Calculating routes and mileages is one of the most routine activities in the trucking business. It's so routine that many fleets overlook the value and unused potential of their mileage systems, forgetting that the data delivered by mileage software is used to drive information systems in virtually every part of a fleet operation from dispatch to bookkeeping, from maintenance to the front office.
Given the central role mileage and routing applications play in your operation, it may be time to take a closer look at recent changes in these programs and to reconsider how they can help improve your operations.
Mileage software began 20 years ago as an extension of printed standard mileage guides accepted by shippers and carriers for negotiating rates. By automating calculations, the electronic guides offered a major convenience for those that could afford to make the switch. Over the years, however, computing power available for even PC-based systems and better methods for obtaining mapping information in digital formats has greatly expanded the use of mileage and routing to a wide variety of basic fleet management functions.
Back in the days of printed standards, rate negotiation for the entire trucking industry was largely based on the Household Goods (HHG) guide published by Rand McNally for the American Moving and Storage Assn. The first widely used electronic mileage program, Rand McNally's MileMaker, was based on HHG miles, and other mileage software providers, like ALK Technologies with its PC*Miler, and Prophesy Transportation Solutions with its Mileage and Routing, developed their own similar standards under names like “shortest miles” or “industry standard rating” miles.
While HHG-type miles made it possible to manually calculate distances between two points that could be accepted as objective by two negotiating parties, they are generally considered 2% to 10% shorter than a route's “practical” miles, that is, the actual miles a truck will travel.
“The guides measure city-center to city-center or zip code to zip code over the shortest possible commercial route,” says William Ashburn, director of marketing for Prophesy. “Practical miles are point-to-point over Interstates and other roads where a truck can make the best time.”
Determining practical miles manually is slow and cumbersome, but automating the process makes it possible to do those calculations quickly. Electronic databases can also accommodate much more information than a printed guide, and digital mapping techniques have greatly improved both the quantity and quality of the mileage information available for those databases. The result has been a move away from HHG-type standards to practical miles as fleets began finding a multitude of uses beyond rating for these automated systems.
“MileMaker is used across our customers' organizations,” says Amy Krouse, director of marketing for Rand McNally's Transportation Data Management Division. “It's truly embedded in the fleet, working in the background to plan dispatches, confirm drivers' pay, prepare fuel-tax reports, analyze lane profitability.”
INTEGRATION A MUST
Smaller fleets might use a mileage program as a standalone application, at least initially, letting an operations manger generate routes and mileages without investing in a more expensive dispatch system. “But even then, they have the ability to integrate it at some later point if they move to a transportation management system,” says Craig Fiander, director of marketing for ALK.
Direct integration with fleet management and other information systems has become a standard feature for most commercial truck mileage applications, as has support for virtually all computer platforms and operating systems. In the case of MileMaker and PC*Miler, interfaces are available for almost all common third-party fleet management systems. Work is continuing to make that integration even easier, and it's likely that “wizards” will eventually be developed to guide fleets through the process for highly customized or home-grown management systems.
Prophesy has taken a somewhat different approach to integration. While its mileage applications can be used with third-party management systems, the company is focused on providing its own fleet management systems with integral mileage functions.
“Mileage was the only thing we did for our first five years, but we've expanded into fleet management applications, and it doesn't account for much of our revenue now,” says Ashburn. “However, every log program, dispatch system or fleet management application we sell is supplied with our mileage system. It's part of everything we do.”
While all three of the major mileage systems provide some form of HHG-type standard miles, views on the continued use of those shortest mileage calculations differ considerably.
Rand McNally, which has just released the 18th edition of HHG, finds that most MileMaker customers do use practical miles in some fashion, especially for fuel-tax reporting, dispatch and other applications where real-world accuracy is important. However, “shippers still like HHG, and we haven't seen fleets moving to practical miles for rating,” says Krouse.
“The problem with practical miles on rating is that it's a subjective measure,” adds Mark Scholzen, a data manager for Rand McNally. “A route may seem practical to you, but not to me. HHG is objective.”
Prophesy, however, finds that many of its fleet customer have moved from the shortest standards. “About 90% of our customers are now using practical miles, although our ISR (industry standard rating) miles are still used by some for rating,” says Ashburn.
ALK falls somewhere in the middle. “We see both practical and shortest miles being used,” says Fiander, who finds mostly shippers using the standard calculations.
More important than standard vs. partical for Fiander is bringing even greater accuracy to mileages. “If a fleet wants to get to the next step in reducing non-revenue miles, they need street-level detail (in mileage and routing),” he says. “Trucks actually go dock to dock, and they have to travel on local streets.
“We're finding that turn-by-turn directions are not just for local P&D operations,” he says. “Calculating a route from one specific address to another is better than getting the distance between two cities. Street-level detail ensures drivers stay on truck-designated routes when they get to local streets, and it reduces phone calls from drivers looking for a delivery location. We have a number of fleets using (street-level mapping), and they're reducing empty miles.”
Prophesy also offers street-level mapping, but Rand McNally isn't convinced the information is there yet to make such detail truly useful. “We have a consumer product with address-to-address routing, but our primary commercial market — Class 8 fleets — isn't looking for 123 Main St.,” says Krouse. “They're going from a highway to a commercial area or office park, not a specific street address. Also, truck-specific attributes like clearances are not available today at street-level detail.”
There is one area where the three are in agreement — application service providers (ASPs). Mapping databases are huge and need to be updated, so at first glance it would seem they are perfect candidates for central hosting and delivery to fleets over the Internet on a subscription base. In fact, Rand McNally, Prophesy and ALK all have ASP versions of their mileage and routing systems, as does ProMiles Software and a few ASP-only competitors in the truck market. To varying degrees, however, the three see little demand yet among fleets for ASP-based mileage and routing products.
Rand McNally offers HHG mileage and other MileMaker features through Intellerouteonline.com, “but the issue of processing power and integrating (an online service) with their other fleet applications makes ASPs unattractive to most of our customers,” says Krouse. “Also, most of our fleets customize their systems, identifying things like roads they prefer or want to avoid in a route, and you can't accommodate customization on an ASP system.”
Prophesy's mile.com offers free point-to-point practical miles to any fleet with an Internet connection, but the site's functions are quite limited compared to the company's desktop application. “We're just not convinced that trucking companies are ready yet for a full (mileage) ASP,” says Ashburn.
Although initial usage of ALK's eMiler.com service “indicates that there's some demand for an ASP mileage and routing system, trucking is still heavily relying on traditional non-ASP systems,” says Fiander. “We do see some growing use, but I'd say we're neutral on predictions about the future of ASPs.”
Even if it's not ready for Internet delivery, mileage calculation has come a long way since Rand McNally introduced the first Household Goods guide in 1936.
Determining the length of any specific trip has gone from minutes for the most experienced user of paper guides to a second or less for anyone able to type in a zip code.
More importantly, it has been transformed from a limited marketing tool to a window into a fleet's productivity and business health.
ALK Technologies Inc.
Bridge City, TX
Rand McNally TDM