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July 11, 2011 6:00 AM, EDT

More Carriers Employing New Technologies as Shippers Demand Real-Time Cargo Tracking

By Eric R. Brothers, Special to Transport Topics

This story appears in the July 11 print edition of Transport Topics.

Many carriers are finding it necessary to provide shippers with real-time tracking for their loads if they want to retain valued customers,  several trucking and software company executives have said.

For example, Central Freight Lines Inc., a less-than-truckload carrier based in Waco, Texas, uses the mobile version of Cheetah Freight — developed by Cheetah Software Systems Inc. — which  allows drivers to communicate with a dispatcher via text messages.

“We have between 800 to 900 city drivers who deliver about 5,500 to 6,500 shipments every day and make an equal number of pickups,” said Mark Stein, Central Freight’s director of operations services. “Our customers are expecting more and more real-time data, and as that continues, having products like this gives a carrier a competitive advantage.”

Cheetah Freight uses GPS-enabled phones and PDAs to schedule, route and track shipments. Arrival, unloading and departure are recorded with one-button, menu-driven confirmations. A brief note on the physical status of the shipment — whether it was delivered short, damaged or clear — is entered by keypad.

“All of the data is time-stamped, so when a customer calls we can give that data down to the second, as to when a transaction occurred and with whom,” Stein said.

Don Hummer Trucking, Oxford, Iowa, operates 170 tractors and 285 dry vans and refrigerated trailers nationwide, primarily hauling food products. The company uses McLeod Software Corp.’s LoadMaster Enterprise product, which has an Internet application for load tracking.

“The Internet module integrates with our base software and the mobile GPS tracking on our trucks. A customer can . . . log in [to our website] and can see only its shipments,” said Chris Hummer, the carrier’s vice president.

Customers can search by a variety of terms: bill of lading numbers, truck or trailer numbers, or delivery dates. The search will bring up current position, actual arrival and departure times, he said.

“Customers can bring up a breadcrumb-trail map of the truck as it progresses with their shipment. The tracking is automatic,” Hummer said, adding that the arrival and departure are visible online in real time.

Having the tracking ability is a marketing tool.

“Being a smaller fleet, it differentiates us a bit. I don’t think there are a lot of smaller fleets that offer load tracking,” Hummer said.

He also said it helps improve service, because customers aren’t waiting for an e-mail or a call to be returned.

“If they want to track a shipment on a Saturday, they can do that easily. It’s a customer-convenience feature,” Hummer said.

Meanwhile, with TMW Systems’ TruckMate product, a loading dock worker can use a handheld device to scan the door number of a trailer or scan the bar code number of the order.

“That triggers a status update in the system that the order has been loaded and gives the location,” said Lee Hamilton, vice president of development for TruckMate products at TMW. “Each action logs an entry into the status history for that particular shipment, and that leaves a trail of where that shipment has been.”

Trucking and warehousing firm The Magnum Cos., Fargo, N.D., uses a total 400 power units and 800 trailers. Matthew Gadberry, director of operations, uses TruckMate to communicate to less-than-truckload customers directly via e-mail on the status of their freight.

“With TruckMate, we can program for a message to be sent to a customer when a certain event happens, such as when the truck is approaching or has arrived — as determined by geofencing — or when the driver reports a load has been delivered,” Gadberry said. “We pick out what we want sent, and when certain criteria are met, the system automatically sends a message.”

That same information also can be made available online with TruckMate for Web.

“When you provide customers with access to information, it gives them a sense of comfort knowing where their freight is — and comfort with us as their carrier,” Gadberry said.

Meanwhile, Hummer said he sees other benefits.

“Our back office can be more proactive in seeking new business, rather than spending time reacting to customer requests for information and having to look it up and provide it manually,” he explained.

Robin Hamlin, project development manager for Birmingham, Ala.-based McLeod, said her focus is small- and medium-sized fleets — those with fewer than 100 units and up to 500 units.

“Carriers using our dispatch software can provide access to their customers so they can see the status of their load via a login and password on the carrier’s website,” she said. “We see more customers buying the Internet module to provide this service — instead of tying up dispatchers handling phone calls from shippers or sending them e-mails.”

At Central Freight Lines, using the Cheetah software allows the fleets to send out automatic text messages to a shipper, receiver or third party after a status change, such as proof of pickup or delivery, Stein said.

Having this level of knowledge has allowed the company’s dispatchers to fine-tune routing to reduce drive time, fuel expense and driver hours, Stein said. He added that the result has been a 7% increase in productivity, a 5% to 10% decrease in miles per stop and reduced fuel costs.

Further savings have resulted from consolidating dispatch. The software allows Central Freight to combine dispatch operations from two or three terminals into one location.

“Now, one dispatcher who handled 15 to 20 drivers can handle the workload of 30 to 35 drivers easily,” Stein said. “We went from 60 to 65 dispatch locations down to 40, but with all the same coverage as before.”

Cheetah Software’s application used GPS-enabled phones and PDAs to schedule, route and track drivers and shipments.

