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May 24, 2010 3:30 AM, EDT

Federal Regulations Shape Technology Choices for Fleets and Design Decisions By Vendors

By Dan Leone, Staff Reporter

This story appears in the May 24 print edition of Transport Topics.

At a time when trucking has its pick of more communications options than ever, an increasing number of federal regulations has influenced not only when carriers adopt technology but also what technology they invest in.

New — and pending — regulations are driving carriers to adopt new technologies and also are influencing technology vendors’ design choices, including the type of hardware these companies will support and the medium they choose for delivering messages to and from drivers.

Drivers “don’t need to be sitting there poking messages into a keyboard to get management up to speed,” said Eric Witty, a business analyst at Xata Corp., Eden Prairie, Minn. “The era of 100% driver interaction, that’s in the past now. Hours of service, delivery status, position updates: These are things the system is capable of calculating and automatically communicating.”

The Department of Transportation’s crackdown on distracted driving already has spawned a proposal to ban text messaging in commercial vehicles. It also is changing customers’ customization requests.

“We have always had as an option the ability to lock down a display” when a truck is moving, said Brian McLaughlin, chief operating officer of PeopleNet, Minnetonka, Minn. “With all the new regulations, use of that capability has gone through the roof. Adoption of the lockdown feature has gone up above 80%,” compared with 30% to 40% in the past.

DOT’s actions have put cellular phones directly in regulators’ cross hairs, even as those devices have become capable of far more business functions than just voice communication.

Asked about the possibility of a phone-based offering, McLaughlin said that, while he would “never say never,” the company is “not heading in that direction.”

“Is a cell phone the best way to communicate? We firmly believe that it’s not, for this industry,” said McLaughlin, who categorized cell phones as “a cheap, short-term solution.”

PeopleNet’s flagship communications hardware, an onboard computer called BLU, uses a graphical display and a touch screen.

Drayage hauler C&K Trucking, Chicago Ridge, Ill., relied on traditional cell phones for years before management began considering other options. But in the end, the company’s CEO decided not to abandon phone-based communication, after all.

“We went with BlackBerrys,” said Mike Burton, CEO of C&K. Research in Motion’s BlackBerry is one of an increasing number of so-called “smart phones,” devices that mimic computer functions with reservoirs of data storage, Internet browsers and full alpha-numeric keypads.

The BlackBerry is only one part of C&K’s new communications package.

The carrier also adopted Xata Turnpike last year. The system attempts to duplicate the functionality of traditional mobile communications system — like those marketed by Qualcomm Inc., PeopleNet and Turnpike parent Xata Corp. — while offering fleets a broad choice of hardware configurations. RIM’s BlackBerry is one of several smart phones that are compatible with Turnpike.

Burton said concern about pending federal regulation played the biggest role in the company’s selection of Xata Turnpike.

“One of the big reasons . . . was electronic onboard recording,” said Burton. “That’ll save us reviewing 11,000 paper logs a month. More importantly, the dispatchers see the hours before they dispatch a driver.”

Although the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s EOBR rule will not require every U.S. carrier to use the device, some trucking firms — including C&K — believe that it is only a matter of time before the devices become ubiquitous in the industry.

FMCSA does consider Xata Turnpike a compliant EOBR, but it remains unclear whether the system could run afoul of the government’s proposed ban on texting while driving, which would forbid commercial drivers from sending, receiving or reading text messages while in motion.

There are exemptions for certain electronic devices but no official word, so far, on which devices — or combination of devices — fall into which category.

For example, “there’s not a formal definition” of “in-cab fleet management systems” in the texting ban, said David Kraft, director of government affairs for Qualcomm Enterprise Services.

Consequently, there is currently no distinction at the federal level between a mobile communications system that uses onboard computers for its display — as systems marketed by Qualcomm, PeopleNet and Xata do — and systems that use a cellular phone for display.

Asked whether a phone-based mobile communication system would be considered a fleet-management system, a cellular phone or a multifunction device, an FMCSA spokesman said only that the proposed rule might be tweaked after the public comment period.

“We are continuing to seek, and will continue to accept, comments on the proposed rulemaking on limiting the use of wireless communications devices,” FMCSA spokesman Duane DeBruyne said.

At least at this early stage in the rulemaking process, regulatory focus on cell phones has hardened the resolve of some vendors to stick with traditional mobile communications hardware and leave cell phones out of their product portfolios entirely.

For Qualcomm, dedicated onboard computers, which more closely resemble laptops than phones, remain the centerpiece of its newest communications systems.

Since 2006, the company has offered a full-color touch screen, though it still sells factory-refurbished versions of its oldest computer, the text-based OmniTracs. Since OmniTracs, Qualcomm hardware has emphasized image-based driver prompts over text-based alerts.

Besides a full-color screen, Qualcomm has loaded its newest hardware with text-to-speech software to keep drivers’ hands on the wheel and away from keyboards.

The chief information officer of one truckload carrier said that such “improvements” hastened his company’s decision to upgrade its old OmniTracs system — a text-based system that lacks a graphical user interface, satellite navigation support and the latest HOS recording software.

Transport America, Eagan, Minn., had “been running OmniTracs since the beginning of time,” said Tom Benusa, the company’s chief information officer.

Executives started brainstorming on requirements for new onboard systems three years ago and settled earlier this year on the Qualcomm’s latest hardware, the MCP200, Benusa said.

Of all the MCP200’s features, a Qualcomm executive drew special attention to the graphical interface, which she said is critical to cutting down on potentially distracting textual exchanges.

Moving away from a text-based communication tool means “everything that was a macro can be turned into something graphical,” said Chris Silver, senior product manager for Qualcomm Enterprise Services.

A “macro” is a canned message stored in a computer. A driver might send one message when he picks up a load, another when he drops it off and still another when he has to notify his dispatcher that he’s running short on hours.

However, drivers have to scroll manually through a text-based menu to locate and send the appropriate macro back to their dispatchers.

Qualcomm’s MCP computers, on the other hand, use position updates and an EOBR to accomplish the same exchange of information automatically.

As a result, instead of scrolling through macros and selecting the correct message, a driver receives a visual prompt — accompanied by as little text as possible — that can be acknowledged with a single button press.

If a driver fails to acknowledge that his hours are running out or that he has completed a delivery, his onboard computer will alert his dispatcher automatically.

Such functionality — whereby the computer itself issues alerts to a dispatcher — is common across manufacturers and platforms.