How many dozens of pictures have you seen of a truck driver talking on a C-B radio? Or of a truck parked in a dark and deserted lot, where the only light visible through the rain is coming from the pay phone booth where the driver is making a call? For decades, these images and others like them said all there was to say about driver communications.
Today, "communications" means virtually total wireless connectivity - everywhere, all the time - to fleet operations, customers, family and entertainment. It means on-demand access to information about the truck, the weather, the route, the load, and the Little League game back home. And it takes a lot more than a pocket full of change or a two-way radio to make it all happen. Wireless communications, mobile computing and wireless Internet technologies are all converging to help create a new world of untethered, ubiquitous communication.
Vinit Nijhawan, founder and president of Kinetic Computer Corp., discusses the explosive growth of these technologies and what it means in his article, "Wireless Connectivity on the Move." According to Nijhawan, "Wireless communications is one of the world's fastest-growing industries, matched only by the growth of the Internet.
"There have [also] been dramatic advances in the mobile computer industry," he adds. "General purpose use of handheld or PDA (personal digital assistant) computers is widespread with three dominant mobile operating systems.
"The Palm OS dominates the consumer market, Windows CE is the leader in industrial applications, and Epoc32 has some share of the European market. Many portable and vehicle-mount Windows CE computers are available for the industrial market, like the PC/Piranha from Kinetic Computer.
"There has [also] been an explosion of interest in connecting mobile devices to the Internet," he continues. "Many analysts are convinced that Internet connectivity is the `killer app' for mobile data."
Nijhawan should know. A year ago, Kinetic unveiled its own Internet-based, real-time, fleet management service (provided on a monthly fee basis) for the commercial transportation industry. Called eTruck, the service incorporates wireless data communications, the Windows CE-based PC/Piranha on-board computer, and web servers and browsers to enable numerous functions, including electronic messaging, automated DOT logs and fuel tax information, monitoring of engine fault codes, and automated vehicle locating (via GPS).
Truck manufacturers themselves are also combining technologies to develop multi-functional onboard communications and computing tools. According to Paul Menig, director of electrical/electronic engineering for Freightliner L.L.C., the OEM's Truck Productivity Computer, for example, is an on-board computer, communications interface, vehicle information display, global positioning system (GPS), AM/FM stereo, weather/RDS receiver, and compact disc player all in one.
"I am a strong believer in the wireless world," Menig says, and the unit's computer, which runs on Microsoft's Windows CE Automotive, has been designed specifically for that world. According to Menig, it can interface with a wide variety of wireless communications systems.
"We are giving the customer the choice of what to use as a modem," he says. "It can work with Qualcomm's satellite system, with CDPD (cellular digital packet data) systems like AT&T's, with CDMA (code-division multiple access) systems, with the cellular phone itself, or with specialized mobile radio systems, such as two-way pagers."
UNLIMITED POTENTIAL The Truck Productivity Computer can also interface with numerous computer peripheral devices, Menig notes, including magnetic card readers, bar code scanners, printers, flatbed scanners, handheld or palmtop computers, game controllers, and digital cameras. "The system is set up to interface in several ways," he explains. "It has two Universal Serial Bus (USB) connections, an infrared serial port (IrDA), and an RS-232 serial port. It also connects to the truck's SAE J1587 data link, and a voice recognition system is in the works."
When combined with the appropriate hardware and operating software, there's virtually no limit to what the system can handle, says Menig, including displaying directions or pickup and delivery information, transmitting vehicle location information, downloading and transmitting information from bar code scanners or handheld computers, transmitting imaged documents, printing documents, sending and receiving e-mail, accessing the Internet or just playing computer games.
"We are planning to offer more wireless applications soon," he adds, "including a number of very vocational-specific applications. For example, a truckload carrier typically needs to know where the driver is now, so the ability to send short messages may be all that's required.