At the pallet or package level, there are options for tracking by means of radio-frequency identification labels or the application of bar codes that can be scanned by handheld devices. These methods produce a record of when a load joins the trailer and when it leaves. The data provide proof of delivery, or a missed or mistaken delivery.

These products generally require the shipper to supply the devices or labels to be read because carriers have been reluctant to absorb the costs of providing these systems.

However, load tracking still can  be accomplished by extending the ability to track a hard asset such as tractor or trailer to the driver responsible for the load. Load-status information automatically reported to the back office from the vehicle is augmented by the driver’s keying information into an in-cab device.

The growing popularity of GPS-enabled smart phones, tablets and other mobile devices also makes them a conduit for tracking information independent of the vehicle. Some software providers are working on dedicated mobile applications, but simple Web-browser capability on smart devices may suffice.

An executive at PeopleNet Communications Corp., a provider of integrated onboard computing and mobile communications systems, said the company helps with the integration and customization of communications solutions for a number of dispatch software and service providers.

PeopleNet Vice President Randy Boyles said that information such as GPS-derived vehicle location, time, date and other data provides an electronic bread-crumb trail that can be plotted as a route on a map via back-office software.

Communications from in-cab or trailer to the back office can include electronic driver logs, arrival and departure alerts, text messaging, out-of-route alerts — and all can indirectly provide information on load status, Boyles said.

Software makers are tapping into drivers’ workflow issues, such as which route is being used to make deliveries. In many cases, the software companies said, they can streamline that workflow to make deliveries more efficient.

Boyles said the PeopleNet workflow application — usually a graphical user interface typically on an in-cab device — has menu items that make it easy for drivers to click through or to fill in text fields. The added information allows individual loads to be tracked from pick-up to delivery.

The workflow menu directs the driver through the steps so nothing is overlooked, and “the driver can focus on driving safely and not being worried about how to use the device,” he said, adding that the workflow also can be customized to the way an individual company operates.

Load tracking need not be limited to vehicles or even drivers. TransCore offers software solutions to non-asset-based brokerages and third-party logistics providers.

Steve Blair, the general manager for the company’s Keypoint transportation management system software, said that these customers want the option of load tracking because their customers want it.

“It’s also useful as a sales tool, as part of a suite of services that can be offered, which includes 24/7 load tracking. It’s something people like to see,” Blair said.

Load tracking is just part of a complete management system the company makes for brokers that includes operations and accounting functions.

“We do the tracking as a turnkey piece,” Blair said. “You just add a button to your website that says ‘track your freight’ and then we take it from there. It’s all integrated into our system.”

Ryan Barnett, market analyst for Xata Corp., said his company’s products use a network of proof-of-delivery partners utilizing applications on mobile communication devices. The system, which focuses more on where and when a crate got on a truck and it was removed, work off the company’s XataNet and Turnpike platforms.

In the case of Turnpike, Xata provides hardware that is placed on the truck, Barnett said. The platform uses Bluetooth technology to communicate truck-related data with cell phones. Hours-of-service and GPS data are passed from Turnpike to proof of delivery partners, enabling their application with critical truck and driver information, he said.

Barnett said Xata partners with software providers AirClic Inc., Apacheta Corp., Agentek Inc., Cheetah, SAE, Descartes Systems Group and Blackbay.

Qualcomm Inc. provides trailer-tracking capabilities though its Q-Tracs service, a company-hosted website that includes the ability to display vehicle locations with proximity to nearest cities and to display current and historical locations on scalable maps. According the company, this enables third-party visibility to status and position information.

The service is available with the Qualcomm’s mobile communications products — the MCP200 and MCP100 — and OmniTRACS mobile information system, the company said.

Virginia Albanese, president of FedEx Custom Critical, said in a Qualcomm press release: “We chose Qualcomm because MCP200 is an innovative platform with services such as audio and print content delivery, in-cab education and Wi-Fi connectivity, which helps us to better communicate with our owner operators and improve our customer experience.”

While it’s more common, load tracking does not have to be based on text messages. At least one company offers visual load tracking.

USCAMCORP, Las Vegas, said it provides remote visibility beyond GPS tracking with a live, streaming video view of cargo and drivers.

The company said its Web-based product includes options for audio, video trip recorder with time and date stamping, as well as vehicle monitoring with maintenance alerts.

The company said the type of freight determines the need for load tracking — or rather, carriers’ desire to offer it.

A tech company executive shared similar feelings.

“Right now, load tracking is done where it makes sense economically, in niche markets that can charge for it,” said PeopleNet’s Boyles.

He cited as examples carriers of high-value loads such as electronics, alcohol and cigarettes, as well as pharmaceuticals and perishables that require temperature tracking, or where proof is needed that no tampering took place.

Boyles said he has not seen a lot of mainstream haulers offering this type of tracking yet. But consumer demand, paired with advances in affordable smart phone and tablet communications technology, will likely push more carriers to consider it, he said.