While the discussion continues into its second decade over mandating electronic onboard recorders (EOBRs), at least for carriers with repeated hours of service violations, some fleets have been quietly implementing EOBRs on their own to enhance safety, improve productivity and reduce costs. Their compelling, behind-the scenes success stories are a testimony to the results-focused nature of the trucking industry, which never stops looking for better ways to do business — required or not. In fact, for many fleets, EOBRs have been a secret weapon of sorts, a tool to gain a competitive advantage even during the toughest of times.

THE EARLY ADOPTERS

Private fleets have been the real early adopters of EOBR technology, according to many suppliers. “If you look at all our trucks, about 400,000 or so, the electronic logging function is used by only about 15% or even fewer of our customers,” says Norm Ellis, general manager and vp of transportation and logistics for Qualcomm Enterprise Services, a division of Qualcomm, Inc. (www.qualcomm.com). “However, if you look at private fleets only, that number jumps to 70% or more. Everybody cares about safety, productivity and controlling costs. Fleets have just approached those challenges differently.”

“The typical early adopter is a private fleet,” notes Kelly Frey executive vp of Turnpike Global Technologies (www.turnpikeglobal.com). “However, over the last six months or so, we are seeing a new interest in automated logging among the very large national carriers, too. This is not just about safety; it is about implementing the best business practices.”

“Three things are driving our business,” says Tom Flies, senior vp-product management for Xata. (www.xata.com): The need to control costs, regulatory compliance, and customer service. Ninety percent or more of our private fleets are already using the electronic logging function.”

THE FUTURE

“We have an initiative under way now to add hours of service right to the alert function, right to the dispatch screen,” says David Mook, ex-ecutive vp, COO and CTO for TMW Systems Inc. (www.tmwsystems.com). “We are working with a number of partners, with Qualcomm, PeopleNet, Turnpike and others. The goal is to shorten the time frame so that fleet managers can be looking at a current trip and see if a driver is in danger of running out of hours so that they have time to take appropriate action.

“Originally, EOBRs were used to provide data after the fact. Now EOBRs are on the front line of data capture,” Mook adds. “The focus is on the customer's customer and on the driver — on improving performance and efficiency. Fleets want to be able to decide if they should take a load or not, if there is a better route, if they can reduce fuel costs. Our job as an integrator is to make it easy to use all this data, to simplify the process.”

“The next horizon for the industry is predictive modeling,” says Ellis. “That is where all this is headed. Predictive modeling will transform the industry just as satellite tracking did earlier. I think it can be that big and have that much impact. We are already well into it with our primary partner, Fleet Risk Advisor. Predictive modeling takes all the data we are capturing plus data about a specific fleet. When you get it right, it is just incredible what it can do for you. We've already had great success and it is just in its infancy.

“It is the responsibility of technology suppliers to make this process easy and fast. To make the data more accessible and more actionable,” he adds, “and we will.”

Fleets who are already using the capabilities of EOBRs to fine-tune their fleet operations have a head start, of course. They have established a beachhead on this amazing, emerging future. The case studies presented here share some of their successes and the business strategies that made them decide to be the early adopters.

Tankstar USA: Better than paperwork

Tankstar USA Inc. is a liquid and dry bulk carrier headquartered in Wisconsin. The company's 850 trucks operate throughout the U.S. and Canada, hauling liquid chemicals and commercial ready mix, and doing oil well servicing. In 2005, the company began using their PeopleNet system (www.peoplenetonline.com) to automate the daily logging process required of drivers. While enhancing fleet safety was initially the primary reason for the move, Tank Star vp Dave Walter is an enthusiastic proponent of electronic logging today because of the catalog of benefits it has delivered to their fleet.

“I have encouraged many people to go to electronic logging,” Walter says. “Fleets and their drivers really shortchange themselves if they don't. By and large, our drivers are getting more usable hours with electronic logs.

