Opinion: Transportation Tech’s Shift to Open Systems

This Opinion piece appears in the June 4 print edition of Transport Topics. Click here to subscribe today.

By Bill Presler
Senior Business Development Manager
Panasonic Computer Solutions Co.

Until recently, limited options made it difficult for fleet operators to gather information on their mobile assets. Proprietary in-cab systems, which have not been known for low cost or flexibility, combined with satellite data service, were all that was available.

Unfortunately, these proprietary systems, or “solutions” — the current label for any sort of technology packaged and designed to solve a specific problem — tend to have limited functionality. They might do a couple of tasks well, but that’s it.

It’s unlikely that a solution used to monitor driving characteristics, for example, could also be used for scheduling, mapping/navigation, transmitting signed invoices, dispatch-to-driver communications, Internet access, e-mail, vehicle location and proof of delivery.

From an information technology perspective, the results are multiple solutions designed to address the many needs of today’s modern fleets — and managing multiple systems can be a headache.

This dependency on proprietary systems is an indicator of a market in the early stages of technology adoption. Thankfully, I believe this situation is about to change. Simple solutions — such as laptop computers and 3G (third-generation) wireless technologies — are driving down costs and radically increasing the level of data that can be shared between a truck and the main office. In a world where competition is stiff, access to data that can drive efficiencies and allow for more efficient use of resources is vital.

By using a laptop computer, fleets soon will be able to run the numerous proprietary systems they have — or want to have — on a single, familiar device. Your IT manager will have a much less complicated life, and, given that you will be using off-the-shelf technologies, you’ll be able to do more with less. Ultimately, the truck will become a node on the

One of the other key issues relating to onboard computing has been the speed at which data can be transmitted and received. Satellite communication, the only option available for many years, is unable to cost-effectively deliver results. Some current satellite systems offer data-transfer speeds akin to the slow dial-up modems we used in the early stages of the Internet. In a data-driven era, it’s hard to believe we still accept these numbers. (This article alone could easily absorb a sizeable chunk of a month’s satellite data exchange.)

When you’re restricted to such a “thin pipe” or your service provider charges by the kilobyte, you are forced to limit your ability to gather logistical insight.

Fortunately, the new 3G broadband wireless networks from major cellular service providers make this issue a thing of the past. Affordable and fast, these “fat pipes” allow your vehicles to transmit any number of details without limit.

Combine 3G with the ubiquitous Windows-based system and you’ve got a recipe for success. A relatively inexpensive wireless solution allows for significant data transfer supporting the most robust fleet management applications: GPS, Internet, e-mail, instant messaging and more.

For a good example of wireless use in the field, one need look no further than FedEx and UPS. They move millions of packages every day, and customers are able to track the progress of their shipments every step of the way. But it isn’t the size of their air and ground fleets that make this entirely possible — it’s their logistical communication capabilities.

Trucks outfitted with laptops could play a role in addressing the driver turnover issue. Creating an environment that allows drivers to check e-mail easily or surf the Internet for news could be a compelling benefit.

The growing number of truck-stop “hotspots” offering Wi-Fi (wireless) service is a clear indication that drivers already are familiar with laptops. And when it comes to operating systems, one can safely assume the vast majority of drivers are running Windows. So when a fleet wants to deploy new technology and assure a high adoption rate, it makes sense to go with something with which the operator already is familiar.

With all the shocks, vibrations and liquid spills that can happen in a cab, life is rough on anything. Just look at how much research and development is spent on comfortable driver seats. Because of this demanding environment, fleets will need to look for a rugged laptop tested to the government’s MIL-STD 810F specifications. They are more expensive, but they are built for industries such as trucking that demand uptime and reliability.

Your goal is to create an operation that offers the greatest customer experience possible and, at the same time, provides the greatest operational experience through cost reductions, increased productivity and ease of management. Start with a rugged computer, work with the right vendors to create a customized solution that fits your specific needs and connect it to your network via a 3G service. You’ll enjoy the increased efficiencies, and your IT manager will, too.

Panasonic Computer Solutions Co., Secaucus, N.J., is a provider of severe-service laptop computers.