Solid Gold Data

April 1, 2012
Throughout the transportation industry the rush is on to capture advanced analytics in an effort to discover information that can improve the bottom line for truck fleets in ways unimaginable a decade ago.

Information and communications companies, truck OEMs, equipment and service suppliers, and even the government have been using technologies onboard and off to help manage the business of trucking for years now. One result is a vast and still largely unexplored data landscape rich with valuable information there for the taking, if only it can be sifted out.

The new gold rush is on. Technology is providing carriers the advanced analytic and reporting tools they need to discover real, actionable information about asset utilization, costs and revenues that are improving the bottom line for truck fleets in ways unimaginable a decade ago.

“The way I think about data is how it hits the bottom line,” says Michele Greene, TransCore group product manager. “There are three legs to that ‘stool’: asset utilization, that is maximizing loaded miles; maximizing the rates for moving that freight; and reducing costs.”

Fleets have always been interested in reducing costs. In the past, however, costs were viewed more as “cost sets” than discretely. For example, a fleet could manually track fuel costs per mile by reviewing and recording fueling receipts and odometer miles, but many details were not visible in those numbers, including things like the impact of engine idling, unauthorized fuel purchases, or driver performance behind the wheel.

Technology is making the details within those cost sets clearly visible now, and when fleets can see the details they can act on them much more precisely, which is exactly what is taking place.

Vusion (part of Trimble’s International Transportation and Logistics division along with PeopleNet), for example, has been working on measuring the fuel efficiency of individual truck tractors against expectations. “We have developed what we call ‘underperforming vehicle reports,’” says Thomas Fansler, president of Vusion. “A vehicle’s performance is graded in terms of miles per gallon.

“We build comprehensive data models for the performance of truck tractors based upon their make, model, age, engine size and other factors,” Fansler explains. “We also take into account duty-cycle particulars, including things like idle time, the environment and load weight. Based upon all we know about a given truck, we have a pretty good idea of how it should perform as compared to how it is performing.”

One of the things Fansler’s work has turned up, perhaps surprisingly so, is that about 83% of the tractors found to be underperforming have service issues, and about 58% of those are major service issues. This type of analysis is really “still in its infancy,” he says, but the potential benefits are undeniable.

The not-for-profit North American Council for Freight Efficiency (NACFE) has also been looking at detailed data related to truck fuel efficiency, in this case to help fleets make better decisions about adopting fuelsaving technologies and devices without having to go to the expense of testing every possible system themselves.

NACFE recently completed a study that compiles the real-world experiences of eight major fleets with 60 different fuel-saving devices, technologies and practices divided into six categories: tractor and trailer aerodynamics, synthetic lubricants, idle-reduction systems, tires and wheels, driver training, and routing software. The data covers 30,000 tractors and 88,000 trailers operating between 2003 and 2010, according to Mike Roeth, NACFE executive director. In 2010 alone, study trucks were driven 3.1 billion miles and burned 496 million gals. of fuel. Not a paper-and-pencil math story problem, by any means.

The unique report tracks adoption rates rather than assigning percentage values to each of 60 separate technologies and practices, noting whether they were quickly adopted for 100% of a fleet, slowly adopted for 100% of a fleet, currently ramping up to full adoption, started and then stopped, or never purchased. Colored charts make the results easier to visualize and compare.

“Data can be expressed in numbers,” Roeth says, “but in this case we chose to show some qualitative data in ways that are intended to help fleets and suppliers make good decisions. We had a huge amount of data, but we wanted to present it simply and in a way that would make it come to life and be actionable.”

In the case of full tractor chassis skirts, for instance, three of the test fleets quickly chose to adopt them for their entire operations; three others did so more slowly; one fleet is ramping up now, but to less than 100%; and one fleet did not purchase them at all. According to Roeth, there were also 12 technologies among the 60 evaluated that some fleets stopped buying.

“Through our unbiased approach to aggregating information on fuel-efficient technologies, we are adding direct value to the fleets’ bottom line,” Roeth says. safety & mpg Don Osterberg, senior vice president of safety, security & driver training for Schneider National, and Alfred (Al) LaCombe, director of safety, training & security for Dupré Logistics, recently shared their own experiences with using data analysis—in this case driver performance data—to enhance safety, reduce costs and improve the bottom line during a live webcast sponsored by GreenRoad and presented jointly TransCore “hot market maps” help fleets position assets. by Fleet Owner and the Truckload Carriers’ Assn. (TCA).

Traditional safety metrics are lagging, not leading indicators, Osterberg noted. Effectiveness flows from the ability to identify and proactively manage those leading indicators, and technology can definitely help to get the job done.

“Technology enables visibility to driver behavior,” he observed. “In the past, it was a crash that raised our awareness of an aggressive driver. Now we can [use driver-performance monitoring technology to help us] detect indicators of problematic behavior to enable interventions to remediate the behavior preemptively.”

Osterberg shared specifics about Schneider’s own driver monitoring and management program as well as insights the fleet has gained over time. For example, he said that in a study of the company’s top and bottom performers in terms of miles per gallon “we found a correlation to crash risk: The top 100 drivers in terms of miles per gallon also had a 37% lower accident rate than the poorest drivers in terms of miles per gallon.”

fast results Like Schneider, Dupré takes considerable advantage of the access to data that technology can provide to help enhance safety and the fleet’s bottom line, including tracking crashes, lane change-related accidents, intersection-based events and rollovers, as well as personal injury rates. The company also keeps a sharp eye on leading as well as lagging indicators by driver, such as the number of moving violations a driver is charged with over a given period of time.

LaCombe called his driver-performance management system a “behavior-based performance system,” and noted that there are some 300 data points in the company’s performance modeling tool. “We do root-cause analysis down to the terminal level,” he said. “We believe in stewardship, in everyone taking responsibility for the safety of their team.”

