If there’s a silver lining to the black cloud of the driver shortage, it’s how the focus on retention is exposing weaknesses in fleet operations that can now be addressed. Hours of wasted time and ineffectual maintenance policies have cost drivers dearly over the decades.
Drivers are often confronted with dropped trailers that aren’t roadworthy — or even empty. After 20 minutes spent searching, drivers face additional lost earning opportunity looking for a substitute or waiting on repairs. Every wasted, uncompensated hour is another nail in the coffin of that driver’s relationship with the fleet.
Smart trailers are changing that. They now can not only report their exact location to within 10-20 feet, but they also can inform fleets and drivers as to their loaded status and provide condition reports on key mechanical components such as tires, brakes, and lights. With smart trailer technology, drop-yard surprises are almost eliminated, along with wasted time for drivers.
Nussbaum Transportation is a recent adapter of smart trailer technology. Doug Bradle, chief operating officer of the Illinois-based truckload carrier, says new opportunities for savings and efficiency gains are popping up constantly. The problem is deciding which to tackle first.
“I would call us probably slow adopters in this area,” he says. “Generally, we’re probably a little more ahead of the times when it comes to technology, but we waited until we were over 1,000 trailers before we did this.”
While he sometimes wonders if Nussbaum should have embraced trailer telematics earlier, Bradle says right now is a great time for smart trailer technology, with more capabilities emerging all the time.
“There are opportunities all over the place now,” he says. “If we [had gone into this] earlier than we did and we had a legacy system that would now be outdated, I think I’d probably be kicking myself.”
He’s not particularly worried about obsolescence now. He thinks the approach of connecting the various sensors with Bluetooth and linking them through a central hub, as his supplier and several other companies have taken, has revolutionized trailer telematics.
“We have always faced the question of how to connect everything,” he says. “I think Bluetooth was the missing technology piece on the trailer side.”
Questions of Connectivity
The sky is the limit at this point, and it seems new features are being dreamed up weekly. But what do you do with all the available information? How does a fleet prioritize one system/feature over another?
“It depends on what the fleet feels is important and worth the cost of monitoring,” says David Giese, fleet maintenance director at American Foods Group in Green Bay, Wisconsin. “The technology has to have some positive impact on the operation.”
For example, the Food Safety Act requires fleets to document cargo temperatures while the load is in transit. In his case, the refrigeration supplier provides two-way telemetry with enough control to manage the reefer from a smartphone.
“It also provides a record of the temperature in transit that protects us in case of a disagreement,” he says. “There’s obviously room for a lot more data from the trailer, but that’s still under evaluation.”
Bradle, on the other hand, is looking at how much information from the trailer they can include on the company app on drivers’ tablets. So far, Nussbaum shares a trailer’s loaded/empty status with the driver as well as trailer location information.
“If they know the trailer number they’re waiting on or looking for, they can punch in that number and find out where it is, and what the status of it is,” Bradle explains. “That feature can save a lot of time searching for a trailer in a big drop lot.”
With 3-meter resolution, you could practically identify the stall it’s parked in. Contrast that with driving around a poorly lit 100-acre facility scanning dozens of six-digit numbers.
That visibility is also useful when a driver is meeting an incoming trailer. The driver can punch in the trailer number and once its position is known, the arrival time can be determined. The waiting driver is then free to use that time for a shower, a meal, or a nap, Bradle points out.
Drivers also see some of the DOT credentials for the trailer, such as whether the annual inspection is current, and some recent maintenance information so they know what work has recently been done on the unit. Nussbaum isn’t yet sharing tire pressure information with the driver, but that’s coming.
“We already share tractor tire pressures with our drivers through the app,” Bradle says. “The next step is to share trailer tire pressures in kind of the same view so they’ll know something about the trailer they are hooking up to.
“Drivers are no different from anybody else, right? The biggest frustrations are the unexpected things. The more information you can give them ahead of time, so they can just prep their mind for what’s ahead of them, the better off they are,” he adds.
