The way Brandon Newton (pictured at left) sees it, the cellphone is more than a communication device: It's a real-time information tool that improves efficiency, productivity, and above all emergency response time when something goes wrong.

“Before cellphones, I used to do a lot more walking around, pushed a lot more paper, spent a lot more time waiting or missing connections,” says Newton, a warehouse/special projects manager for Interstate Van Lines. “Getting a job done was a lot more time-consuming.”

Today, the 25-year veteran of the moving and storage business says the cellphone is simply indispensable in his line of work. “As a driver, it allowed me to get service quicker when vehicles broke down. I can navigate a crew around traffic congestion, coordinate last-minute pickup and delivery time changes and, most importantly, respond to customer needs almost instantly. It cuts down on a lot of wasted time.”

J.D. Morrissette, president of Interstate Van Lines, notes that his company is now trying to go a step further by adding GPS location tracking to further improve the efficiency between drivers and local operations personnel.

“This has become increasingly more significant given the traffic and road construction challenges faced by drivers today,” he says. “We view cellphones as the primary communication tool with short- and longhaul drivers, local dispatch operations and moving crews. It provides that real-time information exchange to further improve the efficiency of our operation … so quicker and more informed decisions are possible. This meets and surpasses the end customer's expectations and enhances customer satisfaction.”

Morrissette adds that additional cellphone functionality could help streamline operations even further. “The ability to email documents, to provide real-time written information exchange between drivers, local dispatch and moving/storage crew members, for example, along with the ability to accept and send secure signatures,” he says, are the kinds of things he is looking for.

“GPS tracking devices built into the cellphone would allow for real-time directional changes/communications to improve efficiency due to traffic congestion, disabled vehicles, and weather-related challenges,” Morrissette notes. “Again, it's the ability to instantaneously exchange information with all of the necessary parties to make the needed decisions to ultimately ensure we have happy customers.”

BEYOND THE CALL

Companies are lining up to produce those capabilities for cellphones so fleets can turn them into multi-tasking business tools.

McLeod Software, for example, rolled out its new “mPhone” cellphone application last October so carriers can cost-effectively use a variety of phones from Nextel and Sprint to reliably and securely communicate load, vehicle and delivery information, says Rick Halbrooks, McLeod's vp-sales and marketing.

“The same cellphone drivers already use on a daily basis can now be used to gather GPS location information, send priority pickup details and load changes, reduce data entry requirements by sending trip status updates, as well as other information that will help enhance business processes and improve customer service,” he points out.

The system is easily implemented at a relatively low up-front cost because no additional hardware purchases are required, Halbrooks adds, dovetailing nicely with the low-cost nature of cellphone communication overall.

Matt Cacace, McLeod's COO, believes two of the cellphone's biggest attributes are their ability to transmit load information and status. “Load information is the top one. Pushing the shipper's name, address, phone number, pickup-and-delivery time down the cell connection helps eliminate communication errors and gives drivers detailed information,” he says. “In terms of operation planning, sending automated messages back on load status such as ‘arrived’ or ‘loading/unloading’ make the whole organization more productive.”

Other potential areas opening up are street-level mapping and directions, and as phones become capable of more computing power and data storage, these features will reach a broader market than is currently available today, Cacace adds.

That “next step” mentality applies to the transmission of traffic information as well, notes Mike Ippoliti, research director for technology consulting firm ABI Research.

“When it comes to collecting and distributing useful traffic data, the emphasis is shifting,” he says. “Reporting of ‘incident data’ from accidents, road closures and other emergencies is becoming routine; the next step is predictive and probe-derived data that can deliver information on more complex problems and support re-routing of drivers around traffic problems.”

BULKING UP

According to Butch Musselman, vp-industry business solutions for Sprint Nextel, the key to making this all happen revolves around two things: the large data bandwidths available via today's 3G cellphone networks, as well as broader and more in-depth coverage across the U.S.

“Having more bandwidth and faster data speed creates a more dynamic environment for cellphones,” he explains. “Now you can look at re-routing in-transit, barcode scanning and data upload, live Internet access, signature capture and transmission.”

