Productive tech has transformed trucking

Schneider National’s nerve center in Green Bay, Wisc. You don’t need to be a mega-carrier to take advantage of automation’s productivity benefits.

TORONTO, Ont. — Imagine today, with the breakneck pace of our lives, having to wait until a driver arrived at a truck stop, parked, and waited to use the payphone before you knew the truck was empty. Imagine, too, the driver’s frustration at hearing dispatch say, “Call me back in half an hour.” Life was different in days gone by.

Productivity was important back then, too, but time was measured in hours. Not minutes, as is the case today. It would boggle the mind to tally up all the time wasted when life crawled along at a payphone pace.

A driver, empty by 10 a.m., might make it back to a truck stop an hour later, put in the call and wait. The dispatcher, now sure the truck was empty and ready to reposition, would need some time to confer with a few possible customers. Then somebody went for lunch and the process stalled for another hour. By 1 or 2 p.m. the load might be confirmed and the truck sent rolling. Arriving at the shipper at 3:15, the driver could learn the company closes at 3:30, and be told to come back tomorrow. This was business-as-usual not that long ago.

You’d be lucky to find a payphone at a truck stop today. Thanks to automation, that whole process now takes place in real time. If the driver can scan the proof of delivery and send it home, the customer will probably have the invoice on their desk before the driver even leaves the customer’s yard.

“Automation has had two big impacts on our company,” says Carlos Sousa, Maritime-Ontario Freight Lines’ executive vice-president for operations and dedicated services. “It has created an automated workflow and completely integrated our internal operating and the on-road activity in the vehicle. And it has improved communication between us and the customer and the driver. Automation has made the whole process nearly instantaneous.”

Customers expect that level of transparency now, Sousa says. They need to know where the shipment is so they can plan their workflow around the expected delivery time. “If there’s a deviation, everybody knows about it and we can plan around it. Scheduling is critical to the customer’s success today.”

Updates are pushed out to the customers automatically, and because this process is no longer managed by humans, it can all be validated and measured. “It provides a very sound basis for performance evaluations of the customer by us, and of our performance by the customer,” notes Sousa.

There’s no part of the operation that automation hasn’t touched. Contact with the customer begins when an order is placed. That is usually done electronically, and the acknowledgement is sent automatically. Dispatch gets the order and assigns a truck based on location and availability. The drivers needn’t even call in — they are all tracked, updates are pushed into dispatch, or location pings can be sent to get up-to-the-second truck positions. Even that’s no longer always necessary.

Some systems, such as Isaac Instruments’ GPS and driver tablet, can create temporary geofences based on address details to automatically alert dispatch and the customer when the trucks breaks into a fenced location, or when it breaks out of the fence when leaving the customer. Alerts are sent to designated parties and it’s all done with messages.

“That’s even one less button to press on the screen for the driver,” says Corey Cox, vice-president of information systems for the Tandet Group. “We can actually get away with as few as five button pushes by the driver on a single pickup and drop load, from the time the driver accepts the load until he declares he’s done and ready for the next assignment.”

Cox says the in-cab tasks have been automated to the point where the driver has little to do but press a button with a yes or no answer. “We have written our messages in such a way that the driver doesn’t have type anything most of the time. Just provide a yes or no answer. The exception is the ELD [electronic logging device] portion, where some driver input is required. But even most of that — from the equipment licence plate and unit number, as well as bill-of-lading numbers — are all entered via the link to the terminal.

The vehicle inspection report is automated as well, and it includes the ability to send photographs of a defect back to the shop with the inspection report. Shop personnel can then read the report, schedule repairs, and order parts or whatever is needed to remedy the problem. “In an era where driver retention is king, our drivers are doing less of the stuff they don’t like to do,” Cox says. “It’s good for the company, too, because it creates efficiencies at every turn, with POD [proof of delivery] capture and more proactive maintenance, better and more streamlined communications. Everybody wins.”

A cultural change

About five years ago, Tecumseh, Ontario-based Onfreight Logistics transitioned from a hand-held push-to-talk system to PeopleNet and then through to TMW’s TruckMate. Human resources and safety and compliance manager Vito Saputo says they went from simply talking to drivers to being able to track their activity through a web browser and visually see where the equipment was. As well, automatic status updates integrated directly into dispatch, relieving them from having to manually update drivers’ status within the system.

“It was a big cultural change within the organization,” says Saputo. “It [took] us about a year for everyone to understand how the system worked and get comfortable with the technology, but it has opened up so many opportunities to gather data about our activities. It has taken almost all the guesswork out of our decision making while eliminating much of our back-office administrative effort.”

Drivers were skeptical when all this automation began taking root. As in other technology roll-outs, drivers at first saw it as potential disciplinary tool, Saputo says. “It hasn’t worked that way. They seem to have embraced it as tool to help them with scheduling, and even in a few accident claims.”

At Tandet, Cox says the drivers are very happy with the reduced paperwork and the way the Isaac system measures driver performance. “We have a [varied] fleet doing lots of different work, so it’s impossible to make comparisons in fuel economy between the drivers,” he says. “Instead of measuring miles per gallon, the system measures driver performance to see if they are driving as efficiently as possible.”

Maritime-Ontario is 100% owner-operator driven, and has also embraced the technology and automation, Sousa says. “There was initially some resistance and hesitation to what they saw as a Big Brother approach. But they soon realized that the technology was putting money in their pockets, too. The drivers had set schedules, which they liked, and some knew up to a week in advance what they would be doing. On top of that, we have increased our fleet mpg by 2 mpg through coaching and idle reduction, and all that savings flows right to the owner-operator.”

It’s 2018, and shippers expect fleets to have some sort of electronic interface with the outside world. Sousa notes that fleet need these systems just to qualify to bid on certain work. But even if your customer base consists of smaller, less-demanding customers, the productivity gains that can be realized with the help of a transportation management system are very compelling.

“There’s value in this for everyone,” says Sousa. “The customer, the fleet, the driver, the admin staff, safety and compliance, dispatch, even the maintenance department. If everyone is happy, then we’re successful.”

Jim Park was a CDL driver and owner-operator from 1978 until 1998, when he began his second career as a trucking journalist. During that career transition, he hosted an overnight radio show on a Hamilton, Ontario radio station and later went on to anchor the trucking news in SiriusXM's Road Dog Trucking channel. Jim is a regular contributor to Today's Trucking and, and produces Focus On and On the Spot test drive videos.

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