When they started a trucking company in the heady days following deregulation, Max Fuller and Pat Quinn, co-founders and co-chairmen of U.S. Xpress, decided that the new playing field called for new innovations. So it's no wonder they were named among HDT's 2006 Truck Fleet Innovators.
"When we started, we had the theory we could do things a lot differently than the way they had been done," Fuller says. "Deregulation had just occurred a few years before, and a lot of companies were dragging along with their old legacy systems. Starting a company from the ground up, we felt we could take a new approach, could redefine it. And we feel that we did it and did it pretty well."
U.S. Xpress was one of the first companies to use satellite tracking and communications.
"In the early days, we were principally a long-haul company," Quinn says. "We needed that communication ability with drivers because of the distance and the length of time they were gone." Satellite, plus a high level of computerization, allowed the company to track and trace freight better.
Because satellite tracking and communications were so new to the industry, drivers were at first leery. "Some drivers told us, 'If you put that black box in my truck, I'm going to quit,' " Quinn recalls.
Their first satcom provider, GeoStar, went out of business less than a year after they installed the system. "We used it for about nine months, and got all our money back when they went broke," Fuller says. "They gave us the opportunity to introduce to drivers what the technology could do for them. And when it went dark, it became real apparent to the drivers that this was a tool they wanted."
"After those nine months, the same guys who told us they were going to quit if we put a black box in their truck now were saying they'd quit unless we brought it back," Quinn says with a laugh. So they went with Qualcomm and have been using it ever since.
That was just the beginning of many innovations that improved productivity, safety and driver comfort.
"One of our competitors says we're fanatical about technology," Max says. "But we're really fanatical about service and safety and driver comfort," and use technology to improve those areas.
One of the innovations U.S. Xpress is known for is using Eaton Vorad anti-collision technology.
"Our theory is that the best accident is the one you don't have," Fuller likes to say. "When we started putting Vorad on our trucks, we reduced the frontal collisions substantially, and that's really your most costly accident."
If they're that effective, why haven't Vorad systems been widely adopted? "It's so extremely expensive, people get sticker shock," Fuller says. "They can't get over the point that it costs so much."
"It's hard to measure that return on your investment," Quinn explains. "You don't know what the accident you didn't have didn't cost you. But gosh, you get a return if you avoid just one accident."
Just because a technology proves its worth, however, doesn't mean the two aren't always on the lookout for something even better. Today, the company is replacing the right-side component of the Vorad system with a camera system that virtually eliminates the right-side blind spot.
Fuller and Quinn are also excited about new anti-rollover systems. They put the ArvinMeritor system on a number of trucks last year and saw an 82 percent reduction of rollovers with the trucks that had it. "We also saw something we didn't expect," Fuller says, "about a 25 percent reduction in jackknives." They're getting ready to install the new Bendix system on their Volvos.
Fuller and Quinn have long been advocates for better braking systems, having pushed disc brakes and electronic braking in the past. But after helping the federal government test brake technologies for its new brake performance regulations, they discovered a less-expensive solution.
"All our trucks and trailers are set up with what we call an advanced braking system," Fuller says, with wider drum brakes and more aggressive linings. "They're engineered to stop the truck in shorter distances – maybe 20 to 30 percent faster."
They also decided on a new traction control system after getting to try it out on a frozen lake. "It makes all the difference on snow and ice – and I thought on ice you couldn't do anything," Fuller says.
Fuller and Quinn look for technology to make their drivers' jobs easier, as well. They were one of the first fleets to use Eaton's AutoShift transmission, and are now changing over to the next generation, UltraShift, which eliminates the clutch altogether. They've worked closely with manufacturers to come up with more comfortable and convenient cabs for a variety of drivers, including team drivers, Hispanics and women (who make up about a quarter of the U.S. Xpress driver pool.)
"We look for [driver] input any way we can get it," Fuller says, through meetings and conduits such as "Messages to Max" that can be sent via the satellite communications. "These drivers are sitting out there for hours at a time, and they can come up with some pretty wild ideas," Fuller says. "They may sound wild at the time, but these guys have some real insight into improving their working environment."
Because they are known as early technology adopters, Fuller and Quinn enjoy the first look at a lot of up-and-coming technologies that aren't known to the industry.
Right now, Fuller says, they are testing "a couple of new technologies I'm really excited about." He can't talk about them yet, but he says, "I think it can change the way we do business; I think it can change the way the industry does business."