“Drivers didn't become drivers to do paperwork,” he explains. “They generally don't like it, and they don't do it very well. As a result, some drivers try to reconstruct logs after the fact, and they end up cheating themselves of hours to make sure they are in compliance. Electronic logs count down for the drivers from the beginning of the day, so they always know exactly how much time they have left. Compliance issues also pretty much go away with electronic logs. When we did paper logs, errors were mostly form and process mistakes, not overtime violations.

“We actually put decals on our trucks saying we use electronic logs,” Walter says. “We believe it sends a message to our customers, law enforcement officials and other motorists about our commitment to safety, to doing things the right way.”

Walter says that Tankstar also uses their PeopleNet system to capture fault code information for maintenance and information about driver performance. “We do some driver behavior management with it,” he explains. “For instance, we have alarms set for sudden stops, overspeeding and sudden starts, and we have a grading system for our drivers based upon their performance. Drivers that have problems are called in for counseling and additional training. If that doesn't work, we may have to part ways.”

While implementing electronic logging took some effort, Walter says he is a big believer in technology to gain a competitive advantage, and the company just signed on with TMW Systems Inc. (www.tmwsystems.com) to continue that automation and integration process. “Moving to electronic logs was a learning process,” he says. “We had to take the time to explain it to the drivers. Some of them didn't like the idea at first; there was a lot of fear about ‘big brother’ watching over their shoulders. Some drivers still don't like the idea even today; however, 700 of our drivers are doing electronic logs now and others are coming to us asking if they can, too.”

For Walter, mandating EOBRs would be a step in the right direction. “There are companies out there that break the rules,” he says. “We don't. That can give us a disadvantage. We would like to see them mandated for everyone. Leveling the playing field would improve the competitive environment and put fewer people at risk at the same time.”

EOBRs: What do you want to do?

While the debate continues concerning requiring EOBRs (at least for certain higher risk carriers), some fleets are focusing on the benefits electronic onboard recorders and related technologies can bring to their operations, mandated or not. So what do you want to do?

  • Reduce fuel costs through reducing idling, managing vehicle speed and improving driving performance.

  • Reduce maintenance costs with better, real-time diagnostic data.

  • Improve resource utilization.

  • Eliminate most DOT log errors/violations.

  • Identify driver performance problems early.

  • Identify your best drivers for rewards/recognition.

  • Develop performance standards and manage to those standards.

  • Improve safety ratings.

  • Meet customer requirements/improve customer service.

  • Document detention in order to charge shippers.

  • Gather predictive information, such as failure or wear rates to help inform future equipment spec'ing, purchasing decisions.

  • Document performance/reduce risk.

C.N. Brown: A competitive advantage

Maine-based C.N. Brown owns and operates 87 Big Apple convenience store/gas stations plus a number of Red Shield Heating Oil facilities. They also deliver fuel to over 100 independently owned gas stations throughout New England with a fleet of 168 Sterling trucks. It is a tough business with winter and summer peak seasons. For nearly a decade, the company has been using onboard computers (OBCs) and fleet management software from Cadec Global (www.cadec.com) to help assure compliance, improve productivity and enhance customer service.

“We don't push the envelope here; it is just not a part of our business with the commodities we haul,” says Ken Cannell, transportation manager for C.N. Brown. “We initially implemented the Cadec system to do tracking for compliance. We went to electronic logging a little later. Our drivers love it and so do we. It has improved our productivity. Today, we could pick any driver out of our fleet and tell you what he did in five-minute intervals. If you don't have electronic logs, you just can't do that. You really have no idea what actually took place.

“Drivers like the fact that they just have to hit a few buttons to maintain their logs,” he adds. “They don't have to stop to update the logbook. They don't have to try to remember just exactly what they were doing earlier in the day and where. As soon as DOT inspectors jump up, look in the cab and see the Cadec unit, they wave our drivers on. They know we are serious about hours of service compliance and that is a plus, too.

“The system has also helped us with customer service. If you have an independent gas station and you are running low on fuel on a Friday afternoon and traffic is heavy, you want to know when your delivery will arrive,” Cannell notes. “We can tell that station operator when the truck will be there and be pretty close. If you can't do that for a customer, you are just another carrier. Customers hate to hear that we are sending an independent to make a delivery instead of coming ourselves, which we sometimes have to do during peak seasons. They like to see our own trucks roll in.”

