Ho-hum no more

Trailers used to evoke yawns, but suddenly they're the hot topic.Trailers are usually considered the boring end of this business. They're relatively simple, don't require much care, and are about as common as coffee cups in a diner. But they're also the business end of this business since that's where the cargo goes, and they deserve a lot more thought than they normally get, at least up until the

Trailers used to evoke yawns, but suddenly they're the hot topic.

Trailers are usually considered the boring end of this business. They're relatively simple, don't require much care, and are about as common as coffee cups in a diner. But they're also the business end of this business since that's where the cargo goes, and they deserve a lot more thought than they normally get, at least up until the last few months.

Now, however, trailers are suddenly in the limelight as two issues that have been standing quietly in the wings have suddenly moved to center stage. One has been eagerly anticipated by fleets, while the other is one of those things you know you should worry about if you didn't have so many more pressing problems.

The issue no fleet manager wants to think about involves - what else - government regulation. You've already got mandated ABS for trailers, but the federal regulators have declared that you must also get a failure warning light in the tractor cab for that system by March 1, 2001. Communicating between the tractor and trailer without new or additional connectors turns out to be a complex problem.

Last year truck and trailer makers and brake suppliers said they'd come up with a solution that would be relatively inexpensive and also lay the foundation for the future development of "smart" trailers. Last month, however, that proposed solution hit a serious snag, and regulators have indicated that they'll impose a solution of their choice if the industry can't save its original plan. As you might expect, no one relishes the idea of regulators choosing a technology that will eventually impact so many vehicles.

The happier trailer news is that remote tracking has finally gone from the wish list to the option list. After years of talk about the value of untethered trailer tracking, it has finally become a viable commercial product. Trucks-for-You, a truckload carrier from Missouri, apparently became the first fleet to buy self-powered GPS tracking systems when it took delivery of 150 Great Dane vans equipped with ARINC's Dominium hardware.

But the bigger news on that front was the announcement by Schneider National last month that it would equip its entire fleet of 43,000 trailers with the Vantage Tracking Solutions system. While the size of that order alone is noteworthy, it was subsequent announcements by QUALCOMM and the trailer lessor TIP that really opened the doors for widespread adoption of the new technology.

QUALCOMM, which currently provides Schneider with satellite communications for all of its tractors, has agreed to become a marketing partner for the Vantage trailer system. Although it hasn't been announced, I expect that all of the Schneider trailer information sent by the Vantage system will be handled by QUALCOMM using the same network currently set up for tractor communications. No matter who handles the information, though, the new partnership immediately gives Vantage access to an enviable marketing operation that pioneered trucking's initial use of wireless communications.

TIP, which also counts Schneider among its largest customers, has agreed to offer and install Vantage tracking hardware in both long-term lease and short-term rental equipment. That move not only provides installation sites throughout North America for the tracking hardware, but it also opens the system to fleets of all sizes who will be able to test it without having to make a major capital investment.

It's been a long time since those boring trailers have generated so much excitement. Let's hope the warning-lamp story fades quickly and the tracking one lives up to expectations.

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