“This is all coming because of the 3G network and the fleets' desire to eliminate paperwork and speed up the billing process,” adds Patricia Nelson, Sprint Nextel's enterprise business solutions manager for transportation. “It's also about finding ways to make the driver's life behind the wheel less complicated. They are all pretty familiar with cellphones, [so] putting more capability and functionality into a device they are already comfortable using helps speed up the technology adoption and installation process.”

The software to run these systems doesn't necessarily have to be installed on the cellphone, freeing up valuable computing power. For example, Northport Systems recently rolled out Fugawi Touratel, a cellphone navigation software product that uses what's called “assisted GPS” location so the supported phones do not require a specific-use internal or Bluetooth-connected GPS.

Also, due to its architecture, the user does not need to download and install client software. The entire application works through the phone's Internet connection, says Northport spokesman Andrew Golden. “Accessing these kinds of systems via the cellphone's browser makes it a more effective tool for fleets,” he says.

Even the cellphone itself is being upgraded to handle these more complicated and data-intensive demands. Late last year, Qualcomm joined forces with a Chinese manufacturer to bring its MEMS display to cellphones. MEMS displays harness ambient light and requires no backlighting, thereby consuming significantly less power, says James Cathey, vp-business development for Qualcomm MEMS Technologies.

“When it comes to cellphones, expectations are continually increasing in terms of where they can be used, what types of applications they can run and how long they can use them between charges,” he explains.

TREND LINES

While cellphones are indeed becoming ubiquitous within the trucking industry, they are not yet in a position to replace in-cab wireless and satellite-based systems, nor are they ideal for every fleet, notes Sandeep Kar, program manager for Frost & Sullivan, a global growth consulting company.

According to the firm's “North American Commercial Vehicle Telematics Markets” study, cellphones can be ideal tools for local and regional fleets, but for longhaul carriers noncellular-based connectivity is still a major requirement.

“Cellphones are still limited in terms of bandwidth capacity and coverage as compared to in-cab systems overall. That's why we have more multi-modal systems in use, ones that can use satellite and wireless connections,” Kar explains.

“The sweet spot for the cellphone is the smaller fleet, the one with a few trucks that can't afford the investment in an in-cab system,” adds Clem Driscoll, founder and president of research firm C.J. Driscoll & Associates. “For a large fleet, you need to be able to push through a lot of data and have that connection to the vehicle itself so you can pull location data, diagnostic information and performance metrics from it. Getting information from the asset is critical, and cellphones are not attached to the asset.”

In contrast, Driscoll sees a more “multi-use” format developing among carriers, where the cellphone is used alongside an in-cab system as an auxiliary communication and data transmission pipeline. His most recent mobile resource management study bears that out, finding that cellphone use among fleets has climbed from 60% in 2003 to about 80% today.

“The cellphone can only do so much, as it is not attached to the vehicle,” echoes Kar. “When we're talking about conducting vehicle prognostics, those applications require very, very high data transfer rates. But the low cost of the cellphone gives it a very attractive ROI for the small fleet — 10 to 15 vehicles — trying to add different data capabilities.”

Hands-free for safety

Steve Anderson knows how beneficial the cellphone can be to a trucking operation, especially in terms of instant communication — via voice and text — along with Internet capabilities. But as corporate director of safety at The DiSilva Companies, responsible for 850 company drivers and 150 owner-operators racking up 80-million miles a year in the heavily congested Northeast, Anderson didn't want cellphones to become a dangerous distraction, diverting driver attention from the road. “We wanted to make sure that if our drivers had to use the cellphone, they could do so in the safest manner possible,” he says. “That's our obligation, we feel, as a transportation company.”

So about six months ago, Anderson began studying a range of hands-free devices for cellphones, giving several models to DiSilva managers for initial road tests in their personal vehicles. The Blue Parrot brand of hands-free devices seemed to work best, so Anderson equipped 100 of DiSilva's best truck drivers with them for a month of extensive testing in a real-world trucking environment. “They liked them a lot — no distortion, no feedback, and they could hear the person on the other end of the line clearly, even with the window open,” says Anderson. “These devices would also work with a variety of phones.”

It's the final step that proved unusual: Anderson gave these $50 to $70 headsets to all of DiSilva's drivers free of charge, although they had to sign a written statement that they'd use them. “We feel strongly that this device will help everyone maintain a better focus on the task of operating a commercial motor vehicle,” says Anderson. “It'll also improve their focus while on the job.”