Trucker Path, San Jose, Calif., recently added load matching features to its lineup of mobile apps. The company introduced a trip planning app in 2013.  Photo: Trucker Path

Trucker Path, San Jose, Calif., recently added load matching features to its lineup of mobile apps. The company introduced a trip planning app in 2013. Photo: Trucker Path

With only a smartphone and a mobile app, today’s commercial truck driver can check his driving performance, reserve a parking place or get in line for a shower at a truckstop, schedule truck service, check the weather, scan documents, monitor hours-of-service status, review dispatch information, get driving instructions — and when not driving, play a game.

And that is just the tip of the iceberg.

There are hundreds of applications for commercial truck drivers and fleet managers and more are announced every week. Some are single-function apps from new entrants into the truck technology space. Others are from established fleet management/telematics providers that are expanding their systems to mobile platforms. Still more are offered by truck OEMs, dealerships, truckstop chains, load boards, brokers, truck scales, weigh-station bypass systems and others. Plus, some truck fleets have built their own apps to stay in touch with drivers.

Some of these apps have been downloaded hundreds of thousands of times, proving they have a following among drivers. TravelCenters of America’s SmartStop app, for instance, has been downloaded over 350,000 times, according to spokesman Tom Liutkus.

Why the explosion in trucking apps? Improvements in smartphone and tablet technology as well as in broadband networks have driven a surge in apps that can take advantage of these improvements while satisfying a need.

Three years ago when Drivewyze launched its weigh-station bypass app, there were perhaps several dozen strictly mobile trucking apps, says Doug Johnson, the company’s director of marketing. “But it’s blossomed — not just in trucking, but it’s happening everywhere.” He attributes that to more powerful mobile devices and more sophisticated applications. Business owners and drivers have realized that with apps, they can do things they could never do before.

Johnson adds that any time you have a new market niche, at first there is an explosion of products. After a while the good apps “rise to the top” and others fall off.

Truck drivers easily adapt to mobile apps, as they “are no strangers to using mobile technology,” says Chris Hines, executive vice president business development for telematics provider Zonar. Drivers, after all, have been using mobile communications technologies in their trucks for some time, long before most people had even phones in their cars.

Amy Daley, project manager for First Advantage Fleet Solutions, says many apps help drivers and fleets be more productive and efficient. “With the introduction of smartphones, drivers can now manage many parts of their lives from the road,” she explains. For example, “we see many drivers using weather apps, managing financial information, looking for places to eat, booking loads, navigation and receiving dispatch information, all from mobile apps.”

Hand in hand with the ubiquity of mobile apps is the near 100% adoption of smartphones or other devices by drivers. Most drivers carry at least one smart device with them, often both a personal one and a company-issued device. That means “it is easy to get apps out there,” says Pete Allen, executive vice president sales, MiX Telematics. Users are looking for more mobile access to information, he adds. “They want to be able to pull their phone out and see things” — whether that be a weather report, business-related information or entertainment.

What to consider

Many fleets have been developing apps in-house or are deploying third-party apps in their operations. Trucking companies have “realized their drivers are very comfortable using smartphones and apps…it’s a natural fit that feeds into a communications channel the drivers have already established,” Johnson says.

For instance, Hirschbach Motor Lines developed an app that lets drivers receive and send the most common messages and scan documents with their smartphone. Celadon Trucking recently announced FleetWire, a mobile app that lets drivers send and receive messages, view load information and scan documents.

But before you put your IT folks to work, there are some things to consider.

1. Does it meet a need? “Make sure it’s a problem that an app can solve,” Johnson says. He recommends talking to drivers to find out which problems need solving and if an app is the appropriate tool. “Some problems may not be appropriate for an app.”

Ask if the app supplies the information the end user needs, Allen suggests. It’s important that the app deliver value to both drivers and company, especially for drivers who may be resistant to technology. In those cases, “it’s critical for the apps to add value immediately,” Daly says.

Avoid re-creating the wheel. “If you are a fleet manager thinking of building an app, talk to your drivers to see if they are already using an app for the same reason,” Johnson says. It may make more sense to deploy that app rather than develop something in house.

