Like musicians entering a concert hall with their instruments in hand, wireless communication technologies have been steadily converging and adding their various digital data streams to the growing chorus of information that now plays 24/7 behind the businesses on center stage. Satellite communications, cellular, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, WiMAX, RFID, smart sensors, Dedicated Short Range Communications (DSRC) and more are forming ad-hoc, all-machine ensembles that communicate wirelessly together without ceasing. Computers are their equally tireless conductors, turning what might be a senseless "din" of data into usable information that is music to fleet managers' ears.

"Today we are working with multiple service providers, multiple smart devices and multiple applications," says Chris Jones, in charge of EVP solutions and services for Descartes, a global provider of logistics messaging services. "We built a platform that takes wireless messages from numerous carriers — Sprint, AT&T, Verizon; we are network agnostic — and then sends them to the computer systems that can do something with them, like route optimization or asset tracking.

"We are talking about a huge number of variables and a very high degree of complexity," Jones adds. "Our goal is to try to mask that complexity as far as possible for our customers to bring them just what they each need, as they need it."

"There is a whole spectrum of mobile devices out there today to meet a whole spectrum of needs," notes Jim Hayes, senior vertical industry manager for Sprint's industry business solutions team. "Part of the challenge is figuring out who needs what information when and where."

"We work very hard to try to match the right group of technologies to each customer's needs," says David Bushee, vp for Penske Logistics, a wholly owned subsidiary of Penske Truck Leasing. "For instance, we have a technology team that meets with customers to determine what the right technology mix is to meet their needs — at the lowest cost."

WHAT FLEETS NEED

According to Chris Jones, fleet technology needs can increasingly be sorted into three main groups: logistics management, including capabilities such as dispatch, turn-by-turn navigation, asset tracking, traffic information and routing; transaction-specific, at-the-stop capabilities such as signature capture, scanning bar codes, inventory management and printing invoices; and regulatory compliance such as driver hours-of-service logs, fuel tax reporting, driver performance monitoring or permitting.

"In the past, fleets could get some of the information they needed in each of those three categories from three different providers. There was no easy way to get it all in one spot," he notes. "That single-source view is something fleets want now, and the market is moving quickly in that direction.

"A lot of what is driving this is the convergence of the consumer and commercial mobile communications markets," Jones adds. "Handhelds used to be very expensive, for instance. Now the prices have come down and the features and functionality have gone way up. That is driving a lot of the desire to pull this all together.

"There are two basic types of technology customers," he says, "those who want the sophistication that comes with lots of technology in the vehicles in the field, and those who also want real-time mobile communications but can't afford to pay a lot for it. We have one customer who has 6,000 drivers and wants to give them all mobile communications technology. Lower-cost, Windows-enabled phones or other handheld devices can allow them to save money and still do a much better job managing their fleet, even with basic, low-cost capabilities. Both of these customer bases will continue to take off."

ABI Research reports the GPS-enabled mobile phone market is indeed taking off, albeit at a slightly slower pace in 2009. A new market study by ABI predicts that sales of GPS-enabled phones will climb to 240 million units in 2009, an increase of 6.4% over 2008. By 2014, they expect nine out of ten smart phones will include GPS capability. "Falling component prices and increased consumer awareness of handset location capabilities will keep demand for GPS-enabled phones healthy, in spite of the slumping global economic picture," senior ABI analyst George Perros notes in a recent release. "Other factors that will continue the trend toward inclusion of GPS functionality in handsets include the spread of open source operating systems…and the continuing emergence of navigation and map-based applications for handsets.

"As the quality of positioning technology in handsets improves and the cost of including it declines, GPS location technology will approach the status of a standard device feature," he adds. "We are approaching the point where personal navigation, social spatial knowledge, and location-specific contextual information will be assumed handset capabilities."

MATTER OF ACCEPTANCE

"A lot of what is happening in the market is just a matter of acceptance," says Sprint's Jim Hayes. "The handheld tools have been out there for some time and the technology has matured. People are now learning to use them. As the cellular network builds out, speeds improve and the costs decline, people are asking themselves, ‘Do I really need satellite? Could I manage with a smart phone or a Windows-enabled mobile device? Would an embedded notebook computer or PC do what we need to do?’

"The more cellular users there are, the faster the technology advances," Hayes adds. "Innovation comes from everywhere. In February, we introduced an application called NextMail Locator for select Nextel Direct Connect phones. With NextMail, customers can now push-to-send their location, date, time and voice observations to a dispatcher, call center or another worker just by pushing the Direct Connect button and leaving a message.

"For instance, a driver might call and say, ‘I am at the delivery location in front of the door I was told to go to, but the door is blocked by a dumpster.’ That message is date, time and GPS-location stamped and saved as voice mail," Hayes notes. "With the camera function on the phone, the driver can include a picture of the dumpster too. The function is very easy to use and it gets fleets and their customers out of the he-says, she-says mode."

While cellular technology is itself growing and evolving, cellular networks are also being caught up in the general move to link various wireless technologies together to create new solutions and consolidate information. TeleNav Inc., for example, recently announced a new partnership with Sprint and Turnpike Global Technologies to create a system that combines onboard vehicle diagnostics and IFTA fuel-tax filing with GPS-enabled navigation, asset tracking, wireless forms and wireless timecards.

Dubbed the TeleNav Vehicle Manager, the new system uses Turnpike's electronic onboard recorder (EOBR) paired via Bluetooth technology with a GPS-enabled wireless phone to get the job done. "The transportation industry is very adept at deploying technology to gain efficiencies," notes Keith Halasy, senior marketing manager of business-to-business products for TeleNav. "In this case, Sprint was the technology matchmaker; they put us together with Turnpike to create this new solution."

