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March 1, 2017 2:00 PM, EST
Omnitracs Plans Role in Industry Move Toward Self-Driving Trucks, Drones, Wearable Tech
Seth Clevenger/TT

PHOENIX — The transportation industry is accelerating toward a future shaped by autonomous trucks, platooning, drones, same-day delivery, wearable technology for drivers and the continued proliferation of the Internet of things, Omnitracs told a gathering of fleet customers here.

The trucking technology supplier charted out its vision for how it will participate in that emerging landscape during its annual user conference, held Feb. 26 through March 1.

“You’re seeing the future of our industry evolving in front of our eyes,” said CEO John Graham, who pointed to recent demonstrations of self-driving trucks and delivery drones as examples of this movement.

“Our technologies and innovations should plug into this future vision,” he said.

Autonomous trucks, for example, will still rely on telematics, connectivity and routing and dispatch software — all part of Omnitracs’ core business today.

Meanwhile, aerial drones have the potential to “change the game” in local, last-mile delivery, an area where many Omnitracs customers are looking to expand, Graham said.

Today, Omnitracs provides urban routing software not only for trucks, but also for people delivering groceries up multiple floors of high-rises in New York City, said Kevin Haugh, chief strategy and product officer. The possibility of adapting that 3-D routing capability to delivery drones is “not that far-fetched at all,” he said.

Omnitracs is also exploring opportunities to utilize data collected by sensor-equipped wearable technology, such as fatigue-monitoring headwear from SmartCap and smart shirts from NTT Data designed to track heart rate.

Haugh said Omnitracs has been prototyping its own wearable applications over the past year or so.

Wearable technology hasn’t caught fire yet, “but it will,” he said. “It’s an important area that we need to continue to look at.”

As the industry debates when or if these technology-driven changes will occur, many of them — or components of them — are happening today, Graham said.

While the far vision might be autonomous vehicles, the near term will bring capabilities such as platooning, which enables a pair of trucks to travel in a tighter, more fuel-efficient formation by wirelessly synchronizing their braking.

Two weeks earlier, Omnitracs announced a partnership with Peloton Technologies, which plans to begin rolling out its driver-assist platooning system later this year.

Through that agreement, Omnitracs will use its dispatch, routing and navigation technology to help identify and facilitate more opportunities for trucks to form platoons, including trucks from different fleets.

Another trend that is here today — and poised to expand in the future — is the Internet of things and the introduction of more and more sensors in and around the vehicle.

“It’s really creating a smart environment around the truck,” Graham said.

The federal government’s long-awaited electronic logging device mandate is nearly here as well, with the Dec. 18 compliance date now less than nine months away.

Meanwhile, companies such as Amazon are fundamentally changing the supply chain and customer expectations with the move toward same-day delivery, Graham said.

Futurist and innovation expert Jim Carroll also painted a picture of rapid change in the coming years.

He said trucking is experiencing a “stunning acceleration of innovation” that parallels what is happening in many other industries.

“The speed of change is no longer dictated just by trucking companies and manufacturers of trucks,” he said. “It’s being dictated by technology companies.”

Soon, fleets may introduce augmented reality screens with heads-up display, payment technology embedded into the dashboard, real-time monitoring of driver health and robotic handlers built into trucking infrastructure, Carroll predicted.

“We are going to do things in different ways, he said. “We are going to develop a different type of vehicle. We’re going to have a different type of distribution method. We are going to accelerate the rate of autonomous technology in the vehicle.”

Trevor Fridfinnson, chief operating officer at Bison Transport, said the advance of technology in trucking is “tremendously exciting” but sees it as a way to support rather than replace the driver.

“We see the driver as a key element to the business for the foreseeable future,” he said. “We are going to use technology to enhance their performance and quality of life.”

Jordan Copeland, manager of operations planning at Dayton Freight Lines, said his fleet sees increasingly advanced driver-assist technology as part of its future as well. The carrier is investing in current active safety systems such as forward collision mitigation, he said.

Most attendees seemed to agree that change is coming quickly to transportation.

“There’s so much going on, so fast,” said Jim Novak, director of transportation at Eby-Brown Co., a convenience store supplier. “Who really knows what the future holds? All I know is it will be an exciting, wild ride, for sure.”