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April 29, 2013 9:45 AM, EDT

iTECH: Trailer-Tracking Key Is Device’s Power Source

By Bruce Lilly, Contributing Writer

This story appears in the April/May 2013 issue of iTECH, published in the April 15 print edition of Transport Topics. Click here to subscribe today.

Where is trailer No. 49343? How long has it been there? Is it loaded or empty? When was the door last opened? If it’s a refrigerated trailer, what’s the current temperature inside? Is the reefer unit about to run out of fuel?

This is just the beginning of the list of questions that matter to carriers. Inaccurate data or the complete lack of data on trailers can cost companies thousands of dollars every year.

The gains could be as simple as sending a driver to pick up an empty trailer from a large lot. The driver is given the trailer’s last reported position, but the trailer’s not there. Time is wasted trying to find it and the driver gets frustrated because he’s losing precious on-duty hours while hunting for something he didn’t lose in the first place.

The cost of potential problems goes up from there. Loaded trailers that must be parked temporarily on a lot are vulnerable to theft. Refrigerated cargo can be lost to temperature fluctuations. In each case, the carrier’s liability can be huge.

Sizeable amounts of money can also be lost or gained depending on how well assets are managed. With the right data in hand, carriers can turn trailers faster, improving revenue miles and overall utilization.

Trailer maintenance should be handled on a mileage basis, but without access to trailer mileage data, companies frequently send in trailers for maintenance either too soon or too late, and both alternatives are more costly than sticking to the mileage-based maintenance schedule.

The good news is that there is no shortage of technology companies that can provide carriers with the tools needed to monitor every aspect of trailer status on every trailer in the fleet. The challenge is deciding how much trailer information is the right amount, because there’s a wide spectrum of products available.

Primarily, carriers want position data, which is obtained through a GPS receiver within a small hardware unit installed on the trailer. The location data is transmitted to host servers through a satellite network, a cellular network or the tractor’s mobile communication system, depending on the specific product.

Solid visibility into trailer location solves multiple problems for carriers. “Our customers typically see a 15% or greater reduction in trailer fleet size,” said Henry Popplewell, senior vice president and general manager for SkyBitz, Herndon, Va. “This comes through increased trailer utilization and avoiding misses by drivers not knowing where trailers are located.”

SkyBitz and most other trailer-tracking providers allow customers the option of accessing data through a secure Web portal or through integration with most major trucking management systems, putting trailer positions at the fingertips of dispatchers.

When an empty trailer is needed for a new load, dispatchers can spot the closest trailer and send a driver directly to it, saving fuel and time. Without accurate position data, a driver may be sent many miles in a different direction to fetch an empty trailer when actually there was one only a block away, if one knew it was there.

The key term here is “accurate position data.” Position data is recorded at various time intervals, and not all products work the same. In many cases, the tracking units on the trailers are set to transmit positions every 24 hours if the trailer is parked. Dispatch records routinely show where a trailer was last dropped, which GPS data coming in each day can confirm.

Problems may arise when a trailer gets moved and the new position isn’t recorded in a timely manner. For example, some trailers are parked on huge lots that have hundreds of trailers. If the trailer is moved to a new spot one morning, but the position data doesn’t get updated until 6 p.m., a driver is going to get frustrated when told to look for it in the wrong place that afternoon.

Trailer-tracking products have a variety of ways of solving problems of this sort, but all of the solutions involve more frequent transmission of position data and using up the battery more quickly. Battery power is one of the constraining factors in the technology, and every trailer-tracking vendor has a different way of addressing the problem.

Each company’s approach to supplying power depends on whether or not the application is tethered. Tethered applications draw power from the tractor, while untethered ones never connect to the tractor in any way.

Some companies, such as SkyBitz, play it both ways. “Customers have flexible installation options,” Popplewell said: tethered, which features a rechargeable battery, and untethered, with a long-life replaceable battery.

TrackPoint Systems, Nashville, Tenn., takes a different tack. “Our product is untethered because the industry needs this,” said Alan Smith, TrackPoint president and CEO. “The typical system out there today sends location data once or twice each day and then makes itself unavailable otherwise, in an effort to conserve power. But carriers often need data more frequently. To provide it, you need to have enough power to transmit a signal at any time. We use an integrated solar panel solution to provide that power.”

Some of the technology providers specialize and others offer a wide range of options. The VeriWise line from Asset Intelligence, Plano, Texas, a subsidiary of I.D. Systems Inc., covers dry vans, reefers and intermodal containers.

“One of our advantages is that we have multiple products, depending on what type of asset that a customer wants to track,” said Doug Hoehn, senior vice president of sales for Asset Intelligence. A good example of the benefits that Asset Intelligence customers report is a reduction in load cycle time, enabled by a cargo sensor that can be installed on a trailer or intermodal container.

“In the truckload world today, many carriers must find out from their customers when a trailer is empty,” Hoehn said. “They deliver the load and leave the trailer on site. They don’t know that the trailer is unloaded until that customer does a yard check and sends them information. We’ve found that we’re able to save carriers, on average, 18 hours in the load cycle by using our cargo sensor to notify them that the trailer has been unloaded.”

Cargo sensing is only one example of the data that trailer-tracking units can provide. Sensors can track temperature, humidity and door activity. GPS data can be used to enable geofencing, track trailer mileage and record the beginning and end of trips.

The type and quality of data is a focal point for the FleetLocate products from Spireon, based in Knoxville, Tenn. “Rich data is a differentiator for us,” said Roni Taylor, Spireon’s vice president of product management. “We capture mileage for the trailer on a second-by-second basis. We’re sampling GPS data every second, so we get turn-by-turn exact mileage, as opposed to getting estimated mileage based on start and stop locations. Customers are telling us that this rich data provides them with much more actionable intelligence.”

Every trailer-tracking provider provides ways to turn data into actionable information through reporting and analytics. For example, TrackPoint reporting options include charts with a full range of trailer data and maps that zoom out to show the entire fleet at once or zoom in to show the detailed location of a single trailer.

Spireon offers a variety of reports, including landmark inventories, utilization summaries and trailer histories. “If you want to know where a particular trailer has been for the month of February, you can put the trailer number in and put February 1 to February 28, and you’ll get a complete trailer history of exactly every move that trailer made over those 28 days,” said Taylor.

Qualcomm, San Diego, has trailer-tracking products that can be used alone or in conjunction with its mobile communications system. This produces a unique reporting capability in which data on both the trailer and the tractor can be transmitted. There are times when carriers use trailers belonging to the shipper. In these cases, the shipper can track the trailer, even though it is being pulled by another company’s tractor.

Jeff Griswold, senior product manager at Qualcomm, pointed out that this “end-to-end management” of the assets also brings benefits to the carrier. “The carrier is typically responsible for the integrity of the load while it is in his possession, and he can monitor the trailer even though he did not purchase the trailer-tracking device installed on it,” Griswold said.

Trailer-tracking technology today can capture and transmit an amazing array of information, but according to Alan Smith of TrackPoint, more advances are coming. “Shippers are asking for quicker, faster response times,” Smith said. “That means that availability of equipment is huge for carriers. You have to go electronic or you’re just not going to keep up. The smart-trailer technology is really beginning to explode.”