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Battling bottlenecks

Sept. 6, 2016
Incorporating data can make the driving easier

The cost of traffic congestion to trucking—whether because of highways running at capacity or unexpected weather events—runs to billions of dollars annually. However, trucking companies have little influence over road construction budgets and absolutely no control over Mother Nature, but that doesn’t mean the problem can’t be worked. Good data, along with the tools to analyze it and communicate decisions to the cab, provides the well-run fleet a competitive advantage.

The American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI) calculated that highway traffic congestion cost trucking $49.6 billion in 2014. That comes from delays totaling more than 728 million hours of lost productivity, which equate to 264,500 commercial truck drivers sitting idle for a working year. It adds an average of $26,625 in additional per-unit operating costs for trucks traveling 150,000 mi. annually.

That’s to say nothing of weather delays, which the National Highway Administration has estimated costs trucking another $8 billion to $9 billion a year.

Stunning as the totals are, they don’t address the problem. So ATRI annually conducts the Congestion Impact Analysis of Freight-Significant Highway Locations, more commonly known as the bottleneck list.

ATRI’s analysis comes from “the nation’s largest database of trucking GPS data,” representing more than 600,000 trucks’ worth, explains ATRI President and COO Rebecca Brewster.

“We get fleets working with this data and our list all the time, working with customers on delivery schedules based on that location,” she says.

More significantly, and for the long term, ATRI takes that information to policymakers to make the case for highway system improvements. And the research arm of the American Trucking Assns. also works closely with the U.S. Dept. of Transportation to find ways to better manage the system that’s in place.

Integrated Corridor Management (ICM) is a tool that holds great promise for addressing urban congestion, Brewster explains. The vision of ICM is to drive significant network improvements through integrated, proactive management of existing infrastructure along major corridors. With an ICM approach, transportation professionals manage the corridor as a multi­modal system and make operational changes for the benefit of the corridor as a whole.

“You’ve got major corridors, and you’ve got cities and states operating that infrastructure and different assets along that infrastructure,” says Brewster. “This is just a way to get all of those folks to work together so that these trucking corridors work more efficiently. It’s a more coordinated approach.”

Real-time reporting

On a day-to-day operational level, however, interagency cooperation among public bureaucracies doesn’t mean much. And even a list of traffic bottlenecks doesn’t help if a load has to go through Atlanta or Chicago.

So the real hope for mitigating traffic delays lies with connected vehicle technology, through which truck operators at once consume information and feed data points back into the network. Inrix is a pioneer in revolutionizing how traffic data is gathered in this way.

Inrix aggregates “billions of points of data” on a daily basis from multiple sources—connected vehicles, devices like mobile phones, and hardware installed in infrastructure—and runs it through its “fusion engine,” a set of algorithms that produces a result called for by the question at hand, explains Troy Miller, vice president of sales for Internet & mobile. The data is collected, made available in real time, and archived.

For trucking fleets that license the data—typically through a fleet management system such as Fleetmatics, Omnitracs or ALK Technologies—the traffic information is used to optimize routing, given the actual conditions on the highway, Miller notes.

“This can be done in real time, and it can be done predictively,” Miller says. “For example, a fleet manager can look at the routes they’re going to be using the next day; they can run it through our fusion engine to optimize those routes, and they can be updated in real time because, despite the best intentions, traffic is very dynamic and changes all the time.”

Inrix also offers a product called Road Weather, designed to give drivers advance warning of dangerous weather-related road conditions ahead. The package combines real-time vehicle data—such as windshield wipers being used, or headlights being on in the middle of the day—with localized atmospheric conditions and highly accurate forecast models from partner Global Weather Corp.

“What this provides us is a mechanism to alert individual drivers, for example, that there is black ice on the road five miles ahead and to slow down as opposed to just saying that road conditions are icy,” Miller says.

Applying the data

ALK, known for its PC*Miler, ALK Maps and Co-Pilot solutions, is among the companies that use Inrix data.

Taking traffic data, users input points of origin and destinations along with times, and the system can better predict arrival times and even incorporate historical trends, explains ALK’s Bill Maddox, vice president of sales-PC*Miler.

“You can make better decisions,” Maddox says. “Should I leave at 9, or should I delay, based on time and traffic, to save my [available] hours? Or, on a long-haul trip, if I leave right now, what time am I going to hit traffic? Maybe I’ll elect to make an hours-of-service stop in advance of that, so that I can come off break and breeze through without traffic.”

PC*Miler’s practical routing option, for example, offers truck routes and will provide an ETA. But the system can be configured to provide the fastest possible route using real-time traffic conditions for the initial portion, and then projecting time for the rest of the trip based on historical data, he explains.

A recent addition to PC*Miler is the HOS Manager, a module designed to calculate routing based on required driver rest periods and routing information.

