The ability to get a truck (or load) from here to there along the safest, shortest and quickest route is probably the most fundamental problem a fleet manager faces.

The ability to get a truck (or load) from here to there along the safest, shortest and quickest route is probably the most fundamental problem a fleet manager faces.

Whether truckload, LTL, local delivery or any other type of operation, all fleets want the same thing: to get their work done as quickly and as safely possible while burning as little fuel as possible.

That's why efficient routing plays a vital role in any carrier's overall efficiency. The ability to get a truck (or load) from here to there along the safest, shortest and quickest route is probably the most fundamental problem a fleet manager faces. Add the ability to predict what time the truck will arrive at its destination, and you're in business.

That used to require employees with long institutional memory — and maybe a little bit of magic.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, however, the magic was replaced by automated routing software, which fleets used to deploy their transportation assets in a way that helped reduce costs.

New technology for an old problem

While the technology may have changed, “the problem is still the same,” says Ken Weinberg, vice president and co-founder, Carrier Logistics Inc. “It's always been the cost of fuel. Nothing has really changed other than how we try to improve the routing to reduce mileage and time.”

“At its most basic level, folks use routing for three things,” says Pete Allen, CEO of Cadec. “First is reduction of costs by reducing miles or assets. Others may be more interested in customer service or on-time performance. The third thing is that carriers and operators are looking to make sure they are in compliance with hours of service. When I plan a route, I want to make sure I'm not putting that driver in a situation where he'll run out of hours.”

Fleets put technology to use on this problem some time ago, using dispatch and fleet management software, mobile communications, on-board computers, routing packages and other systems to more efficiently use their rolling stock and reduce unloaded miles. And while it comes back to reducing costs, the technologies also allow fleets to gain other advantages in terms of safety and compliance.

While all carriers can benefit from efficient routing, not all applications have the same kind of puzzle to solve.

Long haul fleets look for a solution that builds routes along truck-specific highways using industry-standard mileage data. They want to be able to use that mileage data for fuel tax reporting, billing, paying drivers, etc. They want to be able to integrate the routing function with their dispatch and mobile communications systems and to also integrate fuel network data.

LTL or local delivery fleets, on the other hand, have completely different problems. They have multiple packages and multiple stops. In many cases, the routes change daily. In others the drivers visit the same places every day. These fleets also want the most efficient routes possible, but they have a number of other factors to consider in addition to mileage, such as traffic, customer needs and narrow streets.

Technology raises the bar

Recent advances in computing power, mobile communications and broadband access offer new routing options.

“The hardware has changed dramatically,” says Kevin Pasternack, national sales manager for Prophesy Transportation Solutions. “The overall speed of the PC has improved dramatically.”

That means carriers can look at an increasing number of variables when building a routing solution. “What we used to consider when building routes were weight, pieces or pallets. Solutions now offer limitless variables for load building, such as cube, linear feet or even on specific items.”

In addition, Pasternack says, the algorithms used to produce the solutions have come a long way.

“From an onboard device perspective, devices of today are far more powerful, have more memory and can do a lot more,” says Dan Titus, vice president, business development-North America Enterprise Solutions, ALK Technologies.

“For us, that means we can install the application and map data onboard the device. Doing all the processing required to determine the shortest route within North America on a street-level map database on the in-cab device is a big step forward.”

Then there are the maps. “The quality of the map data is much better than we had before,” says Dave Marsh, senior vice president product, Rand McNally. “Even the algorithms are more robust. You can solve for a route faster.”

Technology raises the bar

Today's routing solutions can accommodate additional variables earlier iterations could not. “Today we have the tools to better integrate the routing plan with the actual loading of the vehicles,” Weingberg says. “Part of executing a good routing plan is loading the truck properly.”

“Today's routing systems are able to model far more parameters than those implemented in the early days,” ALK's Titus said. For instance, long-haul routing applications can calculate the driving distance, route of travel, and estimated time of arrival along with additional complex layers of information like real-time traffic, realtime travel times, and even truckstop and fuel price data.

Mobile communications allows fleets to monitor routes while they are in progress. Will Salter, president, Paragon Software, says these technologies can feed information back to the home office on how the route is progressing.

Monitoring the route as it's in progress allows dispatch to make changes during the day.

“What we used to do, the driver would show up in the morning, we'd do the best we could to put together a route, give it to the driver and ‘say have a nice day,'” Mike Scarbrough, CEO of NexTraq says. “With mobile communications we have the flexibility to make changes. We can continue to optimize during the day as changes get worked into the routes, whether it's an accident along the route or a customer who has called and made a change.”

While reducing miles has always been the primary factor, it's not the only reason fleets use routing systems.

“There may be a misconception about route optimization,” said NexTraq's Scarbrough. “There's an assumption that it's the same problem for everybody. The reality is that it is different and nuanced.

“Different verticals, different carriers are looking at it from a different perspective and their emphasis is different. Shortest path route optimization is the most common across carriers, but it's not the only issue.”

In short, the shortest route isn't always what fleets are looking for when they use software to improve their routing/planning function.

Carriers are optimizing on a variety of things: they are optimizing for load, traffic, direction of travel, vehicle type (size of truck, lift gate, etc.). “When we used to do this kind of by hand, you couldn't have made all these optimizations. Now using technology, you can get really fine-grained in how you do your optimizations.”

Cloud-based solutions

Many routing programs are available as cloud-based systems, or software-as-a-service, which makes it easier for fleets to afford such services.

“The industry is in a strong adaption cycle - software-as-a-service makes it easier for fleets to buy,” says Newth Morris, co-founder of Telogis and president of its routing and navigation division.

Pasternack agrees. “There is growing interest in cloud-based software. And our company has made investments in the cloud across the entire company.”

Scarbrough believes the vast majority of future solutions will be cloud-based.

“That is possible due to faster wide-band Internet connections. It wasn't practical to use the cloud over a dialup modem, but now everyone has access to high-speed Internet.”

As a result, carriers don't have to invest in the IT infrastructure to run these systems. They pay a fee to use the software in the cloud instead.

Routing vs. navigation

Routing, dispatch and navigation are not the same thing. Kevin Pasternack of Prophesy Transportation Solutions says the best way to distinguish between these three operations is to consider optimization or routing software as what you use to develop a plan. Dispatch and navigation software execute the plan.

DanTitus, vice president, ALKTechnologies, explains that routing takes into account road segment distance, road quality, travel speed, travel time, safety characteristics, commercial truck restrictions, prohibitions in addition to vehicle dimensions, and load type.

“A great route provides accurate real-world driving miles, easy-to-follow driving directions and readable maps that enable the safe, timely and fuel-efficient transport of goods to the desired location within the desired customer pick-up and delivery time-frames.”

Navigation generally refers to turn-by-turn directions, usually at the beginning or end of a long-haul route.

About the author
Jim Beach

Jim Beach

Technology Contributing Editor

Covering the information technology beat for Heavy Duty Trucking, Jim Beach stays on top of computer technology trends from the cab to the back office to the shop, whether it’s in the hand, on the desk or in the cloud. Covering trucking since 1988.

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