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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Analysts use software tools to scrutinize the summary data for critical cost and mechanical-failure trends. "We used to wait for the mechanics [to diagnose problems after the fact]. Now, with data-mining capabilities, you can react to a problem before it becomes a major issue and change it on the fly," says Damman.

Palmer agrees that the firehose of available data can be overwhelming. "Unless you have the processes and people [to use the data], it can be information overload to send all of the information from the ECM in real time. And it costs a lot," she says. J.B. Hunt doesn't transmit any diagnostic fault data. "If it's a critical fault, the engine protects itself, and we do regular enough maintenance that we're not looking for real-time alerts," she says.

But UPS can't get enough of it. The global package-delivery leader takes in all of the GPS, vehicle and event information the vehicle transmits, filters out what it doesn't need and analyzes the rest in an enormous IBM DB2 database. The operations research group at UPS includes mathematicians who go through this data to find what are known as "outliers" and correlations, using statistical packages and techniques such as clustering.

"We're just scratching the surface of what there is to find out in vehicles. We can predict a failure before it happens," says Levis. "One example had to do with an alternator. The precursor to the alternator going out was this change in voltage. [Operations research] found a failure and, by looking at many vehicles, asked, 'What was the outlier event that caused the failure?' " By monitoring alternator voltage levels, UPS was able to address the problem before vehicles failed in the field.

UPS runs its vehicles for 20 years. While the technology doesn't increase the number of years UPS can run its fleet, the company's use of analytics lets it operate the vehicles more efficiently and with fewer breakdowns, Levis says.

Handheld computers

Most tractor-trailers use dumb terminals connected to a fixed onboard computer and have limited text communication with the back office, but fleets are starting to adopt stand-alone handheld computers that support Wi-Fi, cellular and a wider range of applications.

J.B. Hunt is adapting a handheld computing device from Intermec Technologies Corp. that uses GPS data and mapping software to provide spoken, real-time directions to the driver. The device can be placed in a cradle mounted on the dashboard while the driver is driving. Its ability to give verbal directions is important because the driver doesn't have to look at the display, says Palmer. "That's critical from a production and safety standpoint," she notes.

As with many consumer GPS devices, directions change dynamically based on the vehicle's location. If the driver takes a wrong turn, the system immediately adjusts and issues revised instructions.

BLU handheld computer

PeopleNet's BLU handheld computer.

While voice synthesis works for giving directions, voice control of the device is impractical. The level of ambient noise in the cab makes voice recognition difficult, says Palmer.

Another option is BLU, a Windows CE-based handheld offered by PeopleNet Communications, includes a touch-screen interface and a range of applications — including one that allows the driver to immediately scan documents and signatures and transmit them over a cellular link, rather than using a fax machine at the next truck stop.

J.B. Hunt's system captures both bar codes and proof-of-delivery signatures. Information is uploaded from the vehicle every 15 minutes via cellular or Wi-Fi connectivity. "We put it on the Web within minutes" so customers can then view it, says Palmer.

Electronic driver logs

Federal regulations prevent drivers from working more than 14 hours and driving more than 11 hours per day. Drivers must then rest for 10 hours before resuming. "That tractor can only move 11 out of 24 hours, and that's best case," says Palmer, so maximizing productivity is vital.

Most large carriers still rely on having drivers fill out paper logbooks to document their hours of service, a system that makes it easy for drivers to fudge the amount of time they've spent behind the wheel. If drivers get caught breaking the rules, their carriers can be hit with substantial fines, and multiple violations can lead to a downgraded safety rating. When overtired drivers who break the rules are involved in accidents, carriers may suffer large liability judgments and lots of bad publicity.

Electronic onboard recorders (EOBR) automate the process of updating driver logs and help to verify that a driver isn't cheating, by matching the driver log entries with information on the vehicle's location and whether it was moving at a given time. "The next big wave will be onboard recording," says Avondale's Broughton.

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