TANK FLEET managers say they are being challenged daily to make the best and most effective use of technology in their operations. One of the biggest challenges is determining what offers the best fit for the fleet and its drivers.
These issues were the focus of the Carrier Panel—Technology 20/20: Needs & Expectations that was presented during the National Tank Truck Carriers Annual Conference held April 26-28 in Boston, Massachusetts. Panelists included: Rob Sandlin, president of Florida Rock & Tank Lines; Lance Collette, president/COO of Eagle Transport; and Cliff Dixon, vice-president of IT for Quality Carriers. Mark Bauckman, Omnitracs LLC, was the moderator.
Q: As you look at the next three to five years, what do you see as two or three of the main technology trends?
Dixon: There’s no doubt mobility is huge. When we look at what’s changed significantly over the last 10 years, the invention of the iPhone and introduction of that into the environment has challenged all of us to create applications. That’s a motto we are trying to adhere to, and drivers have that expectation also. How do we get the information to the drivers that they need in the manner they expect? We’ve also spent a lot of time on trying to be agile enough to leverage new technology, whether it’s software platforms or something in the cab with the tractor and the ability to share data between them. So we have to focus on single- sourcing data shared across many platforms and not having to enter data. We’re really just putting something together that is less error-prone.
Sandlin: Obviously, you look at the biggest return in your investment, whether it’s technology or anything else. With the driver and staffing of the fleet, we’re spending time on analytics, whether that’s predictive analytics on people’s behavior or the personality index. We’re trying to move that into our driver hiring and retention process. How can we hire the best drivers? I know we don’t always have that huge a selection of people to choose from, but when we do, let’s make sure we hire the best ones that will be focused on safety and will want to stay in one place for a long period of time. Beyond that, the data interaction, particularly on the petroleum side. We’re dealing with a number of different software systems. We’re trying to interface and integrate. We have people do data entry into customer systems. We just have to do a better job of getting all of them integrated and move that information straight from the truck or loading rack right to that customer and get it billed and get it done with that load so we can get on to the next one.
Collette: For us, with a modern fleet and all the technology that’s out there and in the truck community, there is a multitude of technology to help manage fleet behaviors, safety, and truck performance. For us, it’s kind of trying to weed through those and find things that make sense for our company and evaluate not only how we’d introduce them to our trucks and operating system, but how to manage data output. From there, it’s trying to set up a fair and truthful evaluation of that technology and make sure it makes sense. It seems like with every passing week, there are more things out there that in and of themselves don’t make any sense. Then you have to make sure you can manage that technology, and at the end of the day it’s really going to improve your operations.
Q: From a technology standpoint, it’s not just technology for technology’s sake. You really need to focus on solving problems and addressing needs. If you look across the industry, on most lists of the top industry problems is driver retention and recruitment. Talk about how you best position technology relative to drivers and how you encourage input from drivers as you adopt technology to hopefully make them feel a part of the process, as opposed to saying, “Here it is, we expect you to use it.”
Dixon: Drivers are consumers of electronics as well, and they have an expectation that if they can get to their bank account on their smartphone, why can’t they get to dispatch and see their pay? We are challenged when we look at the difference between owner-operators and company drivers as well, as far as the technology we need to put out and where they see value. For us, the owner-operator wants to see more about financials and running their own business, while the company driver might just want to see some type of communication that’s better between the terminal and themselves. So we try to incorporate and select feedback from drivers as much as possible and encourage feedback, and try to have those discussions with them. They obviously come from different experiences of companies they’ve worked for. We want to provide the best resources we can for them. There’s a big focus on mobility and the Internet. We want to bring efficiencies to their day so there are fewer buttons they have to push and less data they have to enter in accomplishing what we’re asking them to do and can focus on the main task at hand—driving safely and getting products from Point A to Point B.
Sandlin: You certainly have to get their input. You’re limited somewhat with the number of systems out there. So getting the driver involved, testing your system, and getting their feedback on what’s working well, and what’s not working well, and listening to that, is important. You can sit in your office and believe that all this stuff is working, but it’s that front-line driver who’s waiting for his load for five or 10 minutes for that thing to get transmitted from the dispatcher. They’re not going to be that happy. Trying to look forward, how can we best get that information from the customer to the driver and back to the customer with the fewest number of touches, because if you continue to touch that data with a human, it just creates a lot of errors in our back office, and we need to try to eliminate that.
Collette: For us, we want to continue to enhance our technology through our drivers and make sure whatever we’re putting out there also makes sense to them and there’s something in it for them. We just went through a lengthy evaluation of technology. One of the starting points is, “This is what’s in it for you. This is how we believe it can help your work life and your productivity and quality of life on and off the job.” And then we try to drive that technology to what they want to get out of that. Part of that at Eagle Transport is, our first goal is to eliminate in-cab distractions—anything that intrudes on their work environment that causes them to do anything other than look through the front windshield and drive the truck. We want to make sure we’re not introducing technologies that interfere with that, so we get a lot of driver input on that. Drivers will give you a lot of good ideas. They’re pretty free with their thoughts. I always encourage anybody that if you think you’ve come up with the next great idea, make sure you do it with their input as well.
Q: You’ve had experiences over the years with devices that are not tethered to the vehicle, whether it’s a handheld custom spec solution or whatever. There is a lot of activity going on today as far as smart devices. Let’s talk about the types of problems and needs you’re looking to address outside the cab. For example, signature capture barcode scanning. A common industry problem across most commodities is “right product, wrong container.” Is there a way to help address that problem with some of the technology?
Collette: We used the non-tethered device for many years. Part of the reason we went with that was that just for the simple signature, the device in and of itself made a lot of sense. The technology was sound. Over time, we found that the downside of a non-tethered device outweighed the upside. A few years ago, we made the switch to a fully tethered device. We had found out that over half of our deliveries were unsigned. The tethered device eliminated some toying around with GPS and other issues we were experiencing. For us right now, we have not found a compelling reason to have devices outside the truck.
Dixon: I think we’re seeing a transition to a hybrid model of where we’ve experienced the same thing. Mobile devices were handheld-type devices for 10-plus years. There were a number of reasons for doing it. We also have been transitioned back to more in-cab systems. Some of that has to do with the transition between owner-operators and having fewer of them in our fleet as compared to company trucks. A company truck makes a little more sense that you have a hardened in-cab device. You get some operational efficiencies with a more hardened in-cab device. But that mobile part is important because there becomes a dependency on the ability to get to the information wherever you are at. We know we’re going to see more and more bar code equipment or just this ability to get better at making sure we’re picking up the right product and what it’s being serviced through. For the drivers, that is reducing the amount of information they need to get. If they have to go out to their cab to get that information … that is something we hear all the time from drivers. Even when we make a certain amount of information available, they want more of it. It’s more of a hybrid, at least right now, between the true mobile bring-your-own device, and the security of that, versus hardened in-cab with accessibility on the mobile platform.
Sandlin: We’ve been tethered, but I can see a huge number of applications for a mobile device. Until you get to the point where we’ve got the chips that are reading the product in our tank and the product in the customer’s tank that can tell us exactly how much is in there, we’re leaving that up to the driver to get two or three products in two or three different holes. The better we can minimize driver interaction on that, the better we’ll be able to eliminate a lot of those errors. Product contamination mixes are expensive. There’s nowhere to put them. ♦
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