Minimizing Driver Downtime
Keeping drivers happy has a payback. While it’s not always easy to quantify, recruiting costs are well known, errors made by new drivers are reduced, and familiarity with routes and customers just makes the job go smoother. From the driver’s perspective, anything that stands in the way of a nice clean move from A to B is a potential source of irritation. Chalk up too many of those little irritations, and drivers have a big reason to quit.
On top of the more obvious ways smart trailers and telematics can prevent those irritations, such as finding the trailer in a drop yard and knowing the trailer is roadworthy, with the addition of air suspension pressure sensors, you can determine if a trailer has been loaded properly and if all the axle weights are legal while it’s still at the dock. Finding a commercial scale after the fact, paying for the weigh, and perhaps having to return to have the trailer reloaded are time-consuming and unproductive for drivers.
Dwell time is another area. Telematics provide incontrovertible evidence of where a trailer is and how long it has been there. That information can substantiate drivers’ claims of excessive dwell time or customers slow to unload dropped trailers.
On the maintenance side, it’s about reducing breakdowns, or unplanned downtime as it’s euphemistically known. Tires, brakes, and lighting constitute the three biggest causes of unproductive time for drivers. Any chance to reduce or eliminate those problems will be welcomed.
“Drivers like what we’ve done so far,” Bradle says. “They like the ability to look for trailers and check the cargo status. They like seeing their tire pressure information through the app… They welcome anything that will save time and reduce frustration.”
Reducing the Maintenance Effort
“Ultimately, I’d like to be able to PM a trailer while sitting at my desk,” says Mike Palmer, vice president of fleet services at Estes Express Lines. “If the trailer was able to tell me what needed attention, I could get right to the problem. That would save a lot of time in diagnostics and unplanned repairs, but I still need to put hands on it. We can’t get tread depth off the tires, for example. And trailers still need regular mechanical inspections.”
While predictive maintenance is something everybody is interested in, it’s kind of hit and miss so far. But it’s getting better, and smart trailers can help. Brakes and wheel-ends, for example, will be good candidates for early warnings, as would battery condition on a liftgate. Tires maybe, but tread depth readings would be a big part of that equation. Lighting, maybe not so much. Voltage drops can indicate short circuits or the presence of corrosion, but it’s still hard to predict a lamp failure before it happens.
It’s one thing to be aware of a problem. Doing something about can be is quite another. As American Food Group’s Giese explains, he has customers that will not let vendors onto their properties, even to service or repair trailers.
“Obviously, those situations require a different strategy, probably involving the driver taking the trailer somewhere for repairs, or at least getting it out the gate,” Giese says. “I’d love to tell my drivers that they will never run into a problem with a trailer. I guess it’s all application-dependent.”
It might be optimistic to say trailer telematics will help reduce the maintenance effort, at least in the short-term. Once the sensors are installed and spilling the beans on the systems they are designed to report on, problems you never knew you had will be revealed. They will have to be chased down and repaired. That situation would likely stabilize once you’re caught up, but that could take a while. If you’re one of those fleets that has trouble keeping up with “check engine” alerts, a tidal wave of error codes suddenly coming in from the trailer side might be overwhelming.
“We’re trying hard to minimize driver downtime right now,” says Nussbaum’s Bradle. “That’s a top concern for us, but we’re still working out how the predictive maintenance piece fits into the operation. Right now, it feels like something we can manage, but we’re still looking at whether we have the right staffing in our maintenance office to be able to manage all the different alerts that happen.”
Balancing Drivers and the Shop
Will trailer telematics solve your retention problems? Not on their own. Clearly identifying why drivers are leaving is a good place to start. If equipment failures rank high on the list, smart trailer technology might help. But there has to be follow-through. You can make it easier for a driver to find a trailer on a big dark drop lot, but if it has a flat tire or bad lights, the driver is no further ahead.
In short, smart trailers will help fleets that are serious about maintenance.
“We have tire pressure monitoring, we’ve got auto tire-inflation systems,” says Bradle. “I would say we do try to be pretty aggressive in maintenance. So, that’s helping us. It’s working in our favor.”
This article first appeared in the March 2022 issue of Heavy Duty Trucking.