Consider the driver

The business case for onboard computers, wireless communications and other advanced electronic systems is well understood at most fleets, but you may be missing out on getting full value for your investments if you fail to consider how this technology can reshape the driver's environment in ways both big and small. Some of these changes are obvious, others subtle and still others a year or two in

The business case for onboard computers, wireless communications and other advanced electronic systems is well understood at most fleets, but you may be missing out on getting full value for your investments if you fail to consider how this technology can reshape the driver's environment in ways both big and small.

Some of these changes are obvious, others subtle and still others a year or two in the future, but understanding how to leverage your information and electronics technology investment to also improve a driver's life could become a key element in your fleet's efforts to improve retention and recruitment. At little or no additional cost, you could be offering drivers a wide range of benefits that make their life on the road more productive, more comfortable and more satisfying.

Starting with the most obvious, computing power has been added to trucks to help fleets monitor valuable assets and to improve business processes like tracking cargo status. When onboard recorders were first introduced in the 1980s, drivers were less than enthusiastic, seeing devices that could monitor their on-road performance as “Big Brother” watching their every move. However, as those recorders morphed into more fully featured onboard computers (OBCs), they gained the potential to be driver aids rather than driver tattletales.

LESS PAPER

The most basic benefit for drivers is the OBC's ability to reduce their paperwork burden, whether by automating DOT logs or simplifying business recordkeeping. Offices are virtually all-digital environments, and laptops, handheld units or installed OBCs bring the driver's workflow into that same modern environment. That might seem like a small thing, but it sends an important message to drivers. Giving them modern information tools tells them they're integral to the fleet's operations and need to be supported with technology that allows them to focus more on productive driving and less on paperwork.

Usually adopted by fleets to improve asset management, wireless connectivity for those mobile computers may be the single most important technological advance for drivers since the CB radio. Trucking is a lonely profession, but bringing drivers into a company's electronic communications network can make them part of a virtual community. More importantly, fleets can now often help drivers extend that anywhere, anytime connectivity to family and friends.

For example, many OBC/wireless service combinations like Delphi's TruckPC and MobilAria use Internet email as the messaging platform for communications between drivers and dispatchers. “But using that same channel, a driver can set up a personal email address so they can also keep in touch with their family while they're on the road,” says Mark Cummings-Hill, TruckPC program manager for Delphi Electronics & Safety.

“With a keyboard option, the driver can use [the wirelessly connected OBC] to enter and verify information for any special fleet applications for tracking cargo or state-line crossings, complete vehicle inspections, and other things that improve productivity for the fleet,” says Cummings-Hill. At the same time, drivers benefit by using the same system to correct their logs or read and send personal emails, he says.

As wireless bandwidth increases and costs drop, broader Internet access for drivers is beginning to become practical in many applications. As with mobile computers and messaging, adoption is being driven by business consideration — the Web's open standards and Web-based applications can reduce IT costs and simplify deployment of new fleet management applications.

But when you're evaluating these wireless Internet systems, don't overlook the potential value for drivers. Internet access to general information like maps, directions, traffic conditions and weather forecasts, as well as fleet- or customer- specific data are resources that can make it easier for drivers to do a good job.

Moving beyond job-related benefits, today Internet access also crosses into entertainment and personal services. For longhaul drivers especially — the ones in shortest supply — surfing the Internet in off-duty hours can be a highly prized benefit, one that differentiates your fleet as a good place to work. Shopping, paying bills, checking baseball scores or downloading pictures of the kids are things most of us take for granted these days, but drivers have to postpone until they get home. In-cab Internet access erases one more barrier between the working longhaul driver and home life.

“Connectivity done the right way can play a vital role in improving both the work and personal side of life [for drivers],” says Mike Dozier, chief engineer for Kenworth Truck Co. “That's one area were technology is moving quickly. But we need to get the value from technology while avoiding the problems of complexity. So as we see new connectivity development, integration [with other truck systems] will be key. It will deliver better functionality, appearance and reliability than adding on a variety of systems.”

ALREADY THERE

The platform for that integration is already being put in place as truck manufacturers move to a multiplexed architecture for cab electronics. Drivers are starting to benefit from that architecture in small ways, such as digital gauges with evenly backlit displays, says Ed Saxman, powertrain product manager for Volvo Trucks North America. Access to information like outside temperature and air pressure in the suspension can now be provided to drivers simply and cost effectively, as can better diagnostic information, he says.