This kind of routine, extremely detailed monitoring and measuring would have been impossible not long ago. The raw data was not there to see, and even if it had been, there were not analytic tools available equal to the task of sorting through it all. Now all that has changed. According to LaCombe and Osterberg, fleets ready to do serious driver performance monitoring and managing could see bottom line results from their efforts “almost immediately.”

Asset Utilization

Access to good data and the ability to analyze it is also helping fleets to improve the bottom line by reducing wasted effort in all its various forms, from out-ofroute miles to under-loaded trucks, from idle equipment to time spent in non-revenue producing tasks. When it comes to asset utilization, Eric Manegold, vice president of business development for commercial vehicles at Zonar Systems, likes to think about what he calls “transactions,” that is all the tasks a truck and driver have to stop to do, and how they might be accomplished faster or deliver more value to the fleet.

“Truck uptime is really huge,” Manegold says, and to help optimize that, he scrutinizes the events that cause downtime. According to Manegold, one such regular event is fueling or stopping for required rest periods.

Thanks to GPS and to technologies like Zonar’s own Z-Con automated fueling solution, fleets can now tell when a driver is stopped at a fueling station, he observes, and that looks like a wasted opportunity. “Why don’t we do service while the truck is at a fueling island?” he asks.

“We could do a very fast, NASCAR-like courtesy vehicle inspection, for instance.” In some instances, a truckstop may be able to address an immediate issue, perhaps preventing a breakdown or CSA violation down the road, and get that truck back on the highway quickly, he points out. “There is an emerging theme out there,” Manegold adds. “People are asking what opportunities are available right now that we could act on. Transaction points are one of those big opportunities.”

At Jump Technologies, CEO John Freund is also looking at ways to speed up certain transactions, in this case for the product delivery business. The company’s JumpTrack offering is a cloud-based, proof-of-delivery application that leverages standard smartphones and tablets (iPhone and Android operating systems) to capture signatures, while allowing customers to check delivery status. The goal is to enable delivery fleets to better utilize their assets, or even to use fewer trucks to make the same number of deliveries, while eliminating paper transactions at the same time.

“Most drivers have cell phones already,” says Freund, “so why not allow them to do more with the technology they already have? The beauty of the smartphone is that it is really affordable and really portable. All the data lives in the cloud, so it is always accessible.

“Everything is going to migrate to smartphones, which are really computers,” he predicts. “I believe that with all my heart. Everything will move there. People want access to everything they need wherever they are. The hardware world is changing to accommodate that. We are in a transition period now.”

Freund is also watching the delivery data created by his system accumulate every day. “Our data set is growing very fast,” he says. “It will be large enough to be of use for things like benchmarking very soon.” One area the company plans to look at is average number of deliveries per day in a given market. That information will help customers to better evaluate their performance as compared to other fleets.

Growing Revenue

The trucking industry is famous for its steady focus on reducing costs and, to a lesser extent, perhaps for its remarkable management of remote assets. Increasing revenues, however, is a subject that just doesn’t get as much public discussion, although that is what everything else drives to—a better bottom line.

TransCore’s DAT Services posts some 68 million loads and trucks every year on its load boards, 45 million of those are posted to DAT first or nowhere else, according to the company. The resulting data set is enormous, current, and now very valuable as a source of information about opportunities for carriers to maximize revenues.

The business began in 1978 with the first load board, and freight matching continues to be the core company function, but analyzing all that data to help carriers make better decisions about pricing and positioning assets is a growing part of the business.

“We have a number of analytical offerings now,” says David Schrader, senior vice president of TransCore. “For example, we provide what we call ‘hot market maps’ to help carriers see where the freight is so they can properly position assets to take advantage of where freight is by type of truck and by season.”

Using Data

We also help carriers understand pricing dynamics,” says Michele Greene. “Prices don’t go up and down uniformly everywhere at the same time. Our Truckload Rate Index shows the going rate on a particular lane. It can help carriers see how they are competing.” (The company has identified 18,000 lanes in the U.S.)

Using sophisticated analytics to help carriers understand the workings of the spot market is what business is now all about. “It used to be that only the larger fleets could do this,” notes Schrader. “We reach the 5- to 50- truck fleets. Technology is a great equalizer. Today, we are more of a publisher/educator. We produce white papers, webinars and other training materials to help fleets,” he says.

“Our mission is putting the data out there,” says Mark Montague, pricing analyst, TransCore. “What we believe is that even companies with a small number of trucks can use our analytic tools to benchmark themselves against their competition to help maximize revenue.” (The data is available at at no charge.)

Access to better data-driven business intelligence appears to be moving the spot market needle. According to the 2011 TransCore survey of more than 600 for-hire trucking companies, owner-operators, and broker-carriers, carriers derived 11% less freight from contracts and repeat business while securing a 20% larger portion of loads on the spot market compared to the prior year’s survey. Spot market rates also rose steadily in the first half of 2011.

For trucking operations of all sizes in every market, the new questions of the hour are increasingly: What data do we have? What business intelligence can we derive from analyzing that data? What can we do now with what we know?

As it turns out, the answers to all these questions are the same: “More than ever imagined.”

About the Author

Wendy Leavitt

Wendy Leavitt joined Fleet Owner in 1998 after serving as editor-in-chief of Trucking Technology magazine for four years.

She began her career in the trucking industry at Kenworth Truck Company in Kirkland, WA where she spent 16 years—the first five years as safety and compliance manager in the engineering department and more than a decade as the company’s manager of advertising and public relations. She has also worked as a book editor, guided authors through the self-publishing process and operated her own marketing and public relations business.

Wendy has a Masters Degree in English and Art History from Western Washington University, where, as a graduate student, she also taught writing.  

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