"Firefighters, on the other hand, may need on-site, fast access to much more information. If there is a fire in a factory, for instance, they may need to see Materials Safety data sheets or building plans. Household goods movers may also need access to a lot of data, but they may not need it as quickly. For example, they may want a built-in camera so that they can take a picture of damaged cargo and transmit it right away for insurance claims."
According to Menig, Freightliner hopes to begin Beta testing of the computer with selected fleets this fall. A price has not been finalized, but a pricing philosophy has. "Customers today buy a preinstalled radio, a pre-wired system for mobile communications, plus a PC and the mobile communications unit, which has to be installed. We hope we can give them all three at a lower total cost plus all the additional functionality," he says.
It's the astonishing functionality of combined computing/communications systems that is capturing the attention of the truck makers, according to Dan Farmer, assistant chief engineer for advanced technology at Kenworth Truck Co. Farmer has been working on an integrated computer/mobile communications system (an ePACCAR initiative) that the company hopes to roll out next spring. According to Farmer, the system, which is designed to give drivers connectivity to work, family and entertainment, is currently being tested by a select number of customers.
"When you make these tools available to drivers, you really learn what is important to them," he observes. "For example, we designed our system to utilize GPS data to set the on-screen clock for local time. The drivers who tried it first came back and told us they loved the clock function, but wanted to know the time at home, not the local time.
"We changed the clock function just for them, but when they returned the system we reset it to display local time. When the second team of drivers gave us their report, they said the same thing: We really want to know what time it is at home."
While the new system is designed to also give drivers access to a variety of entertainment options, the real reason it will be installed in trucks is pure business, he notes. "If you can capture a proof of delivery signature on-site and then transmit it to accounting in ten minutes, you can dramatically accelerate cash flow," Farmer illustrates.
The bottom-line benefits of wireless computing/communications technology are already being demonstrated in real applications at Foden Trucks, a U.K.-based division of PACCAR, according to Peter Dames, director of electronic commerce for PACCAR. "Foden offers a system designed to enable remote monitoring of the truck," he says.
"The Fodex unit equipped with Voyager II software allows fleets to wirelessly connect to a truck and download data such as location, running speeds, etc.," Dames explains. "Currently, the data from the Fodex system comes to a server where it is compiled into a report and sent to the customer via e-mail. However, a web-enabled version of the system is in prototype testing and is scheduled to be available in the U.S. and in Europe during the first quarter of 2001."
"Where the Fodex system really pays for itself is in situations such as when a fleet has an agreement with a shipper stating that the shipper will be charged a penalty if they keep drivers waiting more than two hours," adds Kenworth's Farmer. "With Fodex, the fleet can document exactly when the truck arrived, when it was at the dock, and when it left."
While the ePACCAR computer/ communications system presently under development and the Fodex unit are two separate systems, the company does plan to incorporate the functionality of the Fodex into the new system, according to Dames.
"At PACCAR, we are taking a very global approach to the application of communications and computing technologies," he says. "After all, the Web itself is without borders or boundaries. The new multifunctional system will be available across PACCAR's entire product line, including DAF, Foden, Peterbilt and Kenworth vehicles," he adds. "We are building it for multiple languages and multiple mobile communications systems."
It will be the availability of OEM-installed computing/communications systems that will finally accelerate the widespread development and deployment of wireless applications, according to Darren Brewer, president of NetTrans, a provider of freight matching services for vans, flatbeds and refrigerated units. This spring, NetTrans introduced its free wireless Internet load matching software for the Palm VII organizer, which can be downloaded from the company's web site at www.nettrans. com.
ALMOST HERE "Wireless communications on board trucks will not truly be commonplace for another year or two," Brewer predicts. "Wireless Internet access is still not the most affordable solution available to fleets. Eventually, however, Windows CE devices will be installed in trucks as standard equipment, just like radios are now. These computers will interface with digital mobile communications systems and with devices like the Palm VII. That's when we'll see people really rushing to develop wireless applications for the trucking industry."
