The benefits of trailer tracking have focused on several key capabilities lately: counteracting cargo theft; providing customers with real-time shipment tracking; and the biggest holy grail of all, real-time security tracking to help spot potential terrorist activities.

However, Jim Cowart, president of flatbed carrier Transport Continental Inc. (TCI), says he's found the real benefits of trailer tracking to be much more mundane — knowing where his trailers are at all times so they don't get lost.

“With trailer tracking, the payback is really simple: we look at a screen and we say ‘here's where this trailer is,’” Cowart tells FLEET OWNER. “Before we tracked trailers, we'd spend hours or even days on the phone trying to locate our trailers or get a rough idea of where they were on a particular run. Now we get the location almost instantly.”

TCI specializes in flatbed and heavy-haul transportation services throughout the continental U.S., Canada and Mexico, and many of its 175 trailers are interlined to Mexican delivery companies. The company now uses a battery-powered wireless tracking system from Teletouch Communications. Mounted underneath the flatbeds, the device is positioned directly under wooden planking since the trailer's steel and aluminum structural components would have blocked the tracking signal.

“That was the real challenge — where to put a tracking device on a flatbed trailer,” says David Alston, director of marketing for Teletouch. “We attached the tracking device to a specially-designed tack strip that would secure it to the trailer's underbelly without blocking the signal.”

The return on investment TCI has gained by having trailer tracking is easy to calculate, adds Cowart. He points out that it was often difficult for the fleet to know the location of its trailers once they crossed the border into Mexico. In one case, a trailer sat loaded and ready to go for 20 days in Mexico because the driver had not informed anyone that the trailer had reached its final destination.

“Now we can see for ourselves where it is, without having to call anyone,” he explains. “Not only does that help us get our trailers back faster — making them more productive — but that tracking data helps us collect more money from shippers due to delays on their end. At the very least, a missing trailer means we're missing out on opportunities to generate revenue.”

Trailer tracking has also helped TCI determine if its trailers are being used for unauthorized “side jobs.” Previously, the fleet had no reliable way to track its assets. “It is simply vital for us to know what is happening with our trailers,” Cowart says. “Until now, it has been pretty chaotic.”

According to Glynn Spangenberg, vp and gm of transportation and logistics for Qualcomm's Wireless Business Solutions unit, fleets in general say that knowing where their assets are so they can use them more effectively is the real benefit of trailer tracking.

“All it's really about is giving the fleet, more so than their customers, the ability to keep a constant eye on their trailers,” he explains. “Unless you can see where it is and know what it is doing during the day, there's now way you can get higher productivity out of it.”

Most fleets have found that giving customers the ability to know where their freight is 24/7 is an “insignificant” part of the trailer tracking equation, Spangenberg adds.

“Many customers say they want it, but most rarely use it,” he notes. “The real benefit of trailer tracking is purely internal — fleets don't have to hunt for trailers anymore. That's been a big issue in transportation. It also translates into less hassle for drivers. They can be directed much more quickly to empty and/or loaded trailers; that capability can be a vital retention tool.”

“We'd need two extra people at minimum to do what we can do today in terms of tracking trailers,” adds TCI's Cowart. “Trailer tracking has helped us not only automate much of the process used to find trailers, it has help us be more efficient, and thus make more money, with our trailer fleet.”

Watch out thieves

Phoenix-based Knight Transportation reports that on December 14, 2002, at 6:45 a.m. in Long Beach, CA, a Knight driver reported that his truck and trailer were missing. The trailers are equipped with Terion's FleetView tracking system, so the fleet's security department was able to locate the stolen unit in Rialto, CA, near a large warehouse.

The TL carrier contacted local police, who then monitored the building and saw the missing trailer come out of the warehouse hooked to a different tractor. Police stopped the vehicle, arrested the driver, and recovered the cargo: More than a hundred JVC 36-in. flat-screen TVs valued at about $100,000, as well as fabric worth over $250,000.

“Without this kind of trailer tracking product, the odds of recovering stolen goods are low,” says Brent Williams, vp-safety and risk management for Knight. “Now word is likely to be out on the street that Knight is not a desirable target.”

Another example involves the Asset-Link trailer-tracking device from CSI Wireless, which was used by the North Texas Auto Theft Task Force to break up a commercial truck theft ring in Dallas. The law enforcement agency obtained a court order allowing it to secretly install the devices on the vehicles of the suspected truck thieves. They were able to track these vehicles to the locations of several stolen trucks, trailers and cargoes.

“We've recovered $2.7-million worth of items so far,” says Texas State Police Lieutenant Tim Stewart, who is currently on assignment to the task force. “We've recovered more than 24 truck tractors and 26 trailers, plus some cargo, including furniture, electronics, barbecues, clothing and ceiling fans, using the Asset-Link units.”