Truckers refine GPS applications

Transportation companies have primarily applied GPS (Global Positioning System) technology to track the whereabouts of trailers and containers, but as operational efficiency becomes increasingly important the uses of GPS have become more advanced, according to a recent report by ABI Research Inc.

While in some parts of the world, GPS-enabled trailer tracking is driven by threats of hijacking and theft, security is not so much the driver anymore in North America, said David Alexander, principal analyst for commercial telematics with Oyster Bay, N.Y.-based ABI Research.

“There is added value of having more information about the trailer itself, not just where it is but whether the door has been opened, whether the trailer is moving, what the temperature is inside the trailer,” said Alexander.

But aside from operational efficiency, the fuel economy is also a driver for GPS usage such as tire pressure monitoring because, he said, “pulling trailers on underinflated tires requires more fuel… [and] avoiding blowouts which could lead to a lot more damage in delay and deliveries.”

More customized applications are emerging that are vertical-specific, said Alexander, because “a company transporting refrigerated trailers across the country is a different type of customer to somebody who is operating a fleet of diggers out in a mine somewhere and they’re different to someone who is operating a service business in a city.”

The challenge now for vendors is “to have as much shared hardware and software as they can, but provide flexibility and ability to adapt and add interfaces to the sensor” as required by customers in those particular verticals.

The use of GPS in the transportation business, said Alexander, renders a typical return on investment of six to nine months following implementation, however, trailer tracking specifically tends to fall on the higher end of that time period.

But while the current downward economy means that companies are “cracking down on all expenditures and it takes longer to get expenditures approved,” Alexander said he believes this will create a strong market for telematics. To that end, he said, there may be some imaginative financing on the part of GPS transportation technology vendors such as spreading the initial installation cost across several years.

But, he added, the cost of GPS in the transportation business is lower today than it was before with equipment vendors offering hosted services that essentially would require the customer to purchase the hardware, install it in the vehicle or trailer, and then pay only a monthly monitoring fee. Additional services like integration with back-end systems like customer relationship and supply chain management applications are becoming common.

Prior to this shift in cost, however, only large companies that managed valuable cargo could really afford the technology, noted Alexander.

Smaller companies have definitely become more comfortable with deploying GPS-enabled asset tracking and onboard GPS systems for both trailers and tractors and it’s “becoming quite standard,” said David Sward, general manager of the GlobalWave division with Ottawa-based fleet management technology vendor TransCore Inc.

In fact, Sward said that much of the technology shipped by TransCore is installed at the factory level when the trailer is being built.

And while Sward noted that security was the original and remains the primary driver for GPS-enabled transportation, operational efficiency is garnering much attention due to the sheer cost of doing business. “[Security] evolved into ‘Now that we have visibility of trailers, what else can you tell me about them?’”

Some of the advanced applications of GPS in transportation include geofencing where trailers are monitored as they enter and exit geographical boundaries; and, road adherence where the movement of trailers are monitored along roads that are geofenced.

Sward said that companies that have adopted the technology will find “trailer trading is a real competitive advantage…with all things being equal, it can make the difference particularly with high-valued shippers.”

As GPS in the transportation industry becomes increasingly customized for specific verticals, Alexander said, demands are broadening even within each vertical which shows a maturation of the technology as it goes “from simple location tracking to the addition of a lot of these extra functions.”

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