NetTrans is not waiting for the "rush" to begin development of its wireless applications and neither is PNV (formerly known as Park `N View). The Florida-based company has earned its reputation as the truck stop-based provider of in-cab cable television and phone services for the trucking industry. There are currently 300 wired locations, with more being added all the time. However, according to Brian McCaul, director of marketing, there is also a new mission at PNV: "Connecting You to What Matters."
"Our charter is to connect the trucking industry not only to entertainment, but to telecommunications and the Internet," he says, "regardless of where they happen to be, not just at truck stops. In the U.S., we have such a good wired telecommunications and television network out there that it just makes good sense to use it. So we're deploying other wireless technologies on top of that structure, and we expect there will be a long-term need for both.
"We're going to leverage our broadband capability, our big-capacity data pipe, to enhance communications," he adds. "For example, we can transport data from onboard computers and/or data communications systems by connecting them via PC Card to our much higher speed backbone wired network," McCaul illustrates. "We also have a great ability to work with application service providers (ASPs), and we plan to add more best-of-breed applications to our service."
TV, RADIO VIA SATELLITE PNV's newest offering is a satellite television dish that enables customers to receive about 38 channels of customized PNV programming, including movies, sports, weather and the major network stations, according to McCaul. "Initial feedback on our PNV Anywhere TV has been extremely positive, and we expect to begin fulfilling orders by about Thanksgiving," he says.
"The new satellite dish is available for home as well as truck installations," McCaul adds. "The price during this introductory period will be $40/mo. for all 38 channels for current, prepay customers and $45 for month-to-month users. The one-time cost for the dish and receiver is $89, plus $99 for the truck mounting hardware, if customers prepay for a year's service. The cost for the mounting hardware is $199 if customers pay month-to-month.
In addition to satellite-delivered television, truckers will also be able to subscribe to satellite-delivered radio beginning in early 2001. XM Satellite Radio and competitor Sirius Satellite Radio both plan to begin broadcasting up to 100 channels each of coast-to-coast, digital-quality programming next year, available for about $9.95/mo.
Each company has already attracted an impressive list of programming partners, radio suppliers and distributors. XM's brand-name programming partners include CNN/ Sports Illustrated and CNN Financial Network, C-Span Radio, Bloomberg, the Hispanic Broadcast Corp., the BBC World Service and BBC concerts.
Companies like Sony, Alpine and Pioneer will manufacture the XM-ready radios, and the company has a long-term distribution agreement with General Motors to integrate the radios into its vehicles beginning in 2001.
Sirius, which has already launched two of its three satellites, also has agreements in place with numerous radio manufacturers to install three-band (AM/FM/SATELLITE) radios in BMW, Ford Motor Co. and Daimler/Chrysler vehicles and all their associated brands, including Freightliner and Sterling trucks, according to Walter Kerner, director of alliance marketing for Sirius, who adds that the company is in discussions with all truck manufacturers.
"This is a whole new industry, a new category," he says. "Entertainment will be our first thrust, but telematics may follow as data compression technology advances. We own and operate our satellites, so we can change and adapt our service to meet evolving customer needs. We will be doing constant and ongoing market research."
According to Kerner, Sirius will offer 50 channels of commercial-free music in virtually every genre, and up to 50 channels of news, sports and information through programming partners such as CNBC, National Public Radio, Speedvision, Outdoor Life, SportsByLine USA, the SCI FI Channel, Classic Radio, and the BBC. Sirius also has an alliance with country music star, Randy Travis. "We are also in discussion with a number of trucker-specific programming suppliers," he notes. "The trucking industry is an ideal market, a perfect fit for satellite radio."
With its 24/7 schedule and its constant mobility, trucking is a perfect fit for many of the emerging wireless services that will soon invisibly thread together the entire industry, connecting truckers to home, work, entertainment and information no matter where they go or when. It will launch the beginning of a new era of productivity and service. At the same time, it will end forever the era of the solitary trucker, that lonely and independent figure silhouetted in memory against the light of a phone booth.