“Carriers have had a problem with asset utilization. Drivers will stop early if they’re worried about traffic and congestion, but maybe they could make another 50 mi.—and that’s pay in their pocket, that’s asset utilization for carriers, and that’s customer service,” Maddox says. “We’re trying to address that problem to make better selections.”

So the trip plan will include required breaks, and the dispatcher can either accept them or ask for other choices—with settings that include preferred truck stops, for instance. Maddox specifically cites the inclusion of weather alerts in a recent update of PC*Miler that promotes better trip planning or even load selection.

And while the savings associated with data-driven trip planning add up quicker for larger fleets, small trucking companies and owner-operators certainly see benefits as well, Maddox adds, noting that ALK customers “run the gamut.”

Doing the math

To get a sense of just how significant the benefits can be for fleets that save their drivers a few minutes a day here and there, Drivewyze calculates the savings that accrue from its weigh station bypass service.

“In a business where profits are in the pennies, to know that you can save dollars by bypassing the weigh stations is a huge impact,” says Brian Heath, president.

Historically, fleets have considered the time spent at weigh stations as the cost of doing business, but technology now provides a true workaround. And Drivewyze has invested heavily in an analytics layer aimed at providing trucking companies comprehensive reports on time spent in line at inspection sites each month. And the formerly hidden cost of weigh station lineups is now very real.
“To [have] that objective data is really changing how trucking companies are making decisions,” Heath says.

For example, Dallas-based auto hauler Moore Transport operates a 165-truck fleet from several terminals along the Eastern Seaboard and in Chicago­land and Texas. Treasure Phillippi, safety supervisor, says drivers were concerned with the loss of off-duty time on the weekends due to increasing traffic at the ports and congestion at nearby weigh stations.

Driver surveys found one out of every five drivers left because the company couldn’t live up to its goal of preserving their weekend off-duty time.

Phillippi says Drivewyze quickly proved its worth to the company’s managers and owner when the fuel and operational savings Drivewyze generated in the first three months of this year more than paid for the cost of the service for the remainder of the year.

According to Drivewyze, the weigh station bypass service, which was activated on 123 of the company’s fleet of 165 trucks, provided 6,281 bypasses from Jan. 1 to May 5, avoiding about 379 hours in weigh station delays and the burning of more than 2,512 gals. of fuel. The bypasses saved the company more than $58,000 in operating costs and lost productivity, nearly a 3,600% return on the cost of the service.

What’s next?

Heath characterizes Drivewyze as “a connected-vehicle technology company” that uses GPS and mobile web technologies to deliver its services.”

“We’re part of this much larger trend of technology convergence, where you can integrate service into other devices in the vehicle instead of having another standalone device,” Heath says. Drivewyze, for instance, can be integrated in the broader fleet management services offered by Omni­tracs, PeopleNet, or Zonar.

Looking ahead, Heath points to field trials underway in the Northeast to use technology to expedite Level 3 truck inspections, with vehicle information being transmitted to the inspector as the truck arrives. This will allow for more inspections with the same resources. For carriers, the streamlined process will mean clean inspections with much less of an operational penalty at the roadside.

“Even though there are these big themes like connected vehicles and location-based services, the bottom line is that trucking companies are responding positively to just saving more time and money and having less of a headache in doing so. That’s what really works for the customer,” Heath concludes.

“I don’t think the day-to-day decisions are about becoming the connected fleet of the future,” he continues. “They’re just trying to improve profit margins, improve service reliability, and improve driver recruiting and retention. This technology is helping them do that.”

As with Drivewyze, ALK is working to “build the tools closer together,” or to design them in such a way that data and decisions can be readily shared across platforms, Maddox notes. And the electronic logging device (ELD) mandate will, after some initial adjustment, prove to be a boon to trucking well beyond driver HOS compliance and fatigue prevention.

“I believe the TMS platforms—the mobile platforms—are going to have a tremendous opportunity. There’s a huge amount of information that will come from the use of an ELD—and that’s not simply counting the hours,” Maddox says. “That’s understanding fuel efficiency and that’s understanding routes. TMS providers can take this driver behavior information and help the driver become safer and more efficient—so the ELD mandate isn’t actually a burden. At the end of the day, everybody has a better experience.

“It’s one thing to find your favorite truck stop. It’s another to understand accident zones or find places where people brake really hard. That’s all coming at us. It’s pretty exciting we’re going to have access to all this data and help them make decisions.”

Looking ahead, Inrix’ Miller  agrees. “The more data we get, obviously, the more accurate the models are,” he says. “Ten years is a long way out in the technology field, but data will become ubiquitous. Trucks and fleet vehicles will have all this information on a built-in screen in the dash.”  

About the Author

Kevin Jones 1 | Editor

Kevin Jones has an odd fascination with the supply chain. As editor of American Trucker, he focuses on the critical role owner-ops and small fleets play in the economy, locally and globally. And he likes big trucks.

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