Article

High-Tech Temptations

Technologies designed to make fleets and drivers more efficient can also make the driver's job easier and often lead to better pay as well.

April 2007, TruckingInfo.com - Feature

by Jim Beach, Technology Editor

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Driver retention isn't often seen as a key reason for fleets to invest in technology – except maybe for air conditioners and radios. Improving fleet productivity and cutting costs are priorities in determining such decisions. Still, technologies designed to make fleets and drivers more efficient can also make the driver's job easier and often lead to better pay as well.

For instance, when fleets began investing in mobile communications systems, asset tracking was the primary reason. These systems give mangers the ability to manage their fleets better because they know where their trucks are. Along with that came other benefits, such as the ability for dispatch to communicate directly with the driver in the cab.

GOODBYE PAY PHONES

"I drove back in the '80s and you lived on the pay phone," says Jerry Davis, vice president of safety and insurance with Fikes Truck Line. "And it was hard to find one that worked. A driver's livelihood doesn't rely on the pay phone like it did when I drove."

Fikes, based in Hope, Ark., runs 480 owner-operators throughout the United States. The company has a voluntary satellite program in place where Fikes provides the equipment and installation and their owner-operators pay for the monthly service – about the same as a cell phone, Davis says.

The company uses GeoLogic's multi-mode system, a combination of cellular and satellite communications. It uses cellular when that's available, but switches to satellite if there is no cell service available.

Fikes started using the system about six years ago, and according to Davis, the reaction has been positive, with about 280 of its contractors signed up. "We knew we'd never get 100 percent, because some of our contractors are dedicated haulers doing local work that don't need it. But to get an owner-operator to buy into a program on a voluntary basis – something that is going to cost them money – we thought better than 50 percent on a voluntary basis was doing pretty good."

The benefits for both the company and its contractors are better communications, reduced paperwork and improved efficiency. "Communications is one of the biggest benefits," Davis says. Contractors can use the system's e-mail functions to stay in contact with dispatch, their families and each other.

Paperwork is reduced, since the company uses the GPS information from the system to generate trip reports and fuel tax reports.

Contractors also can load themselves after hours using the communications system, Davis says. "If they get to a location and deliver, they can go into the system and send an empty call. The system will send back a group of loads in their surrounding area and let them choose a load. They can be there the next morning instead of waiting for dispatch."

Overall, the mobile communications system helps the contractors at Fikes become more efficient, which ultimately means they're more profitable.

"I don't know if it helps with attracting owner-operators," Davis says, "but I think it helps in retaining, because it allows them to become a little more efficient and self-sufficient."

With mobile communications becoming more prevalent, owner-operators and drivers want the systems. "Drivers and owner-operators have become accustomed" to the ease of communications, Davis says. "Anyone who has used one, you wonder how you got by without it."

Jim Ray, president and chief executive officer of RayTrans Distribution Services south of Chicago, also runs a 100 percent owner-operator company. Ray says a fuel optimization module from ProMiles Software Development helps recruit and retain owner-operators. "It makes our owner-operators happy when you can say, 'If you buy fuel here, you can save this amount of money.' It adds value and helps in recruiting."

ELECTRONIC LOG FEATURE

Electronic logs can also ease a driver's paperwork burden. According to Tom Flies, vice president of business development at XATA Corp., 95 percent of its trucking customers use an electronic log function. XATA provides a mobile communications system that includes applications for DOT logs, asset tracking, mileage and fuel tax reports, diagnostic warnings, two-way messaging and trip management. The company says the log feature is one of the most-used applications.

"For a lot of fleets, it's a productivity booster," Flies says. "It eliminates paperwork the driver would have to fill out for hours of service as well as fuel tax accounting." And when combined with real-time mobile communications, an hours of service feature helps optimize fleet resources.

"You're able to see not only where your assets are, but the capacity of the driver to take another stop or another load," Flies says. "There are efficiencies that come from the electronic log function. And once drivers start using it, they really like it because it does make their jobs simpler, saving 30 or more minutes a day."

Another reason drivers like these sorts of technologies, Flies says, is that the technology "shows" when the drivers are doing their jobs. For instance, he says some customers have reported that drivers receiving speeding tickets were later able to use reports from their system to prove they were going the speed limit. "In a lot of cases, these systems really help the drivers. It makes their life a little easier and it proves them right in a lot of cases."

