Freight communication is going digital.
Trucking companies are increasingly investing in intelligent tracking technologies that allow shippers and carriers to better monitor and manage drivers, vehicles and their cargo.
Mapping now transcends basic routing from Point A to Point B – instead, it’s much more precise and interactive. And there are to-the-second analytics and on-board telematics, which can pinpoint the exact location of a load at all times and even specify how it should be transported.
In the near term, this means better efficiency, safety and savings, according to proponents.
But with even the physical infrastructure starting to communicate with vehicles, some say that the roads and everything on them are on the verge of full automation.
“Ultimately, you reach this full autonomy where the network is constantly feeding data into the vehicle and there is no need for a driver at all,” said John G. Larkin, a logistics analyst at Stifel Financial Corp. “You can run the vehicle 24-7, 365 days a year.”
In late July, fleet management software company Gorilla Safety unveiled its Gorilla Trax GPS device, which transmits information on vehicle location and operational state.
Also last month, software provider Blue Tree Systems launched FleetManager.com, an analytics platform that helps dispatchers, managers, maintenance workers and executives keep track of drivers, vehicles, temperature and other data “from any machine at any time anywhere in the world,” according to the company.
In June, mapping firm Rand McNally launched new dashboard cameras equipped with high-definition video and a so-called G sensor that detects sudden or significant movement on the road and automatically saves the video file. Content from the cameras features time stamps, time-lapse trip summaries and, sometimes, location records.
Companies are also investing in more specific “living” maps that are constantly refreshed with updated information. The detailed layouts are meant to improve cargo oversight, digitally manage the drive and eventually ease the industry into automation.
Navigation firm TomTom is working with automotive supplier Bosch on specialty maps that will be hyper-accurate, incorporating data about traffic signals, speed limits and even 3-D details such as curves and slopes in the road. In theory, this could allow a truck to know within a few inches where to expect a center divider in a road.
At the Consumer Electronics Show earlier this year, auto supplier Continental Automotive demonstrated its eHorizon sensor system. Using three-dimensional maps crowd-sourced with real-time topographic data and GPS signals, vehicles fitted with eHorizon on Las Vegas roads adapted their driving styles to upcoming hills, dips and curves.
Think of it as a hive mind. By tapping into fresh data on speed limits, traffic lights and road obstacles — collected by a network of inputs and consolidated into a cloud system — trucks can essentially look around blind corners, boosting fuel efficiency and safety.
Daimler debuted a similar “see-ahead” concept in 2012, putting its Predictive Power Control technology in the Mercedes-Benz Actos truck. The system employed so-called data fusion — internal information merged with external details culled from radar and camera sensors — to control speed, braking and transmission.
And Volvo Trucks North America is planning to roll out its I-See software in the U.S. this year. The technology memorizes thousands of routes and then uses the information to dictate the most fuel-efficient gear once the vehicle recognizes the path.
Some digitization efforts, however, skip the maps entirely and build cues directly into the roads.
Germany’s Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure set up a “digital highway field test” on the A9 autobahn in Bavaria last year and is encouraging experiments in vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communication — or what’s known as networked traffic.
Earlier this summer, the government struck a pact with semiconductor manufacturer Infineon Technologies and engineering firm Siemens to install sensor systems along the A9 route. The sensors could warn drivers of dangers, such as ramp entry from the wrong direction.
Proponents say that advanced tracking and guiding technology improve the trucking experience from all sides: slashing fuel waste, trimming time and distance, avoiding congestion, bolstering customer service, making drivers more accountable, even cutting accident response time or ultimately making goods cheaper for end customers by improving efficiency.
At the least, technology helps freight companies make the most of the existing transportation infrastructure — a preferable alternative to wasting money and real estate on “building an extra three lanes on every highway,” Larkin said.
“The idea is to have this constantly optimizing routine that tries to make the network and each individual vehicle within the network more efficient,” he said. “Having intelligent highway systems means that everything is dynamic, from the traffic signals to the individual vehicle.”
The push to digitize roads, unsurprisingly, isn’t limited to the trucking industry.
Companies such as information technology firm GeoDigital are compiling comprehensive databases of 3-D maps designed to help autonomous vehicles navigate independently.
Ridesharing company Uber, which recently poached influential maps guru Brian McClendon from Google, said in late July that it is “doubling down” on its investment in mapping technology.
“Over the past decade mapping innovation has disrupted industries and changed daily life in ways I couldn’t have imagined when I started,” McClendon wrote in a blog post. “That progress will only accelerate in the coming years, especially with technologies like self-driving cars.”
But heavy consolidation among freight companies makes industrywide digital networking difficult. Developing common, compatible data formats is a tall order when the industry is so fragmented.
“Some people have navigation systems, some have real-time traffic data,” Larkin said. “But there’s no homogenous, unified system that allows all the systems to talk together and communicate a common thread of advice to everybody.”
Third-party companies, such as Boulder, Colo., technology provider 10-4, are emerging to work with various shippers, brokers, carriers and clients to tie disparate information networks together.
The company links different data sets from satellites, onboard smart systems, virtual geo-fence borders and predictive formulas to create a constant projection of truck and driver activity.
“We’re finding a way for all of that information to make sense, automating a lot of the nonsense and noise,” said Frances Tinsley, national accounts director at 10-4. “Being able to know where a truck is based off of latitude and longitude is helpful, but what’s better is to be able to pull a prescriptive algorithm and be proactive rather than reactive.”
Government regulators are pushing for more data gathering from the freight industry. Regulators have indicated interest in tighter tracking in order to monitor hazardous material transport or to evaluate potential mileage-based taxes.
New regulation from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration requires interstate truckers to switch from paper logs of driving hours and instead install electronic logging devices.
The agency predicts that the rule, which enforces limits on driving time to prevent fatigue, will affect 3 million drivers and save an average of 26 lives a year while preventing 562 injuries.
But many freight players — especially smaller companies — are resisting digitization.
Some are concerned about data security, worrying that computerized maps and records are more vulnerable to malicious breaches or big brother-style meddling.
Others say that, while many larger trucking firms already employ electronic logging devices, smaller companies can’t maintain competitive margins while being monitored.
“The small guys not only run more hours but also at faster speeds than is legal,” Larkin said. “You have to push the safety envelope to survive, which is kind of sad.”