It's What's In-Cab that Counts

When first introduced, in-cab computers and truck monitoring equipment met with resistance from drivers. They saw it as an example of Big Brother watching over their shoulders. More than a few antennas mounted on the roofs of truck cabs were broken off or " accidentally" damaged.

Perceptions of in-cab computing have changed as many more commercial carriers, private fleet owners and operators are adopting the technology to eliminate paperwork, increase supply-chain visibility and achieve other dollar savings that go directly to the bottom line. Drivers, too, are more accepting of the technology because it simplifies communications with dispatchers—and with home in some cases—and it gets rid of time-consuming record keeping.

Fuel cost savings are one of the major benefits of using in-cab computer data at Western Distributing Transportation Corp. (WDTC, www.wdtc.net). The for-hire truckload carrier has operating facilities in Denver and Grand Island, Neb. Its fleet of 178 trucks and 271 trailers offer a range of transportation services, including refrigerated, armored, dry, flatbed, shuttle service, gravel and equipment hauling.

"Using our GeoLogic unit (www.go-GeoLogic.com), we can do snapshots of how the engines and drivers are performing at any time," says Dino Guadagni, the company's vice president. "We can see what drivers have done for the last day, week, month or year, to see if they're improving or how the motor is performing." WDTC posts weekly charts showing drivers where they rank on the performance curve. One thing that the company monitors is idle time.

"We had been running about 25% on idle for some time," notes Guadagni, "and that climbed last summer to about 45%. We started coaching drivers on what to do and got it back down to about 28%."

An important component of the Geo-Logic unit for WDTC is its Global Positioning System (GPS) tracking capabilities. When combined with the use of cell phones, GPS solves what used to be a major problem.

"Years ago we tried satellite only and our armored trucks would disappear in the downtown of cities," recalls Guadagni. "We weren't able to track them or get a hold of them. With the cell phone technology we're able to do that. In other cases where our trucks are out in the middle of Nevada, we would lose them with the cell [phone] and now the satellite gives us the ability to fill in the blanks."

Guadagni no longer has to spend his day checking to see if trucks are on time. Now he manages by exception, finding the trucks that are running late, determining the problem and helping the driver while letting the customer know about the potential delay.

Like WDTC, Alabama-based Accelerated Freight Group, Inc. (www.afgtrucks.com) tracks its private fleet of trucks using Geo-Logic technology. Accelerated Freight uses the company's ADV Monitor to locate its trucks and downloads operating data from them via satellite at midnight every night.

Accelerated Freight's parent company is M.A. Norden Paper Company of Mobile, Ala. It has 82 tractors in its fleet. While the carrier handles work for its parent it also moves loads for other companies. In addition to paper, Accelerated Freight handles building materials, general freight and hazardous materials.

When hauling hazmat the carrier has to know exactly where its loads are at any moment and the GeoLogic technology helps with that. Additionally, knowing where trucks are located helps Brett Vitrano, operation research analyst, build backhauls.

"It's something I measure in our revenue reports," he says, "deadhead miles and percentage. We're constantly pushing to get that lower and have seen a decrease in empty miles. If it wasn't for GPS we wouldn't have accurate data."

That said, the main things that Vitrano monitors every day are idle time and miles per gallon. After he had extracted daily driver patterns for these metrics, company managers established driver goals.

"Our first goal was to get the fleet above 6 miles per gallon," says Vitrano. "We accomplished that. I created a spreadsheet where I could dump the data in and, based on the driver's performance for idle time and miles per gallon, it spit out a customized message for them." If drivers had an average of 5.2 miles per gallon, for example, an automated message would inform them that they were below the company's expectations and urge them to improve their driving habits. Supervisors would provide tips on improving driving and upgrading fuel economy.

"Key was getting the information on performance to the drivers. We didn't want to take any disciplinary action without giving the drivers the chance to know what they were doing and to improve upon it," says Vitrano. By improving fuel economy by 0.5 miles per gallon, Accelerated Freight managers estimate that they have saved some $230,000 in just six months.

Accelerated Freight also makes use of its ADV monitors to communicate with drivers. "When they get to a delivery and drop it off," notes Vitrano, "they just hit a button on the communication pad and it automatically sends up their next load. There's no need to call into dispatch. It really has streamlined operations."

Regional less-than-truckload (LTL) carrier, Pitt Ohio Express (www.pittohio.com) has recently completed implemented PeopleNet (www.peoplenetonline.com) onboard computing for monitoring miles per gallon and other performance areas. Headquartered in Pittsburgh, the trucking company's service area includes Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey and Delaware.

"Previously we did pretty much everything on paper," says Kent Szalla, IT director of business systems for the carrier. "Drivers would be handed a book of paperwork, including their manifest with all of their information on it and would hand write everything on the manifest as well as writing every pickup they had to do. Now, we still hand them a delivery manifest, but it's only as a reference. It's also a backup plan in case something breaks on the on-board."

Implementation of the technology at the company's 21 terminals and in its 1,000 trucks was completed in June. Although Pitt Ohio has centralized computing, a great deal of data goes to a driver's local terminal where outbound projections are created using inbound data on what was actually picked up versus what was planned. As drivers communicate what shipments are being brought back, terminal dock planning begins, as well as overnight load planning for the next day's shipments.

"When we started with our pilot," says Szalla, "we set up a cross-functional team, including finance, vehicle maintenance, safety, operations and IT, and got everyone to look at the this globally, across the enterprise. This is a significant investment, and we tested it in many ways to create a plan so that it will positively affect our entire enterprise."

With on-board computing Pitt Ohio is able to log driver hours of service (HOS) a necessity with its hub and spoke operations. Its city drivers handle pick ups and deliveries from the local terminal, but the line haul overnight drivers are subject to the HOS regulations and have to log each day. The first area where the company expects to see a return on investment is fuel savings.

"We've had a team visit the terminals for training of managers, dispatchers and drivers," explains Szalla. "We are starting to see some early fruit from our implementation. I've seen figures varying from 10 to 17% in [fuel] savings and I'm a bit skeptical so am looking to validate the figures."

In the past, when drivers arrived at a delivery, they would have to hand write the time in and time out, odometer readings and so forth. Now drivers just need to hit a button indicating they've arrived. Pitt Ohio has also set up a geofence around the delivery locations. As soon as a truck crosses it, departure information is transmitted.

On-board computing offers Pitt Ohio more than just greater productivity. "You give an accountant a computer," says Szalla. "Well, we have more drivers than anything else, so it just seems to make sense to give them a computer. They are the ones who touch the customers.

Before our PeopleNet installation, they were out of the loop. They weren't integrated into the whole information highway. Now they are."

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