Cell phones, another recent technology that spelled the doom of the truckstop pay phone, have become an indispensable tool for fleets and drivers. At Silver Line Windows, North Brunswick, N.J., each driver is equipped with a cell phone complete with with GPS capability and a bar code scanner from AirClic. Dispatch personnel also have phones. John Keller, vice president of logistics, says the company runs 250 trucks to ship windows from eight different plants to customers around the country.

Drivers scan each window as it is unloaded at its delivery location, and that data is sent immediately back to the home office for invoicing. "It saves on paperwork as we make deliveries," Keller says. "The scanner is attached to the phone and it reads the data and sends it."

The GPS function allows the company to keep track of vehicles. The phones use Sprint/Nextel's direct connect feature, which drivers like because they can communicate with dispatch or the shop without having to type out a text message.

AirClic CEO Tim Bradley says driver feedback has been "fantastic," because "drivers already know how to use a cell phone. The barcode scanner part is easy to use and it saves drivers time."

More productive drivers can often translate into better driver wages. A building products distributor in Phoenix uses the PacTrac, a telematics system powered by software from PeopleNet Communications, available through PacLease. PacTrac uses GPS technology, a network of more than 100 wireless carriers and an Internet connection to deliver real-time data from customers' vehicles. In addition, the distribution center implemented routing software and a speed-reporting package. Combined with the GPS capability of the PacTrac system, drivers can be measured against company standards for speed, idling and other measures.

The distributor improved fuel mileage, reduced delivery costs and saw driver turnover drop to 15 percent over a six-month period after implementing the program. With the savings it realized, the company was able to boost the pay of its top drivers.

Floyd & Beasley Transfer Co. in Sycamore, Ala., has seen similar results from tracking driver performance. The company has boosted the top pay for drivers and is running a turnover rate of about 28 percent, according to Barry McGrady, vice president of information technology. The company developed a driver score card, focusing on four areas: average weekly revenue, fuel stop compliance, accident rate per 10,000 miles and violations rate per 10,000 miles. Pay levels are tied to specific scoring ranges with the top drivers receiving the top pay.

"The drivers like it," McGrady says. "They see it as fair. Even the ones that may not achieve the top level of pay, I think they have a good feeling that they achieved what they deserved. The reaction has been really good."

But the program depends upon recently acquired technologies to generate scores. "Without the technology to give us the information to feed the scorecard, we couldn't do it," McGrady says. The company's Loadmaster software generates the weekly revenue averages. Fleet Expert from IDSC generates fuel stop compliance data, a mobile communications system from Qualcomm delivers GPS data and a home-grown safety package tracks accidents and violations.

The scorecard gives the company a way to reward the highest-performing drivers and to make more efficient use of the fleet. "It enabled us to raise that top pay rate. It makes it a little harder for them to leave because they are earning an even better rate than they were before."

McGrady also points to other things the company has spec'd in recent trucks with an eye toward the drivers. Qualcomm in all the trucks, for instance: "I think they like the convenience of having that easy communication just back and forth with the dispatcher. Having that communications system there, it makes them feel not so alone. They don't feel like they are out there by themselves."

Zonar Systems' automated pre-trip inspection system is another tool designed to make a driver's job easier. Bill Brinton, Zonar director of marketing, says the key benefit is getting rid of the paper.

"Drivers have really taken a liking to it," Brinton says. "In the beginning, there might be some Big Brother-type fears, but without exception, within a couple of days of using this system, the drivers universally take a strong liking to it."

The device is a hand-held RFID reader that sits in a cradle inside the cab. It's used to read RFID tags placed in certain locations around the truck and records when the driver checks the components in those areas. The driver takes the device out of its cradle, logs himself in with an RFID card that uniquely identifies him, then proceeds to conduct the inspection and document any observations or mechanical defects noted during the inspection.

"Drivers say they like the system because the information is reported directly to the shop," Brinton says. "The inspection forms and any problems are reported in a more timely and efficient manner. Drivers see it as a better way to document trip inspections and appreciate their fleet's efforts to make the investments that make their job easier."

Making the job easier goes a long way toward retaining drivers. If fleets are able to share the benefits of the productivity gains realized with various technologies, either in better working conditions or better pay, drivers are likely to hang around.

"Good, professional drivers are hard to find," McGrady notes. "They tend to find a home that fits them and stay there."

Making their job easier with technology can help make your company a home they don't want to leave.

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