Today, navigation capabilities using GPS technology are everywhere. Many new cars have built-in navigation units. You can find the nearest gas station or ATM on your smart phone.
Maps, one of the oldest navigation technologies, are now in the forefront of computing. So what does all that have to do with managing truck fleets today? The overall goal is the same as ever: save time and money in delivering the goods.

People running truck fleets know all the issues that can get in the way of that goal: congestion, wildly fluctuating fuel prices, strict government regulations and shortages of good drivers. It's a long list, but one bright spot is the increasing use of timely information to make smarter driving decisions. For instance, highways now sport text message signs telling drivers about travel times and crashes on the road ahead. Additionally, sensors, cameras and software help manage traffic flow.

Technology is being increasingly used to reduce the time and cost involved in moving vehicles from A to B, and that includes technology that makes for smarter trucks. The latest case in point: commercial-grade, turn-by-turn navigation in truck cabs. As with previous technical advances in navigation, some may ask why they need it, especially for private fleets where routes don't often change. But that's what some people said about such tools as fuel purchase wizards, vehicle diagnostic warnings, electronic driver logs and in-cab messaging. It's not easy to imagine getting along without them now. Keep that in mind as you take a look at what this latest navigation technology offers.

The Trend to Smarter Trucks: What, Exactly is In-Cab Navigation?

It's something like a Garmin or a TomTom, but better. Commercial-grade navigation is designed specifically for truckers, with features like truck-friendly and hazmat routes; up-to-date directions that don't require right-hand turns; and the ability to be customized for specific vehicle types and dimensions.

Bringing this kind of navigation in the cab brings a trailer-load of benefits:

* Increased driver safety. Drivers can focus on driving and not trying to read scribbled directions or unfolding a paper map or calling the office for help. And they can avoid areas not suited to large trucks and 18-wheelers.

* Improved driver compliance. Navigation systems inform drivers about road restrictions, hazmat routes and preferred truck routes, such as parkways that don't allow trucks.

* More efficient drivers. When you reduce out-of-route and empty miles, you increase on-time deliveries and cut fuel costs and penalties for missing delivery windows. Even better, you build goodwill and enhance your reputation.

* Faster learning. Reducing the time and training for learning new routes is invaluable. And that makes it easier for substitute drivers to cover a route when the regular driver is out. As a bonus, using the latest technology makes for easier recruiting and better driver retention.

* Ability to preview routes and plan accordingly. Translation: no surprises about the route, and safer, stress-free driving. If your drivers ever need to deal with unfamiliar routes, road construction or other temporary obstacles -- and who doesn't at some point -- this kind of navigation proves its value in short order. In-cab navigation can make the difference between returning to the domicile with a list of on-time deliveries and a driver racing back to avoid an hours-of-service violation.

On the flip side, fleet managers suffer a real competitive disadvantage by not staying abreast of the latest technology. Delay too long, and you risk getting stuck behind the curve.

What to Look for In Navigation

You want turn-by-turn directions with natural voice prompts; the latest street-level maps; 2D and 3D color map views, with smooth on-screen movement; and professional point-of-interest icons, such as truckstops, rest stops, weigh stations and other useful services for drivers. Plus, you should be able to customize the application for vehicle size and hazmat operations. Also, look for truck-based software with no hidden costs, such as add-on communications charges: it's more cost-efficient if the truck-based navigation unit doesn't need to contact the server via cellular network to create routes or reroutes. These operations run much faster if all the needed navigation data is stored on the in-cab unit. In addition, it's best to have the navigation function seamlessly integrated with the routing and dispatch functions you already have in place.

The Importance of Color Displays

There's no detour around it: the benefits of commercial-grade navigation require a color display in the cab. Yes, for fleets that don't have color displays, that's a hurdle, but that's where the technology is going, and it's needed to deliver the value of navigation technology.

Christian Schenk is vice president of product marketing for Xata Corp.