IT'S ALL ABOUT IMPROVING DRIVER PERFORMANCE
When it comes to deploying monitoring technology to boost driver performance, Russ McElliott will tell you it helps to think like a baseball coach. McElliott, president of TransAm Trucking, explains that truck drivers — just like baseball players — need an ongoing series of “stats” in order to accurately map out where they are and where they want to go in terms of improving their game, which, in the case of drivers, relates to things like fuel economy and safety.
TransAm wanted to measure the day-to-day performance of its 1,400 trucks so drivers could see how they measure up. The company decided on Blue Tree Systems' mobile communication solution combined with its R:COM software package and began using it last November.
“What we do is take a driver's specific information, how they are doing in terms of fuel efficiency, engine idling, route compliance, etc., and graph their averages against the fleet's averages,” he explains. “Then we push that information out to the tractors on a real-time basis so drivers can immediately see how they are doing, both in terms of their prior performance as well as against their peers.”
Baseball statistics serve the exact same purpose, drawing from a breadth of player performance measures and playing field variables (there are more than 45 different pitching stats alone!) to gauge a player's performance and contributions to his team from year to year, frequently against a statistical performance average.
But McElliott says the issue becomes more acute in trucking because, unlike in baseball, the fleet doesn't get to physically meet with drivers every day. Drivers aren't like baseball players, gathering for batting practice or working on fielding skills under the watchful eyes of coaches and managers every day. Instead, drivers are spread out over hundreds, if not thousands, of miles delivering freight, only making contact through voice or text communications as needed.
“Our managers might only get to meet a driver once or twice a month, and that's just not enough effective time to help someone improve their performance,” McElliott says. “We needed a way to push information out to them on a daily, if not hourly, basis to show them how they're doing, to give them a tool to help them get better. It's about getting the driver's personal pride involved; just like baseball players, they want to be the best at what they do.”
Charlie Cahill, president & CEO of Blue Tree, notes that this emphasis on boosting driver performance is only going to increase, as the cost of fuel continues to climb and tighter safety regulations — such as the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration's new Compliance, Safety, Accountability (CSA) program — are put into place.
“Given the increasing pressures the industry is facing from rising fuel costs and ever-tightening regulations, fleets will have to rely on management systems to deliver the profit,” Cahill explains. “Only the fleets that focus their efforts on maximizing their fuel performance and managing their drivers' work-hours effectively will survive, so effective and robust technology is the only silver bullet solution to the challenges they are facing.”
“More and more businesses are re-evaluating traditional operating practices in order to maintain a competitive edge; to improve efficiencies while reducing costs,” adds Ron Katz, vice president-North American sales for Chevin Fleet Solutions. “A flexible and robust fleet management software solution will give complete visibility over a fleet, facilitating improved processes and cost control, including vehicle maintenance, repair forecasting and fuel consumption.”
Yet now, such technology is being tasked to help out with decidedly more human-focused issues as well, specifically to measure and, if needed, alter behavior behind the wheel.
“Quality fleet management solutions do more than capture and manage disparate fleet operating data,” notes Katz. “They can now be used to identify anomalies in driver/fleet performance and provide the intelligence needed for company-wide management of inspections, services, medicals, eye tests, random drug tests and advanced driving course start/refresher dates.”
Bob Prim, director of safety standards for Ryder System Inc., notes that his company's Supply Chain Solutions and Dedicated Contract Carriage business segments aim to use driver monitoring and measuring technology to improve their safety profiles.
“We primarily use the GreenRoad Safety Center, which is a product of GreenRoad Technologies, to provide driver feedback and improve safe driving behaviors,” he explains. “It's a device installed in the trucks that monitors up to 120 driving maneuvers and alerts drivers to unsafe handling such as hard braking or improper cornering.”
Prim says that an LED (light emitting diode) display in the cab allows the application to flash a green light when a maneuver is safe, a yellow light when it is unsafe, and a red light when a maneuver is deemed unsafe and/or hazardous. GreenRoad tracks the events and provides a report for each driver.
“This system has helped us significantly reduce our collision-related safety expense,” he points out. “Managers get a better picture of how a driver operates his vehicle as well as information on specific trends in hard braking, aggressive lane changes, or cornering at too high a speed.”
Prim adds that once any driver understands that his manager is unhappy with a current driving behavior and is watching him for improvement, he's going to adjust that behavior. “Once that behavior starts to change, the manager can shift his feedback to positive recognition and praise,” he notes.
Ryder is also currently piloting a new technological twist to its driver monitoring and measuring efforts: using video to give the company a view of the road conditions faced by its drivers.
“A camera on the truck is linked to an accelerometer, and if the accelerometer is triggered, the camera records events 15 seconds before and 15 seconds after it is triggered,” Prim explains. “We use this both to have a record of road conditions if a collision occurs in the front of the vehicle as well as to be able to provide preventive counseling if our drivers are engaging in unsafe behaviors.”
Thus, such in-cab video systems can validate a driver's actions and show why a defensive maneuver is needed to prevent a serious collision, he stresses.
“In the past, a single-vehicle collision was always considered questionable [with] the assumption being the driver fell asleep,” Prim explains. “With this video technology, managers can see if approaching traffic was in the driver's lane of travel and forced the driver to make an evasive maneuver.”
Helping boost safety compliance is almost a must-have in the ever-tighter regulatory net surrounding trucking these days, notes Craig Fiander, vice president-marketing for ALK Technologies. But fleets are also realizing they can gain competitive advantages with these systems.
