Keeping in Touch - Part 2
Cuttin the electronic leash
New technologies can free the Internet and e-mail from the phone jack, making them as mobile as the truckers who use them

by Mark H. Reddig, associate editor

At one time in the dim past, truckers who wanted to communicate to anyone outside the cab were limited to hand signals flashed out the windshield and flashing headlights.

The advent of the CB extended that to trucks in the immediate area, but to call home or a dispatcher, the driver had to pull into the nearest truck stop, taking valuable time that could be spent on the road.

The cell phone and the Internet have expanded truckers communications a hundredfold. But both have their limitations, especially the Internet.

The basic problem with early Internet technology for truckers is it tethered them to some kind of land-line connection. The technologies that have really taken off with truckers in the past — CB and cell phone — were wireless, and therefore mobile.

Some companies tried to untether the net early on, mostly using cell phones to transmit Web signals. The results were mixed. Some truckers were perfectly happy with the connection. Others were not.

Now, new technologies are making the Internet and e-mail into the same kind of revolutionary communications method that the CB and cell phone were in the recent past. And as more technologies seemingly come online daily, the sky may well be the limit for truckers who are online.

Out with the not-so-old, in with the new

Even fairly recent technologies like the fax machine face being made obsolete by the Internet.

Mark and Renee Taylor, OOIDA members from Warren, AR, use eFax, an Internet-based service that sends incoming faxes to the customer’s e-mail.

EFax offers a free service, but the number of incoming faxes allowed under that version is very limited. The Taylors use a pay version that costs $13 a month, plus 20 cents for every page received. To use a service like eFax, having some kind of high-speed Internet capability is a must.

Renee Taylor said using one of the eFax programs, Messenger plus, she can fill out forms in the computer, scan, save and add her signature to a document, and send the document as a fax, all on her computer in the truck and without printing off anything.

When she has to scan something into the computer, Renee uses a HP “all-in-one” fax/printer/scanner/copier machine, which uses less space to give her more capabilities — a must in a tightly packed sleeper.

“It’s small enough — it’s just a little old rectangle shape. Mark found it for me at Sam’s Club for $88,” she said. “It does everything.”

It did take Renee a little time and effort to get the software up and running on her computer, but once she accomplished that, she has yet to run into a task she needs it to perform that it cannot.

“It does everything I need it to do,” she said.

Putting the Internet on the air
Mark and Renee Taylor, OOIDA members based in Warren, AR, initially used their cell phone for Internet access. But it was “too slow and too expensive,” Renee said.

Cell phones often run at about 9 Kbps — about 16 percent the speed of an ordinary home dial-up connection, and far slower than cable, DSL or other high-speed connections.

For a time after giving up on the cell and after Park N View disappeared, Renee would “just go into the J and log on.”

That is, until the advent of Wireless Fidelity, or Wi-Fi.

Wi-Fi is a wireless system that allows high-speed net access from any properly equipped computer that is in range of a “hot spot” — such as Flying J truck stops, which offer the service now at their locations across the country. Many truckers have already adopted the new technology, including the Taylors. And it is spreading … fast.

Pilot announced in early December that it would offer the system at its truck stops and travel centers through TruckStop.net. Love’s Travel Stops made a similar announcement a month before, also partnering with TruckStop.net.

Even entire cities are getting in the act. Aiirnet Wireless said recently it would install a citywide Wi-Fi wireless Internet access system in the city of Cerritos, CA. Kansas City, MO, is trying a similar plan. Officials in that Midwest city plan to place a series of hot spots in its downtown area as part of a revitalization plan.

But Wi-Fi is not yet 100 percent reliable. Bob Landsfield of Global Synergies said he has talked with truckers who have had trouble with the system in some locations.

“Wi-Fi can be a little technologically challenging to get it up and running,” Landsfield said. “I get a lot of frustrated calls from guys who have already purchased that technology.”

But Landsfield indicated that might be a “new technology” problem.

“I think they’ll eventually work the bugs out of it,” he said.

From the wireless age to the space age
Even as land-based wireless systems like Wi-Fi are beginning to take off, perhaps the ultimate wireless technology, satellite, is beginning to make inroads in the industry.

Landsfield’s company is one of several in that field. His system offers e-mail, access to some load boards and certain GPS functions. It does not offer full-blown Internet service — but Landsfield says that may well be coming down the road.

