mike Ham, vice-president of Cancom Tracking.

The Canadian-based partner of U.S.-based Qualcomm has been in the tracking business since 1990.

Qualcomm’s tracking system pre-dates even GPS (military satellite) technology, although it too is satellite-based.

“Our satellite technology allows us to put technology in cabs of trucking companies who want position reports and communications applications. They want to optimize their asset efficiency,” explained Ham.

Trailer location systems are also available through Cancom, thanks to a partnership with U.S. companies Vistar and Startrack.

“The engineering problem with trailer tracking was how to track the trailer when it was attached to a power unit. Thanks to our partnerships, we’ve been able to offer trailer tracking systems that can operate independently of a tractor for over three years, thanks to a lithium battery.”

As for future technology, Cancom is fast developing solutions for requirements brought to the fore by U.S. Homeland Security – issues like who’s driving the truck and whether it’s going where it’s supposed to. Applications for sophisticated reefer communications are also available, so dispatch can be alerted when temperatures in a reefer fall below acceptable levels, for example.

Ham says his company prefers satellite to cellular technology because of the scope of its coverage.

“It’s ubiquitous. Satellites will pick up anything anywhere on the continent. And our technology has a storage and forwarding capacity – in other words, if you go into a tunnel, the last position report will hold until the truck or trailer emerges.”

Information flow about the whereabouts of a given asset takes five to seven seconds, said Ham.

As for driver communications, an onboard computer informs the driver of a waiting e-mail type message, which he or she can pick up when the vehicle is stopped.

“That’s what we recommend anyway, because you obviously want your driver to be driving, not sending messages on the keyboard.” said Ham. “But what happens is a tone goes off and a light goes on so the driver knows to check his or her message.”

Security is not the main focus of Cancom Tracking or its customers, Ham explained.

“Although we do receive about five or six calls per month regarding stolen power units, which we are able to relocate.”

But theft is the main focus of Boomerang Tracking, a Quebec-based company, founded in the mid-1990s, which specializes in not only locating missing tractors, trailers and loads, but also making sure they get back to their rightful owners thanks to security personnel dispatched to the relocation site.

“We track down the vehicle using cellular technology, then send in a team to contact police and bring them to the site,” explained Serge Laporte, vice-president of sales and business development. “Then, after the police go in and secure the area, we can arrange for the items to be returned to their rightful owners.”

The value-added service of having a recovery team on site makes a huge difference in getting the asset back to its rightful owner ASAP, Laporte pointed out.

“If your truck has been stolen, we’re the ones to call,” he said.

Boomerang uses cellular technology because it’s easier to hide and more difficult to remove, said Laporte.

“Satellite antennas are easy to spot and easy to put out of commission,” Laporte said. “And our technology is versatile. If you want to put it in the tractor you can. You can also put it in the trailer. Or you can even hide it in the load.”

Laporte argued cellular coverage these days is just as good as satellite coverage and less expensive to boot.

“It costs a lot less to use a cell phone than a satellite,” Laporte said.

The whole cellular versus satellite debate is difficult given that each side of the argument clearly has its advantages. Perhaps this is why some companies, such as eight-year-old Paradigm Advanced Technologies (headquartered in Toronto), which also specializes in asset management and communications, have opted to use both.

Satellite positioning technology feeds into the cellular system, which is then used to forward the information on land.

“We have two distinct product lines, a “destinator” application that can be used for navigation and includes voice prompts, and tools for fleets, and refrigerated vehicles, that include location devices and command and control applications that can be used for communications with drivers and vehicles simultaneously,” said Charles Fey, vice-president of strategic programs.

Also of interest are new security features being developed as a direct result of 9/11.

“We were involved in carting debris out of the World Trade Centre site after Sept. 11,” Fey said. “So it was very important to national security that our trucks be locatable at all times. That’s when we became aware of how important it would soon be to identify not only truck locations but also the identity of drivers.”

Paradigm uses both cell phone and GPS applications, because they both have their advantages, Fey explained.

“Satellites are great for precise locating but cell technology is needed for the simultaneous voice communications,” Fey explained.

Fey explained satellites are giving much more accurate locations than they used to.

“Military satellites used to provide much less accurate information to outside users, basically for security reasons. Positioning could be as much as 50 metres off. But that changed recently, thanks to U.S. Congress, and we’re getting much more accurate information now,” Fey said. Still, satellite communications are expensive – so sending information via cell once a location has been obtained can result in savings, Fey explained.

As for future plans related to increase security requirements, biometrics is an area being explored by Paradigm.

“We already have a device that can identify a driver’s thumbprint, but we’re also looking at face and voice recognition.”

Basically Paradigm is aiming to provide location and identification services, said Fey. “They’re the two main ingredients if you want to consummate the marriage of communications and mobility.”

Even so, with communications requirements increasing daily, fleet owners might be tempted to stray into technological polygamy – getting from one company what another company can’t offer. And as any man with several mistresses knows, that can get pretty expensive.

The ideal technology should, like the ideal mate, provide everything: a theft recovery system, tracking and communications for optimum asset management, security devices like driver identification systems, and all the software needed to not only facilitate all these applications but also forward documents, invoices, etc.

Clearly, some companies stand to make a bundle doing exactly that. Companies such as Descartes Systems Group in Waterloo, Ont., which plans to unveil a new real-time integrated tracking and information transfer system in December, according to Art Mesher, executive vice-president.

“There’s technology that’s available today that allows you to track vehicles and conveyable assets, GPS and such, and then there are other systems that have a background in tracking documents – everything from orders, to invoices, to packing lists, and then there are still others that track inventory,” said
Mesher, adding his company started out tracking documents. “So it’s not hard to imagine that customers would really like it if one system could provide all three. Frankly, tracking trucks and trailers wasn’t all that difficult to figure out. All that remains is for a few big companies to come along and do exactly that.”

Also building on wireless technologies to add new features dealing with safety, security and information transfer that help drivers make smarter decisions in the field, are companies like National Wireless, an Oakville, Ont.-headquartered wireless communications provider. The company uses SaskTel’s LoadTrak to create customized work orders and forms and is able to send local weather conditions and fuel prices to the cab. The complete list of additional functionalities that carriers can tap into runs for pages – everything from the already mentioned local weather and fuel pricing to remote starter disabling and customer monitoring of loads.

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