The ability and systems to track trailers has been around for about 10 years. During those years, a number of things have occurred that have made trailer-tracking, or asset-tracking, more widely accepted and of greater value in our industry.
When trailer-tracking systems were first introduced, initial cost of the systems was a concern for some fleets, but those that purchased the systems quickly learned that there was a good return on their investment. Citing the reclaiming of stolen trailers and their assets, which trailer tracking facilitated, was an initial area of significant savings for those fleets that had purchased the technology. Other benefits, like knowing the position of loads and trailers with a high degree of accuracy, quickly proved valuable.
Recently, more business process opportunities using trailer-tracking systems have been leveraged, due in part to their utilization by large private fleets that are seeking to increase delivery efficiencies and by other large- to medium-sized fleets that are seeing the importance of trailer tracking as a way to stay competitive.
According to Todd Felker, vice president of marketing for Terion Inc., an industry norm is three or more trailers in a fleet for every tractor. He notes that finding available trailers can be a challenge. Using a trailer-tracking device provides asset visibility and increases fleet efficiencies. Felker says, “Fleets know the importance of finding available trailers. They don’t want to send drivers to the wrong trailer; they want drivers to go to the closest trailer and the one that is ready for them. Our system allows fleets to run an algorithm, determine the status of the closest trailer, locate that trailer and direct the driver to it. One of our customers reports that it is projecting a $1 million fuel savings this year based on this one feature alone.”
Trailer tracking also can provide the ability to prevent or correct a mis-direct of a trailer pickup. Felker notes that some fleets can have as many as 10 trailers loaded and ready for tractors at one terminal, so making sure the right load goes with the right driver is an important time saver.
“Our device compares tractor to trailer ID and sends an alert signal if a mis-direct occurs,” he says. “Another benefit for fleets is fewer trailers. Rather than a four-to-one ratio of trailers to tractors, fleets can keep three or fewer trailers for one tractor, which saves the cost of the purchase and maintenance of extra trailers.”
Tracking software, which can be customized to turn data into valuable operational management information, also has evolved over the years. Customers can define the type and level of data they wish to receive. In addition, the software can easily be integrated with dispatch software and other fleet systems for optimum visibility of trailers and loads as well as providing up-to-date information on deliveries, which can be billed within hours of arrival versus days.
Programmed system hardware picks up and records information on a variety of incidents as requested by the fleets. Devices such as cargo sensors, which, in the case of Terion, are ultrasonic and measure the entire length of the trailer, detect when a trailer is loaded and ready for booking or empty and ready for pick up.
Felker notes that a fleet’s return on investment (ROI) includes finding trailers more quickly, which reduces fuel costs and increases utilization by finding unloaded trailers, and also reduces the need to purchase more trailers. In addition, Felker says that these days, with driver retention an issue, making drivers’ lives easier by not requiring that they search for empty trailers is a definite plus.
“In the early 2000s, J.B. Hunt purchased our system and was willing to talk about the benefits of trailer/asset tracking,” Felker says. “When a major fleet talks about the advantages of a new technology, other leading trucking companies come onboard, and eventually, the adoption of the system moves down to small fleets.”
Focus on productivity
“The trailer/asset tracking industry is still really in its infancy,” says John Hinmon, VeriWise product manager for GE Trailer Fleet Services. “It is still developing and growing. About five or six years ago, the fleets that purchased the systems were looking to recover lost or stolen trailers, but that has changed today to a focus on productivity, which includes a focus on how fleets use the data from the tracking system ‘black box’ and maximize the information it provides.”
GE also offers its customers an array of trailer lifecycle services, such as maintenance, remarketing and financing. As such, when tracking-related data uncovers a need to make a productivity decision regarding asset deployment or disposition, GE can easily help with that, as well.
Hinmon suggests that fleets are, first of all, using the technology to locate and keep tabs on idle assets, which means they are better able to minimize the tractor-to-trailer ratio and cut capital costs. Fleets with higher asset utilization rates can also save money on maintenance, as there are fewer trailers in the mix. The ability to provide delivery notification using geofencing is another key component of trailer tracking, as is the ability to turn assets faster at the dock, which saves driver time. It also reduces detention time. According to Hinmon, there have been incidences of some warehouses giving preference to fleets that have trailer tracking to avoid detention charges.
