Pulling the plug on OBCs

July 1, 2002
It's a sign of our mobile society wireless access to computer networks is everywhere. It's in offices, hotels, homes and even throughout the entire town of Aspen. Simply turn on a computer device with a wireless modem in the card slot, and you're plugged into a local area network (LAN) with all the Internet and file transferring advantages that implies. It's no surprise, then, that trucks with their

It's a sign of our mobile society — wireless access to computer networks is everywhere. It's in offices, hotels, homes and even throughout the entire town of Aspen. Simply turn on a computer device with a wireless modem in the card slot, and you're plugged into a local area network (LAN) with all the Internet and file transferring advantages that implies.

It's no surprise, then, that trucks with their high computer content are also beginning to log on wirelessly to corporate networks. Although a truck will spend most of its working day outside the range of a typical wireless LAN, for many types of fleets touch-free access to onboard computers even once or twice a day brings immediate productivity benefits. And developments in the near future hold promise for enormous productivity gains, not just for local and regional operations, but also for longhaul fleets.

Today, wireless communications for trucking generally means some type of wide area network (WAN), that is, a satellite- or land-based network that provides access to trucks on the road. Trucking is currently the largest vertical market for WAN, using a variety of satellite, cellular and packet radio services from well-known providers like Qualcomm, Aether, PeopleNet, Nextel, Cingular Interactive and EMS. The strength of a WAN is that it offers a real-time connection to a highly mobile asset like a truck, making it perfect for trading messages, tracking vehicles remotely and even monitoring critical data.

The weakness of a WAN is that data communications are usually billed by the byte, making it cost-prohibitive to use those wireless networks for routine transfers of the relatively large amounts of data collected by onboard computers (OBCs) monitoring vehicle and driver activities, or other devices capturing business-related information. Transfer speeds are also generally slow, making such transfers time-consuming.

By comparison, wireless LANs have extremely limited coverage — usually under a 3,000-ft. radius surrounding an access point hardwired into the network. However, data transfer rates approach those of a wired Ethernet network and there are no recurring communications costs, only the initial costs for the hardware. Integration with a company's network is also seamless, meaning data can flow easily between mobile devices and enterprise systems or other management applications.


Those characteristics made wireless LANs quite useful within manufacturing plants, warehouses or distribution terminals, giving managers a real-time view of inventories and allowing them to fine-tune supply chain control. This “high-velocity” inventory control proved especially popular in the food distribution industry where handheld devices with wireless LAN modems have become common.

The widespread acceptance of a communications standard known as 802.11b, or Wi-Fi, expanded wireless LAN applications from specialized business functions into the consumer market. Today many homes use Wi-Fi to share Internet access and printers without the expense of rewiring for traditional Ethernet. With consumer market volumes has come a corresponding drop in prices and rise in availability for Wi-Fi modems, routers and other hardware.

The combination of low-cost hardware, easy integration and growing familiarity has now made it practical to extend wireless LANs to truck applications. The first major application is as a more efficient data transfer channel for OBCs in trucks that return to a terminal or depot at least a few times a week.

Traditionally fleets have plugged in returning vehicles with a hard-wire connection to extract data or used “sneaker net” with drivers carrying removable memory devices from the OBC to a reader in the terminal. Even those with WAN connections still had to touch their trucks because the amount of data involved in paperless driver logs, automated fuel-tax reporting and business functions supported by OBCs was too great to move efficiently over the wide area wireless networks.

“Any fleet that brings trucks home every day and pays drivers by the hour is a perfect candidate” for wireless LAN, says Richard Geib, president and CEO of Tripmaster Corp. With Tripmaster's wireless option, all data is automatically extracted in less than a minute when a truck pulls within range of a terminal's “hard point” LAN gateway. “By comparison, direct extraction [with a wire or removable media] can take 15 minutes per driver,” says Geib.

At the start of the day, the wireless link automatically loads manifest, route and driver DOT log information into the OBCs, allowing drivers to skip dispatch and report directly to their trucks. “That time savings alone provides a terrific ROI,” says Geib.

