Fleet Management

All Aboard: Getting Drivers on Board With In-Cab Technology

February 2010, TruckingInfo.com - Feature

by Diana Britton, Managing Editor

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In early December, two executives from Panther Expedited Services traded in their suits and ties to take up the job of Panther's owner-operators for a week, delivering freight in the Northeast.
If you don't get acceptance from drivers, the benefits of in-cab technology could go out the window. (Photo courtesy of J. J. Keller & Associates)
If you don't get acceptance from drivers, the benefits of in-cab technology could go out the window. (Photo courtesy of J. J. Keller & Associates)
The goal of the exercise was not only to raise money for charity, but also to gain insight into the challenges facing their drivers - including in-cab technology.

Driving a Sprinter cargo van, Panther President and CEO Andrew Clarke and Chief Information Officer Ed Wadel had a chance to evaluate - from a driver's perspective - in-cab technology, which includes Qualcomm's OmniVision system.

Not all fleet executives have the chance to test in-cab technology in the field, and getting drivers on board with new technology can often be a challenge. Panther offers two days of technology training when a new owner-operator joins the fleet. According to Clarke, Panther tries to be sensitive to those who are not comfortable using the technology.

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"We don't just say, 'hey, here's something brand new and everyone should use it and adopt it right away,'" he says.

While in-cab technology can provide improved communications and a return on investment for fleets, if drivers do not accept the technology, the benefits go out the window.

Driver buy-in

"One critical component to successfully implementing a new technology within your organization is to get buy-in from all levels of your organization - particularly from the drivers," says Tom Flies, senior vice president of product management at Xata, a software and service provider out of Minneapolis. "There is no question that motor carriers can greatly benefit from implementing technological advancements, but what management may be pondering is whether their organization can effectively manage the changes that implementing a new technology involves."

Working as a truck driver has historically been synonymous with being out on the road, isolated, alone, with no one looking over the driver's shoulder. In-cab technologies make many drivers feel they're losing some of the freedom that drew them to the job in the first place, as a virtual fleet manager now has increased visibility into what the driver is doing and can communicate with that driver instantly.

Fleets that adopt in-cab technology for the first time often have to deal with this emotional hurdle and may face skepticism from drivers who don't want to lose that freedom. For others, it's a loss of control issue, explains Chris Silver, senior product marketing manager at Qualcomm Enterprise Services. Some drivers may say they've been doing things a certain way for years, so they're reluctant to change, she says.

Electronic logging

Some technology providers say driver acceptance of vehicle tracking and communications systems is no longer an issue, as most drivers have discovered they offer more benefits than drawbacks. The Big Brother concern has been resurfacing, however, with the increasing interest in electronic logging systems.

"Nobody wants big brother looking over their shoulder," says Brian McLaughlin, chief operating officer of PeopleNet, which provides onboard computing and mobile communications systems. "Their hours and their miles are their lifeblood."

As we examined in the December issue of HDT, a number of fleets are adopting electronic logging systems to track driver hours of service. And the move away from paper logs seems inevitable, with a mandate for electronic onboard recorders close to publication.

With electronic logs, "You're really entrusting someone to manage that lifeblood," McLaughlin says. This can be a scary thing for drivers.

But Qualcomm's Silver says when drivers see the benefits of such systems as electronic logging, there's a fast turnaround in acceptance. According to Silver, drivers usually go from saying, "'If you put that in my truck, I'm quitting,'" to saying, "'If you take it out, I'll quit,'" after using the system for six months. Drivers find that the system makes their life a lot easier, not having to do the math, fill out the paperwork and spend so much time, she says. It also relieves the relationship between the manager and the driver, as they no longer argue about the hours of service.

"The truth is that these systems really improve the quality of life in the cab of the truck for the driver," says Bill Bland, vice president of business development of DriverTech, which offers the TruckPC, an onboard computer.

Bland says the system can take the pressure off of drivers, as the process becomes automatic and there's no need to keep calling dispatch. Without the system, drivers have to estimate, increasing the potential for mistakes and violations.

According to Bland, a lot of drivers want to work for a company with an in-cab system. "If the driver's happy, retention stays much higher," he says. "It's gone from being an accepted technology to being a required technology."

Fear of the unknown

Aside from the Big Brother issue, some drivers may struggle with the fear of the unknown. Fleets have seen drivers ranging from ex-bankers to those straight off the farm, according to Tom Bray, a transportation management specialist at Wisconsin-based J. J. Keller & Associates, which provides safety and compliance solutions. Bray says while the younger drivers tend to be more familiar with the technology, it's essential to bring less computer-savvy drivers up to speed with the technology.

Ease of use is a factor to consider when deciding on a technology. For instance, most drivers aren't typists, says Bray, so J.J. Keller introduced Canned Messages, which cut the amount of typing to a minimum. The Canned Message feature provides an automated message, and the driver just has to fill in the blanks.

"That's where the system has to be simple," says PeopleNet's McLaughlin. "If it's not simple to use, it's not going to be used."

Minnesota-based PeopleNet designed its BLU device to be user-friendly for drivers, with a 7-inch touch-screen display, an easy interface and large buttons. The company also automated as many processes as possible and took out many mundane tasks a driver performs, McLaughlin says. "Let the drivers drive. Let the computer do the work for them."

"Ease of use is another important factor in the technology decision-making process," says Xata's Flies. "Choosing a solution that does not distract and irritate drivers is a critical issue. Technology that is difficult to use and understand will only frustrate drivers and take away from one of their main obligations as a driver: safe operation of their vehicles."

Playing up the ease of use of Xata's in-cab technology was a key strategy for rolling out the technology to the drivers of Orgill Inc., a Tennessee-based hardlines distributor. Jim Corbean, director of safety and fleet services at Orgill, recalls asking drivers, "Can you use an ATM card? If you can use an ATM card, you can use Xata." He says using Xata involves pushing a few buttons.

With 222 power units, 470 trailers, and five major distribution centers, Orgill decided to introduce the technology slowly over several years. In 2006, the company started testing the technology on five units. Once the few drivers who tested the technology saw the benefits, word got around to Orgill's other drivers, who were then more accepting, Corbean says. "Let your drivers sell the program."

Training

Even if the technology is user-friendly and easy to use, drivers will be lost without proper training, an essential element to gaining driver acceptance. PeopleNet's McLaughlin says the method of training needs to be easy to use and access because of the amount of turnover in the trucking industry.

PeopleNet offers training online, while Qualcomm has training embedded into its Mobile Computing Platform 200 Series. Whenever DriverTech deploys new applications, it provides training videos, which take about 15 to 20 minutes to watch.

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