Feb. 1, 2001





Long regarded by longhaul fleets as little more than necessary evils, truckstops — or “travel plazas,” as those in the biz now tend to call them — have evolved rapidly in recent years.

Much credit is due truckstop operators, and the myriad vendors serving them, for recasting what were once largely no-frills, gas-'n-go operations into true homes-away-from home for commercial drivers and their vehicles.

Today's truckstop is more often than not an ultra-modern, nearly squeaky clean oasis of the Interstate bearing scant resemblance to the quaint but creaky mom-and-pop shops that once dotted the roadside.

Amidst their fuel pumps, repair bays, restaurants and convenience stores, truckstops now bristle with high technology that can keep meticulous track of fuel, food, services or merchandise rung up and enable Internet and other electronic links drivers and fleet managers can access.

The high-tech truckstop is developing in a largely hodgepodge fashion. Not all facilities offer the same means of tapping the information highway. However, as a group, truckstop operators are clearly enamored of the potential that offering more “connectivity” options has to draw in customers.

Right now, connectivity at truckstops falls into several categories, including these:

  • Third-party vendors, such as Comdata, collect data on fuel purchases and driver pay as they process transactions for fleet customers.

  • Two major truckstop chains have each made a business alliance with an OEM that allows their locations to feed warranty and other service data into the respective dealership network.

  • Load-matching programs, like those provided by DAT Services' “load board” monitors, are installed at many truckstops.

  • Standalone kiosks, such as DRIVERNet's, provide such services as Internet access, e-mail and even document-scanning.

Besides convenience, what all these services offer is the ability to capture important driver, vehicle and operational data and transmit it directly or indirectly to a fleet's offices. In many cases, fleet managers can access the information immediately — and always without having to see their trucks or drivers.

In this way, truckstops have truly become extensions of the fleet's maintenance, dispatching and even driver-relations departments, serving literally as electronic eyes and ears for fleet managers.

Depending on how much they've invested in infrastructure to support data collection and networking, individual independent and franchised truckstops will offer a variety of ways for a fleet to connect electronically with its rolling and human assets — trucks and drivers.

For example, Petro Stopping Centers recently set up a new and wide-ranging voice and data network by combining services from SmartStop, AT&T and Lucent Technologies.

According to David McClure, Petro's director of marketing, the network, which is managed by SmartStop, includes AT&T payphone service, along with special Internet kiosks that drivers can purchase access to in five-minute increments. He expects the biggest use will be for sending and receiving e-mail.

“We also have DRIVERNet kiosks in all our locations,” says McClure. “The document-scanning feature they offer is a real time-saver for drivers and fleets alike.”

Petro also recently inked an agreement with SiriCOM (www.siricomm.com) to have the company install its wireless communications network in all its truckstops.

Each installation will include a wireless LAN (local area network), a patented TSS (truck stop server) and a satellite receiver/transmitter dish.

“The SiriCOMM network is a great wireless solution for the truckstop environment,” says Jim Cardwell, Petro senior vice president. “Customers will have the ability to conveniently send and receive all types of data as well as access the Internet.

“Inside the truckstop or outside in the lot,” he continues, “drivers will have access to our truckstop specials, e-mail, company intranets, weather, current road conditions, engine data, and software applications through the SiriCOMM network.”

“Drivers will be able to access the network by installing a SiriCOMM 802.11b wireless card in their laptop, or they can use the SiriCOMM handheld Palm OS device made by Symbol Technologies,” points out Hank Hoffman, CEO of SiriCOMM.

According to Hoffman, SiriCOMM designed the network to be affordable to users by setting up access locations, or “hot spots,” at truckstops and other facilities located across the country.

SiriCOMM's immediate goal is to provide network connectivity along the nation's most heavily traveled freight corridors.

“That way,” says Hoffman, “users will be in a hot spot on an almost hourly basis, or less — depending on routes traveled. Our initial installation will include 400 truckstop locations along major truck-traffic routes.

“After the initial 400 are installed, we plan to continue installation until a minimum of 1,000 locations are in place,” he continues. “The second installation phase will target shippers, weigh stations, truck terminals — places that are frequented by drivers.”

Petro's McClure says the SiriCOMM deal means the truckstop chain can “free fleets from requiring satellite equipment” on their trucks. “Instead of putting every truck on a network, now the truckstops will comprise the network.”

McClure says once a truck signed up with SiriCOMM enters a Petro stop, the system will automatically log it in and allow communications to begin between the driver and his fleet.

Another initiative in place at Petro locations that enhances data collection for fleet customers is the service arrangement the chain has established with its second-largest equity holder, Volvo Trucks North America (VTNA).

Under the agreement, Petro:Lube service bays at 55 of the 57 Petro stops give Volvo customers access to the OEM's QuickCare program for maintenance and minor warranty repairs.

“The program lets our techs tie into Volvo's warranty system to access the service history of a truck,” McClure reports. “It also allows fleets to post maintenance information on a bulletin board and to get real-time access to the work Petro:Lube has performed. And lets us pull together the information for billing or other purposes by fleet rather than just by individual truck.”

According to Keith Brandis, VTNA's vp of marketing, the QuickCare warranty program, which now covers Volvo trucks and engines, will soon be expanded to include all makes of trucks powered by Cummins engines.

As to the strength of the program, Brandis says fleets “get the convenience of on-the-road repairs without losing the ability to closely track warranty and service history.”

He points out there is no sign-up required. “The truck pulls into the truckstop bay and the Petro tech uses its serial number to access its warranty coverage. From that point on, all the information generated is processed electronically back to us. Repair orders are part of that history and fleets get copies.”

