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March 17, 2008 7:50 AM, EDT

Trucking Industry Moves From Proprietary Hardware to Open-Systems Approach

By Dan Leone, Staff Reporter
This story appears in the March 17 print edition of Transport Topics.
Historically, trucking companies have relied on information technology systems — both in the cab and in the office — that run proprietary software on proprietary hardware, effectively making it impossible for one manufacturer’s system to access data gathered by another service.
Today, many trucking technology providers — such as San Diego’s Qualcomm Inc., a one-time champion of proprietary information systems — are embracing the move to an open environment.
“Historically, [Qualcomm] and many other [companies] have had proprietary systems that we’ve built through the years, and while they were quite successful, what they didn’t allow us to do was to interoperate with other devices,” said Norm Ellis, the company’s vice president and general manager of transportation and logistics.
Broadly, an “open-systems” IT model refers to computer systems, peripherals and software that offer some degree of interoperability with other systems — potentially even those made by competing manufacturers.
In language more specific to trucking, the technology allows dispatchers to funnel vehicle data, such as fuel efficiency or hard-braking events, into a single dispatch software application — even if not all of a fleet’s trucks  are using the same onboard hardware systems.
Today, Qualcomm’s systems interface with more than 30 software and application providers, allowing fleet customers access to fuel-tax reporting, in-cab navigation, and back-office management software created by third-party developers.
“We’re always looking for new partners,” said Michael Hein, Qualcomm’s director of technical support, at a breakout session on data inte-gration held during the company’s 2008 user conference last month in an Diego.
“If you’re doing business with someone, and they’re not integrated with us yet, tell them to give us a call,” Hein said.
Qualcomm’s competitors in the mobile communications field are just as quick to point out the importance of the open-systems model.
“You’ve got to be able to integrate,” said Jim Griffin, vice president of research and development for XATA Corp. “You can’t be everything to all people.”
XATA, based in Minneapolis, has been in the trucking technology business since the mid-1980s. Like Qualcomm, the company’s initial offerings consisted of truck-mounted proprietary telematics boxes that gathered operational data and made it available only on XATA’s own software applications.
But in recent years, “the maturity of the hardware and the demands of the system have driven us more toward an open architecture ap-proach,” Griffin said.
Griffin explained that open-systems models hinge on the availability of application programming interfaces — “APIs” in industry jargon.
A software developer in possession of the API for a certain computer operating system can write an application that will be capable of communicating with that operating system.
In practical terms, the free availability of APIs allows a software developer to write, for example, a fuel-tax-reporting program that automatically can fill in fuel-tax forms using data gathered by a truck’s mobile communications unit.
From a driver’s point of view, the proliferation of the open-systems model among technology providers means fewer devices on the dashboard and, consequently, fewer distractions while driving.
Griffin said the increasing abundance of interoperable devices and systems means “customers are beginning to ask, ‘Why do I need two radio systems or two data plans? Why do I need the driver to interface with two devices?’ ”
Likewise, the marketing chief at PeopleNet, a Chaska, Minn., mo-bile communications provider, noted the importance of keeping onboard computers accessible to third-party developers.
“It’s important that you have that flexibility in your systems, so third parties can put software on your device,” said Glenn Williams, PeopleNet’s director of marketing.
PeopleNet’s flagship BLU system supports offerings from a number of outside technology vendors, including mapping and routing software from Princeton, N.J.-based ALK Technologies and navigation software from Maptuit Corp.
“As PeopleNet moves forward, we’re partnering with more and more third-party vendors,” Wil-liams said.
While the increasing proliferation of open-systems models allows in-cab hardware and onboard data-collection systems to integrate more seamlessly, some of the most extensive interfacing occurs with back-office software programs.
“Back in the IT shop [at the home office], there’s been a little bit more compatibility or interoperability with the core systems even than there has taken place with the cab of the truck,” said Tom McLeod, president of Mc-Leod Software, which is based in Birmingham, Ala.
McLeod said this was because office computers are almost always more robust in their capabilities than systems used onboard a truck.
McLeod’s flagship application, LoadMaster, was written in a programming language called Java, which McLeod said is crucial to the application’s ability to interface with so many third-party vendors.
LoadMaster provides a trucking company’s office personnel with automated dispatch, operations and accounting functions.
In particular, the Java language allows McLeod’s software products to function on operating systems widely used by trucking companies for IT applications, including Microsoft’s Windows, IBM’s AS/400 and Unix. Moreover, the Java language is supported by several major database systems, including Microsoft’s SQL and Oracle Corp.’s Oracle system.
A database system is where information collected by telematics boxes and onboard computers is stored. Software applications must be compatible with a particular database in order to retrieve the information stored there.
McLeod said LoadMaster integrates with approximately eight mobile communications providers, including Qualcomm, PeopleNet and GeoLogic — which recently was acquired by XATA.
LoadMaster also interfaces with trailer-tracking systems from competing vendors Qualcomm, GE Trailer Fleet Services, Trans-core and SkyBitz, allowing fleet managers using any of those platforms for asset tracking to view trailer location data through McLeod’s software.
Roni Taylor, an executive vice president with SkyBitz, offered an example: “If a customer has PeopleNet in the cab and SkyBitz on the trailer, they can see all the data in their McLeod system, and they don’t have to go to PeopleNet or SkyBitz on the Web.”
Taylor said SkyBitz, Sterling, Va., has installed its trailer-tracking systems on about 150,000 trailers across 500 U.S. trucking fleets.
Software providers that want to make use of the data gathered by SkyBitz’s tracking systems can do so thanks to the XML-based feed the company provides.
XML — extensible markup language — is used by IT developers to create “markup languages,” which describe how the contents of a virtual document should appear to an end user. Because any developer can make use of XML freely, and because the XML documents can be easily transmitted via the Internet, the standard is useful for sharing data between different IT systems.
“The market is definitely going towards more and more integration,” Taylor said.