There are more than 800,000 handheld communication devices in service already in the trucking industry. Unlike many other technologies that have found jobs in trucking however, all these GPS-equipped cell phones, smartphones, tablets and other handheld devices were not generally mandated by regulations, but deployed by carriers bent on improving productivity and reducing costs. This turn of events has left regulators in hot pursuit, racing to get ahead of this new tide of technological change that is bringing challenges as well as benefits with it.

The usage numbers are from Clement Driscoll, founder and principal of C.J. Driscoll & Associates and a recognized authority on mobile resource management (MRM). His company regularly surveys fleet operators concerning MRM, and Driscoll expects to see that 800,000 grow to more than 900,000 handheld units in service by the end of this year.

“Driver productivity has been the major motivation for investing in mobile resource management technologies of all types in the past,” Driscoll notes. “Today, over 250,000 U.S. companies are using in-cab or handset-based MRM services. We expect that over 80% of all fleets in all categories will eventually have some type of MRM system in place because the return on investment is just too compelling.”

The value proposition for handheld devices is not the same as it is for in-cab mounted MRM systems, however. There is also considerable debate about what type of handhelds are best suited for the trucking industry and where their real utility lies — inside the cab, outside the cab, or both.

Qualcomm, for example, divides handhelds into two subsets, according to Adam Kahn, the company's director of product and channel marketing. “There are two classes of handheld products,” he says, “handsets like iPhones, BlackBerrys and iPads, and more rugged handheld computers, such as those by Intermec or Motorola/Symbol. The value proposition differs for each because of their functionality and capabilities.

“There is definitely an interest in both handsets and handhelds,” Kahn notes. “The price point is obviously lower for handsets, though. [In either case,] customers are typically deploying them because they want to extend communication capabilities to work done outside the truck cab. That includes the ability to do things such as barcode scanning, capturing signatures, providing proof of delivery, taking pictures of damaged cargo, and empowering drivers to extend fleet services such as booking freight.”

It is outside the cab where Kahn sees the real future for handhelds of all types. “We believe handsets and handhelds will be supplemental to in-cab devices, not replacements for them,” he says. “Going forward, I just don't see getting away from that model. There is no doubt, for instance, that the pending EOBR regulation will require a connection to the vehicle. Some fleets may also decide not to deploy handhelds or handsets because the value proposition for out-of-cab computing is just not there for them.

“On the other hand, more and more drivers are carrying handsets, and more and more applications are being offered on them. At the lower price points, the ROI requirement is lower, too. It may be that automating one good process will be enough to justify adding handsets for some carriers. Think in terms of ‘device flexibility forward,’” Kahn adds. “Fleets want the right tool for the right job.”

“The features you can get on handsets often overlap with some of the features you can get on installed systems,” notes Driscoll. “Many installed solutions are very feature-rich, which is one reason they are more expensive to deploy. Handsets really are focused on managing the worker and work outside the vehicle, not on managing the vehicle itself.”

HANDHELDS' “SWEET SPOT”

For Driscoll, that division of labor makes sense. “Cell phones, for instance, may be somewhat less reliable overall for asset tracking on the highway than installed solutions because the antenna is in the telephone,” he says. “Handsets can also more easily be disabled or discarded, but they can offer better performance in dense urban areas and even provide some in-building coverage. In the end, there will be a variety of MRM solutions at a variety of price points.”

At PeopleNet, bets are also on handhelds as an additional tool, not as a replacement for in-cab systems, according to Matt Voda, vice president of product management for PeopleNet. “We looked at handheld technology but decided to go with the Tablet, which is optionally portable for things like proof of delivery, signature capture and barcode scanning,” he says. “And I think that is the real role for handhelds — outside the cab.

“When you put handhelds inside the cab, there are some inherent issues,” Voda notes. “Drivers can create situations, intentionally or not, that present some risks.”

Like Kahn, Voda sees rugged handheld computers as being generally better suited than handsets to the demanding world of trucking. “From a consumer standpoint, handsets have enormous utility,” he says, “but in the fleet world, it remains to be seen if this is a viable technology. Most of them are not ruggedized. If a device is not working, you lose the ability to manage that asset.”

To that point, Kahn offers some advice to fleets considering deploying handhelds: “Create a device management process that tells drivers what to do if the device breaks,” he says. “Will you replace it? What is the procedure for replacing any data that may have also been lost?”

Kahn also recommends that fleets allow drivers to contribute to the value of the device with suggestions for their use. “Having driver buy-in is important,” he notes. “It helps improve usage and reduces loss and damage. If you are extending information out to devices that could be left somewhere, you should also take care regarding data security.”

Not everyone sees the future of handhelds as largely for out-of-cab use. Leo Tang, senior market development manager for Research in Motion, makers of the BlackBerry, sees handsets as versatile enough to handle tasks both inside and outside the truck cab when used appropriately. “I see smartphones as being uniquely positioned to play both inside and outside the cab,” Tang says. “Because they are portable, they allow drivers to remain connected when outside of the cab [at a customer site or truck stop]. However, the large screens, powerful processors, WWAN and WiFi radios, applications and Bluetooth connectivity to a multitude of peripheral devices [including tablets] make them perfectly suited to drivers' in-cab needs.

“One of the questions that came up [during a recent webcast about handhelds] was, ‘What are the operating specs of smartphones [e.g., temperature]?’” Tang adds. “This type of question might apply to a piece of equipment that is permanently affixed into the truck. Smartphones, on the other hand, are portable and are intended to be with the driver at all times…not left in a vehicle overnight.”

“Overall, we have seen an enormous trend toward the use of handhelds for commercial applications,” notes Christian Schenk, vice president-product marketing for Xata Turnpike. “Today, 70% of drivers carry their own mobile devices, and 40% of those are smartphones. They are carrying them not for business but for personal use. It is just plain silly for an industry like transportation to think that the trend [toward handhelds] will somehow pass them by.”

Schenk does not necessarily see inside the cab as the “sweet spot” for handhelds in terms of utility, however. Xata offers both in-cab and handheld solutions plus a hybrid solution that pairs an in-cab device with a handheld to enable EOBR compliance. He also supports policies and technologies to help guard against phone-related distracted driving. Schenk does believe the portability of handhelds has much to offer trucking, though, both inside the cab and out.

“There is still a feeling in trucking that if you are a big enterprise, you need a big, tethered device [to manage your fleet's assets],” he says. “That is not necessarily so. It is all about reliability, portability, and simplicity of use. Bigger fleets are finding that they can use them, too, and are beginning to adopt them more aggressively.”

Experts discuss handhelds in webinar

Internationally recognized mobile resource management expert Clement Driscoll, along with Leo Tang, senior market development manager for Reseach in Motion, makers of the BlackBerry, discussed the benefits and challenges surrounding the use of handheld devices in trucking in a recent webinar. The hour-long program is available for viewing online at no charge. Go to www.fleetowner.com.

The event was presented by Fleet Owner and Truckload Carriers Assn., with the support of sponsors Xata and Sprint.