Tools for the truck driver

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Drivers can visually preview their trip on-screen, get a mental image of where they’re going, and then use the audio directions to navigate them in. The result is a driver who is more focused on the road and the conditions around them. The audio directions provided by the system also help eliminate distractions in the cab.” –Don Osterberg, senior vice president of safety, driver training, and security for Schneider National, discussing the reasons why the carrier adopted Qualcomm’s new Mobile Computing Platform 200 Series

No doubt in the days ahead we’ll be hearing about the many vehicle-based solutions that’ll be deployed to help the trucking industry meet ambitious new fuel economy proposals laid out by Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) yesterday.

But of course, as we all know, it’s not just about truck when it comes to getting better fuel economy. In fact, no matter how good you make a truck, if it isn’t driven properly, you’ll never get a dime’s worth of fuel economy improvements.

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Thus the driver remains as a key factor in these future fuel economy equations. Yet what technologies are being deployed to improve their ability to gain better fuel economy – if not attain greater vehicle efficiency and work productivity to boot?

Beyond better transmissions, gearing ratios, and the like, there’s a host of tools coming to the market (if they aren’t already available now) such as “trucker GPS” and better routing systems that, ultimately, can translate into better fuel economy via more efficient planning on the part of drivers.

Take Schneider National for example. Back in March, the truckload carrier said it had equipped 25% of its fleet – some 3,000 trucks, mind you, with Qualcomm’s Mobile Computing Platform 200 Series (MCP 200). Eventually, the carrier wants the MCP 200 in all of its trucks – company-owned and owner-operator tractors alike.

Qualcomm’s revamp in-cab device offers: text-to-voice functionality (allowing drivers to hear messages and directions while driving, eliminating the need to stop and read messages and new work assignments); navigation (turn-by-turn directions that can be previewed pre-trip and via audio en-route, comparable to an automobile GPS system); Internet and personal e-mail account access; electronic logging and on-demand in-cab training, noted Rich Hardt, Schneider’s vp of technical services at the time.

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“This technology is comparable to a smart device,” he added. “It truly changes the way our entire organization works and interfaces with drivers, how we share information on work assignments, customer delivery details, company news and even updates on pay and benefits. It’s designed to make all of us safer and more productive, which is good for drivers, customers and the motoring public.”

But you don’t have to necessarily go the in-cab computing route to put technology in the hands of drivers to make their lives easier – and thus their day more efficient, saving them time, money and even fuel.

For example, two truckers dubbed Big Rig Brothers recently put together a video tour of Rand McNally’s new IntelliRoute TND 500 device to demonstrate just how helpful such tools can be. [Full warning: one word of profanity gets uttered in here, by mistake most likely.]

Now, there are many different kinds of “trucker GPS” out there in the market, each with its own advantages and disadvantages from companies such as Garmin, TomTom, and others. Drivers might prefer one versus another simply due to prior familiarity with the technology or preference for a certain way information is laid out.

Yet the bottom line remains that such tools, if used correctly, can help improve fuel economy in the long run by giving drivers an edge planning-wise for their work day.

[The PC*MILER Navigator is another of those “all-in-one’ GPS navigation system designed specifically for truck drivers and improving overall driver efficiency.]

Of course, it’s not all just about what kinds of information these systems produce but HOW they display it. That’s the next level being contemplated for in-cab tools – how to present information such as turn-by-turn directions, weather conditions, etc., in the most least distracting way possible.

One such solution is an industrial design concept using Pranav Mistry's SixthSense technology put together by, of all people, a college student. Here’s a technological vision crafted by Mike Oldani – a student with the Western Washington University industrial design program – for changing information display within the truck cab.

Finally, of course, there’s the recognition that the technology truck drivers need to use throughout their day can’t be necessarily tied down into the truck cab on a permanent basis. Mike Oldani’s system, shown above, is portable but it only displays information.

However, PeopleNet’s new optionally portable onboard computing platform – dubbed the Tablet – takes things in a different direction. By giving drivers a lightweight PC that literally can get up and go with them wherever they need to be, whether inside or outside the cab, opens up new efficiency possibilities, such as speeding up workflow, while saving fleets money by eliminating the need for additional handheld devices and peripherals.

So, again, there are indeed a lot of new technological options coming to the fore now to help trucks become more fuel efficient. But it’s best to recognize similar advances are taking place on the driver front, too, to give drivers better tools so they can make better, more productive – and perhaps more fuel efficient – decisions as well.

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Trucks at Work: Sean Kilcarr comments on trends affecting the many different strata of the trucking industry.

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