It has one very big advantage over Wi-Fi: Unless the truck is under an overpass or in a tunnel, it can receive the service continually from Alaska through South America — essentially making the entire continent a “hot spot.”

The e-mail, Landsfield said, uses an always-on connection — similar to cable and DSL — to transmit messages into standard programs such as Microsoft’s Outlook or Outlook Express.

That link also hooks truckers up to two load-matching sites now: the Internet Truckstop and GetLoaded.com.

The system also contains an embedded GPS receiver that works with mapping software such as PCmiler or Truck Co-Pilot to effectively create an in-cab GPS navigation system.

And while it is not set up to allow load tracking, it can provide that function as well.

“Our GPS tracking is Web-based,” Landsfield said. “Everyone gets their own log-in … so if an owner-operator wanted to give their customers the ability to track their loads, then all they would have to do is just let them log on to that Web site.”

Fleets move farther into the space age
Qualcomm’s OmniTRACS system first appeared in trucks in 1988, when it was installed in 6,000 trucks at Schneider, said Glenn Spangenberg, vice president and general manager of business operations at Qualcomm Wireless Business Solutions.

Since then, more than 2,000 customers have signed up for the company’s system for trucks, Spangenberg said, with roughly 504,000 units in the field.

A number of new features have been added recently, including:

• A forms management system, which stores various forms onboard the truck. Only data is transmitted through the satellite;
• SensorTRACS, a driver performance system that tracks things like idle time, as well as the truck’s speed and other safety-related information;
• JTRACSpro, which connects to the engine’s sensors, monitoring its performance and keeping track of fault codes; 
• CabCard, which enables the driver to send and receive personal e-mail from the cab of the truck;
• FleetAdviser, an automated, paperless DOT log system;

In addition to its satellite version, Qualcomm will soon offer OmniExpress, a “terrestrial-based” system that will work much like the satellite-based OmniTRACS. Instead of space-based satellites, OmniExpress will use cell phone towers equipped with CDMA, a common technology that powers many digital phones the country. It offers “higher speeds to and from the vehicle, and depending on the usage profile, it does offer a cost advantage both in hardware and in the monthly messaging,” Spangenberg said.

But Qualcomm isn’t resting on its OmniTRACS laurels. In addition to its ability to track tractors, it will soon offer the ability to follow the trailer as well. This year, the company plans to introduce TrailerTRACS, which, like the first OmniTRACS, will appear first in Schneider trucks, starting Aug. 1.

Spangenberg said the system detects when a tractor and trailer are connected or disconnected, it tracks the trailer’s position, notifies the fleet when the doors are open or closed, and even tells the fleet how much of the load is still in the trailer. The system’s GPS capability can track the trailer within 10 meters, roughly 30 feet. Fleet managers receive a notification whenever the trailer’s status changes.

That, he said, “gives load planners the ability to more efficiently schedule the usage of the trailers.”

Spangenberg said that using the two systems together, fleet managers can track every single movement of both tractor and trailer as they move from point A to point B.

Within a year or two, he said, Qualcomm also plans to offer its “next-generation” satellite system, which will offer Internet speeds of 600 megabits per second — 200 times faster than the best speed offered by cable modems or DSL.

“It makes Star Trek look like really old stuff,” he said. “We can transmit software upgrades over the air, operating system upgrades over the air, you can broadcast that to all the vehicles in your fleet. ... you could send out on a daily or weekly basis a video of your chairman or of your safety director ... a message to the drivers. You send out books on tape. It’s limitless what you could potentially do with it. It is an amazing technology.”

It all comes down to dollars and cents
Despite the many concerns, the torrent of new technology holds massive promise for making life easier for truckers. But just because the technology is out there doesn’t mean it will magically appear in trucks. And the main reason is the same as always — cost.

When you add together the cost of all the available communications systems, it becomes clear that the cost for a complete package would likely to be more than the average trucker could likely afford.

“I would probably name that as the No. 1 factor whether they will go forward with some type of communications device,” Landsfield said. “They are all very interested, and they see the value of it in their business.”

Some experts indicated it’s a matter of choosing what you can afford and what makes sense for your business.

Mark Reddig can be reached at mark_reddig@landlinemag.com.