IT hits the highway: Big rigs go high tech

"Harry Potter must not escape."

Those were the words that J.B. Hunt Transport Services Inc. received from Scholastic Corp., the U.S. publisher of the Harry Potter books, as it prepared to ship tractor-trailer loads of the final book in the wildly popular series to distributors' warehouses nationwide last summer.

The publisher was determined not to release any copies of the book before the official on-sale date. One reason why Scholastic chose J.B. Hunt over other trucking services was the carrier's ability to ensure that "we knew where the load was and that it couldn't be delivered early," says Kay Palmer, CIO and executive vice president.

J.B. Hunt had a three-hour window in which it was expected to distribute hundreds of trailer-loads of books to locations nationwide. The company staged the delivery by picking up the books from the printer early and storing them in secure, fenced holding areas positioned within 150 miles of every delivery location.

The operations center used GPS technology to gain visibility into these areas by monitoring the location of every trailer hourly. Operations could also "ping" each trailer, and, using data from infrared sensors inside each trailer, check that the contents were inside.

To ensure that the trailers remained securely on location, the trucking company used a technique called geofencing to create a virtual perimeter around each distribution point. If a trailer moved just one-tenth of a mile beyond that invisible perimeter line (set by specifying surrounding longitude and latitude coordinates around each address), the system alerted the dispatch center.

If a truck left too early, dispatch could contact the driver. The system also created alerts if a given trailer hadn't left by the end of the three-hour dispatch window. By using the technology, J.B. Hunt was able to meet the terms of its contract. No books were delivered early -- or late.

That's just a simple example of how technology is beginning to transform the trucking business -- and just in time. Faced with rising fuel costs, tighter regulation and fierce competition (there are more than 800 trucking companies in the U.S.), major carriers are beginning to adopt a constellation of emerging technologies that promise to improve efficiency and safety while helping them comply with federal safety and labor regulations.

The technologies include enhanced systems that monitor and communicate vehicle conditions and performance, enhanced GPSs that keep tabs on tractors and trailers, and safety systems that issue warnings or even take action to help drivers avoid an accident -- all working in real time.

"Productivity solutions have arrived," says Palmer, adding that J.B. Hunt has invested in many of them. Most of the technologies coming out today have been evolving for five to 10 years. Not all of them are ready for the road, she says, but many are close enough that she expects the company to adopt them more broadly in the next few years.

In some cases, the technology has finally matured enough for production use; in others, the prices have finally dropped to the point where carriers can justify the extra cost. Here's a look at what's already here -- and what's coming.

GPS

By knowing the exact location of every tractor and trailer in its fleet, as well as the availability of drivers, J.B. Hunt has improved route efficiency -- an important consideration, with the price of diesel hovering around US$4 per gallon.

"You're seeing a lot of telematics devices being added to the cabs so fleet owners can track vehicles and communicate two ways," says John Yourton, data connectivity product manager at Delphi Corp., which makes mobile electronics and transportation systems. Telematics systems gather global positioning data from GPS devices and transmit it using mobile communications technologies to back-end computing systems that monitor vehicle activity.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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