The Future Has No Bounds

May 08, 2011

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As a newcomer to the trucking industry, it's difficult for me to imagine logistics in an era pre hyper-connectivity. Last week at the ALK Transportation Technology Summit, I got to see some of the best minds in trucking technology sharpen the cutting edge and debate the issues of the day.

I have to admit, at age 23 I feel a bit behind the technology curve for my age group. I only recently traded my aging flip phone for slick new iPhone 3G. Like all new comers, I went on the obligatory app downloading spree, and spent an embarrassing amount of time marveling at the accuracy of the GPS. I watched myself walk in real time from the front door of my apartment in suburban Chicago to the grocery store a few blocks away (I played Angry Birds on the way back).

It only took me three days to utter my first complaint - I couldn't log on to the internet in the subway. I caught myself, but I know deep down that it is already too late. As the months roll by, the minor complaints inevitably will stack up until I've taken unlimited access to Wikipedia for granted. I will probably never look up directions in advance ever again, but if the compass function fails because I'm near a television set, the grimace will be involuntary.

Even though we take technology pretty well for granted today, its reach and its impact can still be surprising.

Digital solutions are pervasive in nearly every aspect of trucking from fuel savings and efficiency to driver comfort, from CSA compliance to billing, and of course simple, one-on-one communication. When Bruno Chazalette, vice president of strategic planning at Renault asked the audience what will replace CB radios, the response, though maybe a little hesitant, was unanimous: Twitter, or at least something like it.

From Cab to Office, in a Nanosecond

Technologically speaking, the biggest movement in the industry right now is full integration of the cab to the back-office, and improved tracking on absolutely everything. Already, a fleet manager can sit comfortably at his desk and see the location and speed of every truck in his fleet be it five or five hundred. With new software from Inrix, who is partnering with ALK on a version of CoPilot, a manager can not only view traffic data updated in 15 minute increments, but accurately estimate the delay of a given load. The service is produced from live information collected from several hundred thousand trucks, but is improving with every new person who downloads the free app. As a bonus, Inrix also has access to over 10,000 roadside cameras, so fleet managers may be able to a get a live visual of congestion as well.

According to Jeff Sibio, director of industry marketing, transportation & logistics at Intermec, customer demands for delivery are rising, and will only continue to rise. A shipper doesn't only want to know that his assets are on the way, he wants real time tracking - and a text message when his goods are nearby. According to Charlie Cahill, CEO of Blue Tree Systems, reefer shippers in Europe not only demand their food products to remain cold, they demand by law that temperature is tracked and recorded throughout the journey, and that the data is kept for a year. Given their more expensive fuel, carriers in Europe don't only want to know when fuel transactions are made, but the fuel is actually going into the tank. If it doesn't, an alert will be sent.

In the newest version of PC*MILER from ALK, drivers are not just given optimized proscribed routes, they are monitored to make sure they stay on them. Through a feature called 'geofencing', a manager can define specific geographical areas that are forbidden to drivers. Maybe it's a bad a neighborhood that carries the threat of theft and property damage. In other cases, it might be an area with casinos to make sure a driver's down time is spent down in the cab, not down on the tab.

There were more technologies discussed at the conference, and guesses about how the industry might address countless inefficiencies. But Sibio pointed out an important aspect of the current state of the information revolution: There are no longer any technological limits.

"Technology has surpassed the need," Sibio said. Any function that can be dreamt up is possible, he said. When implementing new hardware or software, he will hear carriers question ROI, security and employee trainability, but nobody questions availability of bandwidth, or processing capacity. It is simply a given - and maybe that's why the newness of my iPhone is quickly wearing off.

As I said, this is the cutting edge, but none of it is really surprising. The electronic universe advances so quickly, and has been doing for so long, that it's cliché to comment on it. The shrewd customer and businessman alike reflexively ask, 'what's next?'

The Year of the Driver

Luckily I also got to take a peek around the bend, and what I saw was a little unexpected. The tsunami of data streaming into the desktops and smartphones of fleet managers everywhere is actually helping to put power back into the hands of the operator.

"We are entering the age of the driver," Tom Flies, senior director of product management at Qualcomm, said on the Mobile Communications Systems Panel. Drivers are beginning to demand more out of the job from better pay to more manageable lifestyles, he said. It's something we as an industry will have to deal with, and sooner rather than later.

Flies also pointed out that in the next two to three years, smartphone sales will surpass sales of all other computing devices. These technologies are entering the cab whether we like or not. If a driver's hands aren't on the steering wheel, they are probably on a smart phone -- though hopefully not while the truck is in motion.

Renault's Chazalette said there are two paths to choose from when it comes to dealing with the technologically augmented future of logistics. You can go the route of automation, and take ever more responsibility away from the driver. Or you can go the other direction and use technology to empower him, to integrate him more into the process. Renault, he said, chooses option number two.

"You cannot have intelligent transport with stupid drivers," Chazalette said. Renault has fully embraced that idea by developing navigation software only for use with smartphones. According to Chazalette, the company is betting on the technology's increasing popularity.

Driver empowerment goes further though, into areas that may seem like a more of a burden than a benefit. Drivers and carriers both are dealing with new CSA regulations, but while better safety tracking forces drivers to have better practices, it may also be opening doors for some. Christian Schenk, vice president of product marketing at XATA, said his company is developing solutions that will allow drivers to gather their own CSA data and build a profile of themselves over time. Such a product will enable drivers to better market themselves to carriers.

"We are going to be putting control back in the driver's hands," said Schenk. "There is a significant marketplace for this."

A similar idea rang out in the Truck Load Roundtable discussion, an informal meeting held for carriers to intimately discuss the issues they're facing, and trade ideas on how to deal with them. Unsurprisingly, finding and hiring quality drivers, a process that can cost upwards of $8,000, was a prime topic. Chuck Radke, operations manager with H&M Trucking in Omaha, Nebraska, said his company has already incentivized good CSA scores. Under the company's hiring policy, he said, H&M will pay newly hired drivers more money if they have a safe record. If a driver with five years experience and a spotless accident history gets hired, his starting pay will

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