The future has arrived, and trucking fleets best get onboard lest they, and their drivers, be left stranded on the side of the Information Superhighway. Tablet computers are not only prized possessions of the general population, but they are fast becoming the preferred method of drivers to communicate with their managers, their loved ones, and to ease the time spent away from home. One reason for that increasing preference of tablets, according to some experts, is the enhanced power of these devices.

“If you look at the processing power of a Samsung Galaxy 10.1 tablet, for instance, it has 10 times the computing power of an onboard computer,” says Christian Schenk, vice president-product marketing, for Xata. “Is there life for onboard computers? Yes, but it's short-lived.”

Schenk says the shift to tablets and smartphones is being driven by drivers, 86% of whom now carry “personal mobility devices,” and 44% of those are smartphones. In fact, according to recent research Xata has conducted on driver preferences, 70% expect to adopt smartphones by 2013.

THE ITEM OF CHOICE

But it's not just smartphones that drivers are using. It's been a couple of years since the first iPad was introduced. Since that time, tablet sales have surpassed laptop sales, taking just 18 months to do so. Schenk points out that research conducted by Gartner shows that 300 million tablets will be sold worldwide by 2015, with 80 million of those coming in the U.S.

“And [the sales growth] is coming from a migration away from laptops,” Schenk says, adding that research Xata did in conjunction with TruckersB2B showed that 84% of drivers currently carry a laptop — either their own or a company-supplied model. “As the next buying cycle begins for these laptops, which have a shelf life of two to three years, tablets will replace these devices.”

The push to tablets and smartphones is seemingly being driven by driver preferences, which are away from laptops and towards portable devices.

“Drivers at the Great West Truck Show were telling me they prefer the tablets to laptops,” says Stacey Geipe, Sprint marketing manager-transportation & distribution.

Geipe also reports that when purchasing a phone, Sprint's customers are preferring smartphones. In August, she says, Sprint sold 15,000 smartphones to just 700 regular cell phones.

“When you talk to fleet drivers, some of them carry two phones because they want to get their personal email,” Geipe says, adding that she is also seeing a shift toward tablets. “In some cases, the applications that they used to run on their cell phones, they can now run on their tablets. If you have the right applications, you can communicate with the driver through tablets.”

ALL-IN-ONE DEVICE

Geipe, too, points out drivers seem to be happier with a portable device that can surf the web, access email, etc., and is removable from the cab.

“If the driver has it and is allowed to remove it, they're a lot happier,” Geipe says, “especially if they can take it into a hotel room or a truck stop.”

Tablets and smartphones have an advantage over laptops and in-cab devices, according to Clem Driscoll, founder & president of C.J. Driscoll & Associates.

“If it's a portable device they can take with them, it can be used for barcode scanning, signature capture … or you can take it out of the cab and take pictures,” Driscoll says. “The main advantage of a [tablet], in my mind, over an installed in-cab device is you can take it with you.”

The initial high cost of tablets kept some companies and drivers away, but even that is changing.

“A lot of it comes down to cost and capability,” Driscoll says. “It does most of what a laptop computer can do.”

“I foresee a lot more interaction from these types of devices,” Tom McLeod, president of McLeod Software, told attendees at the company's recent User Conference. “Thanks to truck-mounted systems with Bluetooth capability, you can sync up handhelds with in-cab units, so cell phones and tablets could [eventually] replace cab-mounted units [in some applications].”

But if you're a truckload (TL) fleet, your drivers may have a different perspective on smartphones and tablets compared to a less-than-truckload fleet (LTL), or even a P&D operation. And even within segments, there is no consensus, says John Moscatelli, director-industry solutions practice, transportation/AVL, for AT&T Business Solutions.

TO EACH THEIR OWN

“One can visit with three different LTLs and each can have a very different culture, budget or vision requiring a hardware and software solution that is unique,” Moscatelli says. “TL fleets tend to use hard-mounted connected devices, but we are also seeing interest in some of the new removable tablets that are on the market today. TL tends to be most interested in regulatory compliance, safety reporting, and messaging, along with driver comfort items such as Internet connectivity. For the LTL user, we're seeing a mix of hard-mounted and handheld devices because of the nature of the driver's out of cab responsibilities. Some fleets are offering a combined hard mount with handheld, some with only handheld.”

Regardless of the type of device, though, the use is usually the same.

“The common denominator is regulatory compliance, safety, and some sort of communication, for example, messaging, voice to text, text to voice, voice,” Moscatelli says. “AT&T is seeing that TL companies are the only segment that is currently making efforts for driver comfort accommodations such as Internet and email.”

Each type of device has its advantages, Moscatelli points out, with the portable nature and inexpensive price tag a lure for smartphones capable of “light computing needs and simple requirements, such as location, simple form replication, voice, and automated HOS.” Tablets, especially when mounted, provide a powerful tool for drivers, he adds.

“While mounted, tablets are a great [mobile data terminal], and when removed, they provide many of the functions of a handheld device, which include form replication, POD and scanning,” Moscatelli says. “Tablets can be relatively inexpensive, and when rugged by design or coupled with a protective shell, they can be increasingly resistant to damage. A properly designed tablet can provide virtually all the functions of a more expensive hard-mounted EOBR system.”

Schenk adds that the introduction of Android into the tablet market has created a shifting price paradigm given all the applications, including those specific to trucking, that are available on the Android platform for free. “Timing could not be better for fleets,” he says.