2. Ease of use. “One of the most important things when evaluating an app is how intuitive and user-friendly it is,” Daly says. The app should be intuitive, even for drivers who are not as tech-savvy as others.

It should also perform its task(s) quickly and efficiently. “In today’s I-want-it-right-now environment, nobody wants to sit around and wait while they could be finishing their shift or getting back on the road,” Hines says.

3. Integration and Support. For established telematics/fleet management/mobile communications providers, mobile devices provide an additional platform for their systems. The majority of large fleets already deploy such systems with in-cab devices that in many ways can do the same things as a smartphone or tablet — except leave the truck. As a result, many vendors offer app-like extensions of their systems that allow fleets to use whatever device they choose. In these cases, integration with a company’s enterprise solution is no problem. Deploying third-party apps, on the other hand, could lead to some issues. Allen says it’s important to determine whether an app fits not only within a company’s current structure, but whether or not the mobile app can sync with a corresponding web application.

Who supports the app? “If any support issues or challenges come up, a fleet manager needs a way to address them,” Hines says. Make sure it’s clear whether the app will be supported by the telematics vendor, the in-house IT staff or the third-party developer.

4. Security. Ensuring data security is a given. But there are specific concerns with mobile apps. “When mobile applications access enterprise data, documents and unstructured information are often stored on the device,” Hines warns. Fleets need to make sure that if a device is lost or stolen, that information is protected and that the device’s access to the back-end system is blocked. Mobile data encryption can be used to secure data within an application and individual data elements can also be encrypted.

5. Cost. Allen says fleets need to be sure about the costs of deploying an app — both what the app costs and the impact on data costs. Many apps are “free” from the app store, but there are some underlying costs. Some apps are extensions of a company’s existing enterprise/fleet management system or of a third-party service to which a fleet subscribes. Others, such as those from truckstops, dealerships, repair facilities and other such services, are free but are generally limited to providing information related to those particular goods or services.

Daly says fleets need to be aware of who will foot the bill for the apps. “Many of the apps require app store logins with a payment account tied to it,” she notes. “Do the drivers pay for the apps and request reimbursement?” Or is there a way the company can foot the bill?

Understand what determines the real cost of an app, Hines suggests. “It is easy to go with the cheapest solution or to select a bunch of different apps that all have different functionality and hope they work for your needs,” he says, but fleets need to pencil out the value they are actually getting in terms of productivity and efficiency.

6. Establish policies and procedures. It’s important that fleets develop policies for using and deploying mobile apps. “I think this is a critical area for fleets,” Allen says. “I think fleets need to look not only at apps but phone use in general.”

There need to be clear policies about accepted use — especially when driving.

Hines says fleets should make sure that their apps and devices lock down the user interface when the vehicle is in motion to prevent driver distraction.

There is also is the question of whether the driver is using his own phone/device or a company-supplied device. A driver can put whatever app he wants on his personal device, but if the fleet supplies the device there should be clear policies on what apps are appropriate.

“If you’re a fleet manager,” Hines asks, “do you want your driver streaming a funny cat video, or tracking hours of service and looking at vehicle maintenance needs?”

If you plan to ask drivers to install company apps on their own devices, some drivers will, but not all. Johnson says fleets should talk to their drivers, noting, “Not everyone is going to be willing to put a corporate app on their personal device.” In that case, a mobile app may not be the solution, especially if it’s an in-cab process you want everyone to use. “Maybe the way to go is to equip your fleet with specialized telematics devices and run apps on those.”

Too many apps?

If your head is spinning from so many choices in apps, take heart.

“I think the market may shake itself out,” Allen says. He contents it’s not really a question of too many applications, but how useful an app is. “If it helps users do their jobs better, that means it’s useful.”

Hines agrees there will be a “natural selection based on functionality and popularity.”

For now, cutting through the chaff might seem daunting. The best thing to do, Johnson says, is talk to your drivers. “If it’s good and it works, they will already be using it.”