Not that long ago, the onboard computer systems found in trucks were little more than data recorders. Pioneered by such companies as Tripmaster, these "black boxes" recorded things such as road speed and engine time
- data that fleet managers could extract at the end of a trip to see how fast drivers were driving and how long the truck was running. Eventually, features were added that allowed drivers to input where they were, or when they crossed state lines, so these devices could be used for automated fuel tax reporting and driver logs. Communications capabilities were added, allowing the data to be transmitted back to a fleet's home office.

Meanwhile, other companies were offering mobile communications devices that tracked vehicle location via satellite and allowed basic two-way messaging between dispatch and the driver.

For a number of years, these two technologies were marketed to different trucking segments. Private fleets were most interested in onboard recorders that could produce electronic logs, while long-haul for-hire fleets wanted to be able to track their trucks and send dispatch instructions over the air.

In the last five years or so, the technologies have converged. Nearly all onboard computing systems also offer mobile communications; communications systems also are more like onboard computers. For instance, PeopleNet, Chaska, Minn., which started out offering tracking and two-way communications, now offers these functions plus a full-fledged onboard computing system. Cadec, Manchester, N.H., which developed one of the earliest onboard computing and electronic logging systems, now also offers multi-mode tracking and communications capabilities.

"If you look at these products, they've evolved from a proprietary mobile communications or data recording device to an onboard computer system that gives you the capability to run third party applications in the cab," says Frank Moreno, vice president of marketing and product development for Cadec. "You've extended the supply chain out to the cab to help drivers increase their productivity."

Brain McLaughlin, COO of PeopleNet, notes that there have been three major trends over the last few years in the onboard computing market. The first thing is the advanced capabilities of the systems. "The old displays were text-based and designed primarily as data recorders, kind of a black box utility, but they didn't offer a whole lot for the drivers," he says. "The displays and onboard computers out there now have touch-screen displays with full video capabilities, gigahertz processors, gigabytes of memory - it's like having a full-blown PC inside the cab.

"They have moved from being monitoring tools to being used for driver productivity and driver entertainment. The advances in display technology allows for in-cab navigation, for instance, or the ability for the driver to view training videos, or surf the Web when off duty."

The second big trend, McLaughlin says, "is this whole notion of communications and connectivity. In the old days, the onboard computers didn't communicate. They may have had GPS, but you basically updated your data at the beginning of a trip and at the end of a trip. Now what we are seeing is these systems are connected, if not always on, they are connected very frequently to the back office host system. Add to that the expanded bandwidth now available and you can deliver lots and lots of data. If you are a large fleet, all of your dispatchers and most all other employees will have a computer on their desk connected to the Internet. Why not have the drivers connected?" Plus, this connectivity has moved from satellite-only systems to those that can operate in multiple modes, including satellite communications, cellular and WiFi.

The third trend, according to McLaughlin, is the movement toward open systems, or the ability to buy an onboard computer that can work with any number of third-party applications or a fleet's own custom applications. We are well beyond the notion of "one size fits all" as far as drivers interacting with the onboard computer. If you have an open platform that allows for interfaces to third party systems or allows you to write your own customer applications, then you can tailor the onboard computer specifically for your needs. You can plug into the Eaton Vorad system for collision prevention, you can plug into the Magtec system for remote vehicle shutdown, you can plug into an in-cab scanning device or you can plug into a handheld device. There are all kinds of plug and play solutions that were not possible with the old closed systems.

These trends "really extend what you can do in the cab," Moreno adds. "A driver can use a handheld to scan information, cradle it and then use the onboard computer as a communication device to send that data back to the home office. Again the evolution of the technology has allowed you to extend the enterprise into the cab of the vehicle, which creates greater efficiencies."

Customized Computing

Not all fleets will use these newer open source system the same way. "How you use it depends upon the industry you are in," Moreno says.

For instance, one of Moreno's customers, a fuel hauler, uses its onboard computers to monitor safety. Everything they extract is about measuring driver performance and safety compliance. This fleet is most concerned about monitoring aggressive braking, speeding and other driver behaviors.

Another customer in the food service industry is more focused on customer service and uses their onboard computers to optimize routes and help drivers improve productivity. That might include things such as ensuring on-time arrival, letting customers know if the delivery may be late, or incorporating hand-held scanners to reduce the amount of paper work both the customer and driver must deal with.

These systems also allow users to expand their use of the computers as needed. Poland Springs Water, based in Poland Springs, Maine, which runs 37 tractors and 81 tank trailers delivering water to three bottling plants. A division of Nestle, Poland Springs began using the Cadec system for electronic logs about three years ago, but recently began using the system to address idling and speed.

"When I started working with the fleet about 1-1/2 years ago, the only thing we were using the onboard computers for was electronic log books," says Chris McKenna, Northeast inside fleet manager for Poland Springs. "We were not using it for anything else unless someone called in with a complaint that one of our trucks was speeding or tailgating. Then we could go back and research it and address the complaint from there. But there was all this other information that we were not using."

As fuel prices climbed, Poland Springs management started looking at how to use the onboard technology to reduce mileage. "This year, we started kicking around what else we could do and we started talking about engine idling. If we could see how much our engine was idling and set up some kind of performance indicator, we felt we could get improvements there."

The company discovered it could go back through its three years of historical data and sort by driver to show the percent of idle time over a certain time frame. McKenna began posting the results in the drivers' room, listing the drivers in order as to who was best at keeping their engines shut off and who was burning the most fuel.

"All our drivers are company employees," McKenna explains. "All the drivers receive profit sharing, and when you turn that in to dollars and cents and what percentage profit sharing they could receive at the end of the year if we reduced that waste, you would be surprised how these drivers responded to that."

McKenna also instituted an incentive program in which the top 10 drivers in terms of idling received $25 fuel cards for their private vehicles. The results improved even more. "As of Aug. 1, we