“Things like visually appealing gauges and simplified controls may not seem like they're groundbreaking, but [the multiplex architecture] is providing a pleasing, more comfortable driving environment,” says Dozier.

The list of driver-related enhancements that could rest on this advanced electronics platform is long — active safety systems like rollover or stability control, idling solutions that keep drivers comfortable while meeting restrictions, multi-function displays, and perhaps even integrated media centers or infotainment systems.

At Delphi, for example, “one vision for a future generation product is a central productivity system,” says Cummings-Hill. “It would be a single PC-based system that would offer fleets productivity benefits while also providing drivers with a wide range of entertainment and communication choices, perhaps even a remote display back in the sleeper.”

INFO OVERLOAD

As computing power, connectivity and other advanced electronics begin bringing all these positive changes to the driver's environment, the concern becomes overloading them to the point that it threatens their concentration on moving their trucks down the road safely. Just how drivers can efficiently interact with the various information systems and sources is currently the subject of widespread research, but one interesting possibility is a new system under development by IBM at its T.J. Watson Research Center in Hawthorne, NY.

Just one element in a broad effort to develop a full range of telematics services, the conversational interface for telematics (CIT) is simple in concept — replace visual displays and mechanical controls with verbal instructions and spoken responses.

The CIT system demonstrated by IBM researcher Jay Murdock is best described as a virtual assistant that can respond to questions or commands from the driver, as well as filter and route all data and communications flowing into and out of the vehicle.

Starting a CIT equipped vehicle, for example, requires a spoken request that's checked using speech recognition to make sure the driver is currently authorized and licensed for that particular vehicle. Once it identifies the driver, CIT can load their specific routes, preferences and any other individual information stored in the fleet's IT systems.

If drivers are too hot, they can ask CIT to adjust the air conditioning, or if they want the radio on, they can ask the system to tune the radio to a talk or country western or any other kind of station. In the background, the system is monitoring real-time traffic conditions along the planned route, offering suggestions for re-routing if it finds congestion or an accident. If an email arrives, it asks the driver if they would like it read to them or stored for later reading.

Need fuel? Tell CIT and it will go into the fleet's fuel network to find the right supplier and re-route you to the location. Hungry? Tell it what kind of food you want and how far you're willing to travel out of route to get it.

If there's a problem with the truck, you not only get a diagnostic message, but an explanation of that data, as well as information about whether it needs immediate attention or can wait.

All of the interaction with the driver is prioritized by CIT using inputs from vehicle sensors so drivers are protected from unnecessary or dangerous CIT speech during emergency maneuvers, dangerous CIT speech. “If you've ever watched a talking passenger when the driver suddenly encounters a dangerous situation, you'll see they instinctively stop talking,” says Murdock. “This system does the same thing — it shuts up if you're braking hard or making a sharp turn.”

HUMAN TOUCH

IBM has even worked on ridding CIT of robotic “computer voice,” using actual recorded speech that has been chopped up into tiny elements and put back into intelligent words with something called “concanative speech generation.”

Most importantly, says Murdock, “CIT is based on open standards.” That means it can be easily interfaced with other information systems like dispatch applications.

Already developed enough for on-road demonstrations using existing wireless networks and telematics services, CIT seems close to at least broader field testing. Whether it ever makes it into a fleet truck will depend on its ability to meet the industry's cardinal “value” rule.

With the driver's growing role in determining value, it may be getting easier to meet that criteria with new information technology that combines both business and personal benefits.

Back in the Office

Onboard information technology isn't the only thing changing to accommodate drivers — dispatch and other fleet management systems are also contributing to new driver retention efforts.

For example, Innovative Computer Corp. (ICC) has just introduced a new feature for its dispatch module that gives drivers more control over their assignments. “Load Offering” lets fleets offer individual drivers a choice of up to three loads as part of the dispatch process. Once a driver selects a load, the other two are immediately available to other drivers so no load assignment is unduly delayed. A fleet can choose to offer the load option to all of its drivers or restrict it as part of an incentive reward program.

The new feature “has helped our drivers and their relationship with our driver managers by improving the sense that drivers have some control over their destiny,” says Robert Kretsigner, sr. vp at American Central Transport. “This is something that is seen as a real benefit and helps keep our driver turnover under control.”

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