Brandis says another advantage to the program is no prepayment for warranty work is required, as would be the case with repair shops outside the Volvo network.

Another major truckstop chain that has aligned its service operation with an OEM is TravelCenters of America (TA). Under a program dubbed ServicePoint, TA locations have become authorized for light-duty repairs, including those under warranty, for its equity partner, Freightliner. The network consists of over 130 TA locations.

Carlo Nardini, director of technical support for Freightliner LLC, says that the ServicePoint network has access to the same electronic tools, such as Service Pro and PartsPro, as Freightliner dealers. “Our setup also includes tools that are used on the back end at TA sites and by our dealers to speed customer service,” he notes.

While Freightliner is also working to web-enable many of its fleet-management services via its web site at www.my truckshop.com, Nardini says the next major development in electronic linkage will involve the OEM's TruckPC (productivity computer).

“A key element to enhancing customer service in the near future will be our Truck PC, which is now in beta testing, and its ability to connect wirelessly to the Internet,” he reports.

“Once the PC allows the truck to offload data to the Internet,” Nardini explains, “fleets and service providers, be they dealers or truckstops, can easily pick up on information as they need to.”

Back at the truckstops, a host of other firms offer various Information Age services that should not be overlooked by fleets looking for ways to improve communication with and for their drivers.

For example, DAT Services (www.dat.com) offers load-matching services that are accessible at fleet offices, over the Internet, and within truckstops via special monitors, phone, fax, Windows-based software or even over a satellite network.

“We got our start in truckstops and now have monitors posting loads from PCs in 100 stops,” says Robert Hughes, business development manager. “While those displays are not interactive, a new arrangement allows finding future loads via DAT by using DRIVERNet kiosks.

“We also have quite a few Internet-based tools,” he continues. “For example, drivers can access our load information right on a laptop. And as it happens, most truckstops are adding more dial-up connections. We also offer DAT Partners, a freight-exchange network that enables online negotiations.”

One of DAT's newest services is pitched at owner-operators. Called WiNOT (wireless network of truckers), it lets owners post their trucks' availability on DAT's freight-exchange network via wireless phone service.

DAT's relationship with DRIVERNet also makes it the provider of load-matching information for the new DRIVERNet pK (personal kiosk) two-way wireless messaging service.

According to Tad DeOrio, CFO, DRIVERNet (www.drivernet.com), offers connections via its kiosks, which he points out are a specialized “extranet” without Internet access, as well as from desktop computers through a subscription service, and now wirelessly through its newest offering, DRIVERNet pK.

He notes that fleet services offered include driver-pay settlements, document scanning using SCANNet units at about half its kiosks, and the ability to “broadcast” a subset of a fleet's web-posted data, such as medical coverage, over the DRIVERNet system so drivers can access it easily.

The pK seeks to put access to many of the company's services right in the palm of the driver's hand. The system allows fleets to send and receive messages through their dispatch systems or via DRIVERNet's web-based dispatch system. Drivers communicate with the fleet over handheld wireless PDA devices. The handhelds can be assigned to drivers individually or shared, with driver-specific information available.

DRIVERNet pK is available on the HandspringVisor PDA plugged into a Glenayre two-way messaging module. “A Qualcomm or similar system is great for large fleets,” DeOrio contends, “but for smaller fleets, pK is more affordable yet broad in coverage. The WebLink wireless network we're using reaches up to 95% of populated areas, including those along most major highways.

“The whole idea behind pK is to expand DRIVERNet,” DeOrio adds. “Drivers are in truckstops a lot. But they are not in them all the time.”

As a company whose whole business revolves around the truckstop, Comdata, issuer of the fuel-and-more Comchek card, is not idling at innovation, either.

Mike Brewer, corporate communications manager, reports the company's newest electronic initiatives are a set of web sites.

Launched last month, the site at www.gocomcheck.com is a free resource that provides access to fuel pricing data as well as information on routing and highway amenities.

Linked in real time to a network of over 8,000 truckstops, the site allows visitors to access the last transacted Comchek fuel purchase price at each location. “This feature is aimed at both drivers and dispatchers who need a fuel optimization service,” says Brewer.

The second site, www.iconnectdata.com, is a web portal that was scheduled to launch on February 1. Brewer describes it as a “very rich portal” that is replacing the MOTRS platform, which was the company's first software-based network.

“Fleets will be able to control their Comchek cards from their desktop using the iConnectData system,” Brewer relates. “They will be able to quickly and easily load money onto cards or even block their use at certain facilities. They can also update driver information. We feel that putting this system on the web will help level the playing field for many of our smaller fleet customers.”

Even as existing services continue to expand, the next big thing in truckstops does promise to be wireless connectivity.

While Petro appears to be in the catbird seat on this one with its SiriCOMM deal, the trade association NATSO (National Association of Truckstop Operators) has embarked on a “Connectivity Project” aimed at developing an open architecture and standards for wireless connectivity at all truckstops.

If that's achieved, compatible onboard wireless devices could “talk” to the wireless data network installed at a truckstop, which in turn could be linked to other wireless as well as wired communication systems, not to mention the Internet.

Wireless connectivity at the truckstop could make life on the road easier for drivers, such as by letting them call ahead to reserve services or by simply speeding the purchase of fuel and other goods.

It could also benefit fleets by increasing and streamlining the flow of data back to their office systems.

And by letting truckstops bear the cost of the network as a value-added service, fleets could slash their cost for wireless onboard communications.

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