“At this point, virtually every customer upgrading their onboard hardware is moving to wireless extraction,” he adds.

Tripmaster has chosen not to use Wi-Fi technology for its wireless link. “We use a similar technology that is a bit slower [on transfers] because the cost is roughly the same and we feel it's more robust and secure,” says Geib. “And, in fact, we can and do support 802.11 for some devices used by two of our value-added resellers. Actually, the technology used to make the link doesn't matter. What matters is providing a seamless connection from the LAN to the vehicle.”

When Cadec Corp. released its new Mobius TTS OBC nearly two years ago, it included an 802.11b modem, as well as WAN capability. With most of its customers running food or fuel distribution fleets, few use real-time WAN systems, says Bruce Olsen, Cadec's chief technical advisor. Since they're not dispatching longhaul loads, “real-time communications isn't critical,” he says.

Instead, vehicles leave terminals with known routes and return at the end of the day, “so it makes economic sense to use wireless LAN” to extract the data collected, Olsen explains.

Encryption, firewall protection and other ways of limiting access to networks handle 802.11b security concerns, says Olsen.

Interestingly, fleets that do use Cadec's WAN connection are also adding wireless LAN. “We capture a fair amount of data, and paying by the byte [to transfer it] over the WAN is expensive,” Olsen explains. “So now they're using WAN for crucial real-time communications and wireless LAN for ‘bulk’ data transfers.”

Qualcomm has also announced 802.11b support for its MVPc onboard computer and FleetAdvisor management system, which is used primarily by private distribution fleets.

Many of the FleetAdvisor customers are already using wireless LANs in their warehouses, so adding Wi-Fi support “allows them to derive additional value from those systems,” says Norm Ellis, VP of business operations.

For those fleets already using Qualcomm's WAN services, Wi-Fi might also be able to reduce data communications over that more costly network by as much as 70%, “allowing them to maximize visibility and minimize cost,” he adds.

Such basic chores are just the first step for Wi-Fi in fleet applications. Tripmaster, for example, is about to release a “remote dial-up” extractor that could be used to extend wireless LAN to vehicles at smaller facilities. “It doesn't even need a building or a PC, just a telephone connection,” says Geib. “The modem automatically dials into the network when it makes a wireless connection with an onboard computer.”


It's also easy to envision Wi-Fi extended to yard management and security functions, tracking trailer and truck movements and locations. WhereNet has developed a sophisticated supply-chain asset tracking system that uses extremely low-powered RF tags to provide real-time location for items all the way down to package sizes. Its new generation system has added 802.11b support that will allow WhereNet software to communicate with Wi-Fi devices and integrate them with corporate logistics systems.

Large distribution operations “have invested heavily in enterprise-level decision support systems, but the systems are data starved because the data they have is inaccurate or out of date or because it's too expensive to capture the data,” says Matt Armanino, vp-business development. “WhereNet bridges the divide between management systems and the assets themselves. Now onboard computers with Wi-Fi can be integrated for a complete view of the supply chain, feeding data to our yard management software or third party applications.”

Although it's short range by design, wireless LAN could even reach beyond the terminal or distribution site. The American Trucking Assns.' Technology and Maintenance Council has just begun working on standards for connecting trucks to wireless LANs as they roll into truckstops.

A TMC study group charged with developing those standards has already agreed on 802.11b as the wireless link, according to Cadec director of marketing Joanne Allen, who serves on the study group. “It's pretty exciting,” she says. “Drivers could download logs, fuel tax information and other OBC data at the truckstop as well as access the Internet with a laptop and wireless modem.”

There's still a lot of work to be done before such standards are ready to let truckstops begin installing Wi-Fi access points, including the difficult issue of how to pay for and support such a service. “But the concept is in place, and everyone has agreed on 802.11b, so now we can hammer out some of those other issues,” says Allen.

Whether Wi-Fi connections ever become a popular truckstop service, wireless LAN is clearly a hot new technology for trucking. Just as WAN brought huge productivity benefits to longhaul carriage, short-range wireless data service with its low cost and speed is poised to bring new levels of efficiency to the short-haul segment of the trucking industry.

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