IT hits the highway: Big rigs go high tech

From handheld computers to advanced safety systems, emerging technologies are poised to transform the trucking business.

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J.B. Hunt uses decision-support software to analyze GPS and other vehicle and driver data, and then decides which tractor should be assigned to a given load. "Knowing the location of the driver and the hours the driver has [left to work] has a green benefit," says Drew Schimelpfenig, information systems consultant at the carrier. Reducing the number of miles the vehicle must travel to pick up the next load helps the company save fuel, he says.

J.B. Hunt's fleet management systems also use GPS data to provide the shortest route to a destination and plan routes to send tractors to filling stations with the lowest fuel prices. Dispatch can receive notifications when tractors and trailers depart and when they arrive, receive alerts when a vehicle strays off route, and track exactly when and where each tractor crosses state lines to automatically and more accurately report and calculate state fuel tax fees.

Palmer is still waiting for one important capability: the integration of live feeds on traffic and weather conditions, which will allow the fleet management system to automatically reroute vehicles in real time. Today that's done manually. "You can track weather and traffic, but there's nothing consolidating all the feeds," she says.

Even municipalities can't yet pull this type of information together for their local regions, never mind coordinating at a national scale. "The technology just isn't there," says Palmer. "It's a little further out just because of the amount of integration you'd have to do."

Monitoring systems

The average tractor has more than a half-dozen computers in it that monitor and control everything from engine conditions to traction control and antilock braking systems. Accumulated data is captured by electronic control modules, or ECMs. A central onboard computer mounted inside the cab gathers that data and sends alerts and updates back to headquarters by way of satellite or cellular links.

Carriers have monitored basic vehicle performance and diagnostics data provided by ECMs for years, but as new safety and control systems come online, the level of detail — and the quantity of information available — has been increasing. The basic metrics include such things as total miles driven, average fuel economy, idle time and engine diagnostic codes.

ECMs store data and communicate with the truck's other ECMs over a wired onboard network based on a relatively new standard known in the industry as SAE J1939. An increasing array of vehicle diagnostic and monitoring systems are placing data on the J1939 bus, where it can be picked up by the onboard computer and transmitted back to fleet management systems for real-time alerts or trend analysis.

"You have guys who previously were mechanics who now sit at a desk and look at exception reports on computer screens," says Donald Broughton, transportation industry analyst at Avondale Partners, an institutional research and investment banking firm.

cellular antennas

Various cellular antennas for trucks.

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In the past, carriers relied exclusively on services that would transmit that data over satellite links. Because bandwidth was expensive, however, the systems performed periodic batch uploads that included only summary data. But carriers are increasingly using less costly cellular networks, and they are transmitting more data back to the operations center, some of it in real time.

Event data recorders

In addition to gathering diagnostic and operational data from the vehicle, onboard computers can also monitor unusual events such as hard braking, hard turns, or rapid acceleration or deceleration. The systems then issue alerts to the driver and often to the back office as well.

J.B. Hunt receives real-time alerts when a driver hits the brakes hard. "We have seen a significant reduction in hard-braking events when fleet managers are getting that information," says Palmer, but the driver needs to receive feedback about an incident when it happens, not a week or a month later. "It has to be real time," she says.

At multinational carrier Schneider National Inc., director of engineering Dennis Damman is testing a system that puts event data on a Web site where drivers can review it. "It drives insight," he says.

United Parcel Service Inc. uses event logging in its tractor fleet for accident analysis. The onboard event recorder watches revolutions per minute, engine speed, GPS location and other variables. Onboard computers may store activity data during the 60 seconds leading up to an accident and a short time thereafter. "You can see when they shifted, whether rpm's were in the proper range, whether the brake was applied," says Jack Levis, director of package process management.

Drowning in analytics data

With more vehicle data available than ever before, managers face the challenge of what to do with it. Schneider evaluates summary data only bimonthly. "We don't have time to look at all of the data that comes in [in real time], particularly when you're talking about 10,000 trucks," says Damman.

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