Other areas where productivity is increased with trailer tracking is yard management, which means trailers can be located and their status recorded electronically rather than having the information gathered and recorded manually. This provides a time savings as well as an increase in accuracy. Information can quickly be passed on to dispatch, where dispatchers can locate empty trailers faster and get them on the road earning revenue.
“We’re seeing an increased need for software to integrate with enterprise resource planning (ERP) providers (TMW Systems, McCloud Software and Maddocks Systems Inc.),” says Hinmon. It’s a natural marriage, since ERP companies offer multi-module application software that integrates many levels of software for operating efficiencies throughout the fleet moving information from tractor/trailer to all fleet departments that need it.
According to Hinmon, the VeriWise hardware consists of three pieces: the base dual satellite transmitter with automotive-grade connectors, an external nose-mounted antenna mounted eight inches below the top rail and a rechargeable sealed lead acid battery that provides 120 days of untethered life at a one-message-per-day setting. The system also includes a trickle-charge solar panel supplement option for high-volume messaging customers or those who have lengthy untethered requirements. The solar panel only needs a couple hours of sunlight per day to provide a charge.
“Critical to the quality of a trailer tracking system,” says Hinmon, “is the fact that customers do not want to touch the trailer once the system is set up. So a robust battery, like the one we offer, satisfies that need.” He goes on to say VeriWise also has an ultrasonic cargo sensor and remote door sensors. In addition, application software upgrades can be made to the system remotely via the Orbcomm satellite network or directly through a strategically located connection at the seven-way plug.
“The hard dollars related to trailer/asset tracking are realized with increased asset utilization,” says Norm Ellis, vice president of Qualcomm Wireless Business Solutions. He points out that the technology allows fleets to move more freight with fewer pieces of equipment. That does not mean they are reducing the size of the fleet; they are just better able to be productive with the equipment they have, which means in the future, those fleets can limit capital expenditures and, without adding assets, still grow.
According to Ellis, using trailer-tracking technology, fleet dispatchers are better able to match equipment to loads and track those loads. The system also expedites yard checks and reduces the time it takes for a driver to find and connect to an empty trailer.
“Fleets are much less likely to miss assets or have them sitting undetected somewhere for days or weeks,” says Ellis. “The whole process is tightened. In addition, the driver’s life is improved because he or she is spending more time out on the road earning a living and less time searching for an empty trailer. This is a great time saver, since we heard from one fleet that it has had drivers searching for trailers as much as four to six hours each week.”
Cutting unproductive time is a key benefit, since it means that trailers are spending more time on the road where they can make money for the fleet.
Ellis also points out that safety and security of high-value loads prompt some fleets to purchase trailer-tracking systems. “High-value loads can change the business process once the load is of a certain value,” he says. “Fleets that are already equipped with the systems can change settings to track cargo more frequently. They may also choose to activate their own geofencing parameters to detect off-route miles, a trailer disconnect or a trailer entering an unauthorized area. We have had cases of loads stolen and had the fleet use our system for breadcrumb-level tracking to find the trailers and lead authorities to the thieves. More shippers and consignees are going to be requiring trailer/asset tracking systems for high-value loads.”
Retailers like Target, one of Qualcomm’s customers, which has between 700,000 and 800,000 loads hauled by third-party logistics fleets, uses the tracking information to coordinate seasonal load planning. The tracking system provides shipment information the retailer uses to manage shipment surges.
While Ellis notes that asset tracking units on trailers now number between 300,000 to 400,000 in the United States, he says that is still only about 10 percent of the units that could be equipped; however, he sees that number growing.
“The increased utilization of trailer tracking technology is going to be a pull-through,” says Ellis. “We’re working hard to increase the ROI to make the systems more appealing to fleets. We are planning to include more features that can be customized, such as motion sensing, and the systems already include features such as a configurable cargo sensor that can wake the unit up every 20 minutes and report any status changes. We will be providing technology that can increase current asset utilization.”
For the future, Ellis says the company is introducing flatbed trailer tracking options and is working on a reefer monitoring system.
Ellis, Felker and Hinmon all agree that future trailer/asset tracking technology will include some sort of interface with RFID technology.