Far from creating more distractions in the cab for truck drivers, Sprint CEO Dan Hesse believes more wireless connections within commercial vehicles – especially for navigation systems – will prove to save both time and money for motor carriers in a big way.

“Consider this: the average over-the-road truck travels about 120,000 miles per year [and] it is estimated that about of 6% of those miles are ‘out-of-route,’ that is, miles wasted when a driver is lost or looking for directions,” Hesse said in a speech to the Detroit Economic Club late last week.

“[But] by connecting their trucks through advanced wireless systems that include integrated mobile computing and navigation, fleet operators can easily cut that number by a third,” he explained. “For a fleet company that operates 100 trucks that would keep almost one million lbs of carbon dioxide out of the air every year – plus the fuel savings.”

That’s one reason Sprint in engaging in a new strategic effort dubbed the “Connected Transportation” initiative. This is aimed at using wireless technology in cars on up through heavy trucks to provide a range of environmental, safety and operational efficiencies.

“The future of the wireless industry will be about more than cell phones. It’s going to be about wirelessly connecting machines to other machines,” Hesse stressed. “The number of machine-to-machine devices is expected to reach 2.1 billion in 2020, driven by industries such as utilities, healthcare and transportation.”

Today, he noted there are more than 250-million cars and trucks on the road, but only 4% of them are connected wirelessly. “That’s a huge opportunity for growth,” Hesse said. “In fact, the U.S. is expected to be the leading region for car Internet access for the next six years, with users expected to rise up to 28 million in 2016, up from 530,000 in 2009, a 50-fold increase.”

Yet he emphasized that “Sprint’s vision” goes beyond merely connecting millions of cars. “It’s about providing ‘connected transportation’ to trucks, buses, subways, taxis, planes, police cars and ambulances, so that they can be instantly linked through voice, data and images,” Hesse said.

For example, 2010 marked the first time the U.S. wireless industry carried more data traffic than voice traffic. But within the next three years, data traffic will be 66 times what it was in 2008, he pointed out.

One example of “truck connectivity” Hesse noted is a package Paccar is rolling out for its Peterbilt and Kenworth Class 5-8 commercial vehicles – branded “SmartNav” for Peterbilt and “NavPlus” for Kenworth – that is built around Sprint’s cellular technology.

It’s designed to provide truck operators with telematics, diagnostics, back-office and infotainment functionality to improve vehicle productivity and driver comfort while on the road. “Navigation and business systems will be provided with our advanced 3G and 4G networks for drivers to easily and safely use while traveling,” Hesse pointed out, along with “hands-free” phoning with Bluetooth, back-up camera options, and other options.

To be launched in 2011, SmartNav and NavPlus will become standard features on all premium interior trim offerings for both Peterbilt and Kenworth models including diesel-electric hybrid vehicles.

“Navigation and business systems will be provided with vehicle connectivity services for drivers to easily and safely use while traveling,” Hesse added. “When a truck is not in motion, drivers will be able to access the Internet, and send and receive emails to enhance communications with dispatchers, logistics providers and shippers.”