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 buys 170,000 tires annually and has 500,000 tires on the fleet at any given time. Last year, a survey of the fleet showed that about 22% of those tires were underinflated. It's hard to get drivers to check all 18 tires, especially in bad weather. "We have a really big interest in that," says Schimelpfenig.

The cost to add monitoring is about $1,200 per 18-wheel truck, says Chris Nau, a sales representative for Doran Manufacturing LLC, which makes tire pressure monitoring devices. He says savings from improved fuel mileage and longer tire life deliver a payback in about one year.

But Schneider's Damman says that for a carrier with a good tire-management program, the payback period for the technology is much longer. Schneider runs thousands of tires on 40,000 trailers and 10,000 tractors. That's 180,000 tires on the road at any given time. "We find that better than 96% of them are at the recommended pressure," he says. Spending $1,200 per tractor-trailer to benefit 4% of the fleet just doesn't add up.

"We haven't found any case yet where we can rationalize the cost based on our metrics," says Damman. But carriers that don't see their trailers often enough to be able to maintain the tires the way they would like to might find a monitoring system to be effective. "It's going to be a different equation for everyone," he says.

The systems do have drawbacks. The sensors are mounted to each tire or valve stem. Since many tires are changed on the road, making sure that the monitoring system stays with the tractor and that the new tire has the same sensor on it can be a problem.

The systems also add another information display to an already crowded cab and haven't been integrated to work with onboard computers or to provide data to fleet management systems.

tire pressure monitor

Tire pressure monitor.

Click to view larger image.

RFID

Radio frequency identification technology is already used by some carriers to pay and track toll and fuel charges. Combined with electronic driver logs and smart handhelds, RFID technology could remove most, if not all, paperwork from the cab. It is also used today for container and trailer tracking within a yard or facility.

But in the future, the technology could also be used to facilitate state Department of Transportation vehicle inspections and to help businesses track vehicle conditions, says Palmer. "The idea is to have one technology that would be used by all," she adds. For inspectors, an RFID reader could quickly determine the date of the last inspection, the last repair and even the condition of the brake pads.

The issue is the number of sensors needed to cover all sensor points, ranging from steering and braking systems to weight and motion sensors. "For that to work, you have to have sensors all over the truck, and that's pretty darn costly," says Rich Craig, director of regulatory affairs at the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association.

"We love the idea," says Palmer, but despite falling costs for RFID technology, the return on investment isn't there quite yet.

Driver cams

In-cab video cameras can be configured to watch the road or the driver. Some are designed to record the driver's view of the road during the interval of time leading up to an accident. Others watch the driver's eyes and alert him when he's getting sleepy. But the systems can also be used to monitor the driver's behavior in the cab, raising privacy concerns.

"It does appear that drivers change their behavior if they have something like that in the truck," says Damman. But, he adds, "that is very Big Brother, so we've got to gauge whether that will be accepted."

The University of Michigan's Sayer doesn't think driver cams work. "We've never found that placing a camera in the cab affects outcome," he says.

But the biggest problem is that drivers don't like them. In an industry facing a shortage of drivers, this is one technology that's not likely to take off, says Palmer.

Applied science

While in-vehicle technologies can produce a wealth of data and make fleets safer and more efficient, carriers are still learning how to best make use of them. "You have to have the technology, the processes and the behavior to apply it," says Gary Whicker, senior vice president of engineering services at J.B. Hunt.

While analytics can improve operational efficiency, safety systems also depend on driver acceptance. Once the technology is in place and management provides feedback to the driver, the question is whether the driver will change his behavior based on that feedback.

"Will they actually reduce hard-braking events or pay more attention to lane integrity?" Whicker asks. The technologies that make it onto the road will need to pass that test first.

Don't miss our high-tech truck image gallery.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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