“We talk a lot about these devices in reference to all the regulatory activity around safety going on in this industry now,” he points out. “But there are significant efficiencies to be gained from using them as well — and if you gain a fraction of a percentage more in fuel economy, you're looking at ultimately improving your profit margins.”
That's why in-cab video makers believe fuel savings are one of the big reasons for adopting such technology, notes Jason Palmer, president of SmartDrive Systems. His firm recently analyzed the fuel consumption rates of over 1,000 drivers at customer fleets across a range of trucking applications, including waste hauling, transit, public transportation, as well as food and beverage delivery.
Such real-time fuel use data, accurate to within a few hundreths of an ounce per second, was pulled directly from the vehicle's engine computer and compared to inefficient driving, unnecessary idling time, and excessive speed. SmartDrive analysts then reviewed data from different vehicle types under different loads and road conditions.
FUEL SAVINGS SIMPLIFIED
Palmer says the data collected by SmartDrive indicates just reducing and/or eliminating three “fuel-wasting” practices — engine idling; excessive speed; and aggressive maneuvering, which includes quick stops and starts, hard braking, sharp turns and curb bumps — can cut fuel consumption between 8 and 24%, depending on vehicle type and operator driving performance.
The interesting part about SmartDrive's technological package is that it can return “instant feedback” to the driver in the form of color-coded lights to let them know they're committing such maneuvers and thus wasting fuel.
“Giving the drivers direct feedback as events happen allows them to make instant adjustments, so a fleet doesn't have to wait until the end of the day to make corrections,” Palmer explains.
And that feedback can be especially critical in terms of improving a driver's safety profile, stresses Tom Flies, senior director for product management at Qualcomm Enterprise Services.
“Just one extra second of response time can prevent 90% of accidents,” he explains. “So monitoring drivers to find out which ones habitually exceed the speed limit, even if by only a little, and coaching them to adjust their operational style can be that one preventive step that stops an accident from happening.”
At the end of the day, Louis McAnally, director of professional services for PeopleNet, believes fleets really need to focus on three goals when it comes to using driver monitoring and measuring technology: better fuel management, improved route management, and burnishing the company's safety profile.
“If fleets can use this technology to accomplish those three things, then they are way ahead of the game,” McAnally says. “The key is to get the information in real time and then be able to slice and dice it as you want to provide drivers with good feedback.”
The critical thing fleets must remember, he stresses, is not to use such information to “beat drivers up” over negative metrics. “Taking that approach won't get drivers to embrace this technology one bit,” he adds.
Rather, he believes that all professional drivers want to get better at what they do; they just need a formula to help them do so. “It's all about showing them how they are performing now and then showing them ways to improve — backed by the information compiled by this technology,” McAnally explains. “You not only need to use this information in a positive manner, but also use it to highlight your best performers as examples for the rest of your drivers to follow.”
For example, he points to a common metric found throughout trucking: Speeding by just an extra 10 mph costs a typical tractor-trailer one mpg in fuel economy.
A PeopleNet customer, however, used the operational data gleaned from one driver's truck to show how he maintained 60 mph, averaged 9 mpg in fuel economy, yet still made his deliveries on time and well within the proper hours of service, all while sticking to the preset route and fuel stops.
“That changed the whole world of this company; it allowed all of its drivers to really ‘get it’ in terms of what the fleet was trying to accomplish,” McAnally says. “That changes the culture; making sure the right improvements, both in terms of cost savings and safety, become permanent fixtures for the future.”
Pinpointing fuel economy
One interesting “side effect” some fleets are experiencing with the use of telematics systems to monitor and measure driver performance is that the technology is also helping them compile far better fuel economy data than previously possible.
“Most of the data coming from today's engine ECMs [electronic control modules] contains various assumptions and doesn't recalibrate for different altitudes, fuel temperature, ambient temperature and the like,” explains Russ McElliott president of TransAm Trucking. “As a result, your actual fuel mileage can be very different from what the truck says it is.”
That's why TransAm's telematics supplier Blue Tree Systems crafted algorithms to make those adjustments to give fleets more precise fuel economy statistics that, in turn, get bundled into driver performance reports.
“With ever-increasing fuel costs shrinking margins, U.S. operators have long since understood the value of working with drivers to improve fuel usage, but they have faced many challenges in implementing such programs,” says Charlie Cahill, president & CEO of Blue Tree.
“The main problem has been the lack of trust in the data being collected from the engine ECMs. It is common knowledge that the fuel figures being reported are not accurate; therefore, accessing a driver's capability based on this data would be flawed,” he points out. “Thus, fleet operators are hesitant to challenge veteran drivers on their driving style unless they have monitoring tools in place that they can trust are accurate and robust enough to counter a challenge by the driver.”
Cahill says Blue Tree's technology not only incorporates “calibration factors,” it also tallies the amount of fuel purchased via data gleaned from electronic fuel cards, onsite pumps, or typed in manually. Those numbers then get fed into reports that are used to coach drivers on how to improve their driving style to improve their fuel performance and safety.
“Truck technology is also changing at a fast pace, so fleets need to educate their drivers on how to drive these new engines to achieve the best performance,” Cahill notes. “We also incorporate profiles as to how particular trucks should be driven in accordance with manufacturer guidelines and the customer's application.”
Overall, he says tapping into these various data streams has helped Blue Tree customers achieve fuel efficiency improvements from 5% with minimum effort to 15% or more when appropriate driver coaching programs and initiatives are put in place.