The company believes in the power of technology to create a competitive advantage, according to Cannell, and is currently working to build out from the Cadec system by adding the Fuel Smart dispatch solution from Pinnacle Corp. “When I joined the company in 2006, the first thing I was asked to do was find a dispatch software that would work with Cadec and our accounting software,” he says. “We expect to see a payback in about 3.8 years. It is a big investment and a big step for us, but it will give us a lot of additional capabilities, such as the ability to print an invoice and proof of delivery right on site. That will dramatically reduce our time to invoice.”

Price Chopper: Delivering productivity

Price Chopper is a New England supermarket chain with stores in six states. A private fleet of 73 tractors handles distribution of all their grocery and perishable products. About six months ago, the company made the decision to switch to Turnpike Global Technologies (www.turnpikeglobal.com).

“We decided to replace our existing onboard computers with Turnpike's EOBR about six months ago,” says Bill Bishop, superintendent of transportation for Price Chopper. “We chose the system first of all, for hours-of-service compliance and second, for the ability to better manage driver and fleet performance. The EOBR monitors the computers onboard the vehicle, so you can tell from any computer what is happening in terms of fuel consumption, speed and so on. It also captures the data we need for accurate state fuel tax reporting.

“One of the really nice things about the system is that it creates driver scorecards using standard industry metrics, such as miles per gallon, idling time, rpm, hard braking and so on,” he adds. “We can even tell if a driver is perhaps not taking enough time to do a thorough pre- or post-trip inspection.

“If you have a system that enables you to look at your fleet in almost real time, then you can also do a much better job of dispatching,” Bishop notes. “If we can see that we have five drivers coming back in and the time each one has left, for instance, then we know who we can give which extra loads to.

“I cannot imagine how a fleet could lose productivity by moving to electronic logging; I can't imagine such a scenario,” he says. “To me, that is just a myth. Of course you have to take the time to properly train people, but it is an investment in the future.”

Planning for the future is also part of the rationale for implementing the Turnpike system, according to Bishop. “For example, if we have about 60 routes and plans for those routes,” he says, “we would like to be able to compare the route plans with the actual routes and see what happened. Maybe a driver was not where he should be or maybe he knows a better route.”

Xpedx: Beating idling

Chris Suttle is the transportation manager for the Cincinnati location of Xpedx, a division of International Paper. On any given day, about 20 trucks with day cabs are working out of his facility, including three inter-company shuttles. Just a few months ago, those trucks were idling about 20% of the time. Today, Suttle says idling has been reduced to about 1.5%, comfortably below the corporate goal of 2% average idle time — without any idle reduction system at all, onboard or off.

“We have nothing like an idle reduction system onboard our trucks,” Suttle explains. “We are just managing idling with Xatanet from Xata Corporation. When we first installed the Xata system in October 2006, our idle time was about 20%. We were down to 0.4% when the weather was warmer. We are just over 1.5% now.” (www.xata.com)

According to Suttle, the fleet management software enables Xpedx to set idling parameters and receive instant alerts anytime a driver is exceeding those limits. “We have the idle time limits set and I can get an instant alert right over my cellphone if someone is exceeding that,” he says. Our corporate goal is 2% idling and we have been able to stay well below that. There are a few issues, of course. Drivers have to be able to idle if it is very cold, or if the starter goes out or something like that.

“We kicked around the idea of an automatic engine shut-off system, but it was hard for us to pull the trigger when we weren't sure how much we were idling. Now Xatanet works so well that we don't have to go to that effort and expense,” Suttle adds. “We are fortunate to have a fairly senior group of drivers who want to do a good job. It took us a couple of months to get from 20% to about 5% and another while to reach about 1% where we are now.

“The thing about Xatanet is that we could see exactly where our idling problems were. Right here in the yard, for instance, turned out to be one place where we had the most opportunity to improve,” he recalls. “Drivers were idling in the morning while they got their paperwork for the day and again in the evening.”