ONBOARD WIRELESS TECHNOLOGY

Like cellular devices, onboard wireless communication systems are also evolving at a brisk pace while, at the same time, also multiplying functionality by linking various wireless technologies together. PeopleNet, for example, introduced a new tethered trailer tracking system in February called the Wi-VAN Gateway that utilizes Wi-Fi on the tractor, RFID technology on the trailer, and the company's g3 onboard computer to enable the back office to monitor trailer hook-ups, drops and their locations in real time.

"Once the new Wi-VAN Gateway on the tractor is in proximity with an equipped trailer, the two can start communicating with one another," says Tom Dorazio, product manager for PeopleNet. "The RFID tag signals the trailer identification number and its GPS location. The Wi-VAN Gateway, mounted inside the tractor, relays that information to the g3 computer, which sends it back to the PeopleNet Operating Center where the data is stored. Customers can access a series of reports based on this information, including Hooked Trailer, Trailer Locations, Alerts and Trailer History. Fleets can also retrieve data for integration into their back-office systems.

"This is a tethered trailer solution for people who do not need 24/7 monitoring," Dorazio says. "It is designed to provide a relatively low cost tracking solution for the fleets that can use it. What we are doing with the Wi-VAN Gateway is creating a wireless area around the vehicle. We are trying to move away from hard-wiring all the different peripherals on the truck. The Gateway gives us a platform to do that, a standard interface to multiple applications and devices from third parties.

"In the future, the Wi-VAN platform will enable the collection and integration of more comprehensive data, including things like tire pressure and reefer monitoring and more," he adds. "What we are seeing is that the point solutions are being driven by the fleets. Our opportunity is to integrate all those into a single solution process and get that information back to the fleets faster and in a unified way via one communication path."

DriverTech, designers of the DT4000 TruckPC Windows XP-embedded onboard computing system that takes advantage of satellite, cellular and Wi-Fi technologies to link the driver to many sources of data, recently announced an agreement that links wireless technologies together to deliver a more consolidated communications solution. Their new partnership with iCooper will integrate iPhones and other handheld devices with the DriverTech computer to enable the creation of an untethered LAN (local area network) to capture and automatically synchronize delivery, truck, driver and customer data wirelessly or through an in-cab docking device.

"This partnership is about combining technology and offering over-the-road, delivery and specialty fleets a truly valuable interface between DriverTech's onboard system and enterprise management applications that we develop for handheld devices," noted Jared S. Oviatt, COO at iCooper, in a recent announcement.

Wireless communications pioneer and innovator Qualcomm also sees a future where various wireless devices all communicate with one another to enable fleets to take efficiency to new levels. The company's own in-cab Mobile Computing Platform (MCP), which has both terrestrial and satellite communication options, has reached an installed base of some 33,000 active units in the two and a half years since its introduction. The brand new MCP200 will add even greater functionality, including Wi-Fi, in-cab training, Internet access and multi-mode capability.

"One technology that will get more prevalent in the future is Wi-Fi," says Norm Ellis, vp of transportation and logistics sales and service for Qualcomm Enterprise Services, a division of Qualcomm Inc. "It is cheap, even free to users, and once you get the access points up, the recurrent costs are low. Wi-Fi has tremendous download capabilities. You can even download video, something that is really cost-prohibitive with satellite, for instance."

WI-FI, SMART SENSORS & MORE

"In the next 24 to 36 months, we expect to see more in-cab video, and we are enthusiastic about what you could do with that capability," Ellis says. "Can you use it to tell the driver about a specific customer's needs and expectations, about company procedures and processes? Does it offer an opportunity to use the driver's time more efficiently?

"You could also use Wi-Fi to allow drivers access to the company intranet," he adds. "Just think about what you could do with that — driver payroll, access to human resources services or load boards. You could do all the things fleets do with driver kiosks now, except right in the cab. Wi-Fi has been used extensively in warehouses and other controlled environments, but it will gain a lot of momentum in the near future."

One of the first things Qualcomm will be offering on the new Wi-Fi capable MCP200 system is in-cab driver training from Instructional Technologies Inc. (ITI), developer of the Pro-TREAD series of interactive, multi-media driver training lessons. In the case of Pro-TREAD, the lessons will be loaded right onto the computer at the factory, according to ITI's CEO Jim Voorhees. An access code will turn the lessons on for those who want to activate the training. "Once a driver completes a lesson, the test data can be sent back to ITI via Wi-Fi 802.11 [if the truck is in a Wi-Fi hot spot] or by cellular," he notes.

In addition to the expansion of Wi-Fi for mobile applications, Ellis also sees a lot of interest in capturing and integrating data from sensors, particularly for functions like reefer monitoring and control or for the monitoring of other onboard systems such as braking. "Right now, we can monitor events like rapid decelerations, but with more sensors, right on the brakes, for instance, we could see if the brakes overheated or locked up," he says. "Sensors have generally been in silos up to this point, with no clear way to compile and integrate all that information in real time."

One way to do that, according to Ellis, is to add Wi-Fi capability right to the engine's electronic control module (ECM). "Customers have great interest in this," Ellis says. "I've been deeply involved with it myself. It may be one or two years away, but it will happen."

TOMORROW, OR THE DAY AFTER

Eventually, a day will come when all wireless devices around the world can "speak a common language." Work is going on in earnest now to develop the standard protocols that will help to make it possible. Strange as it may seem, machines may be able to communicate easily with one another long before their owners have conquered the human language barrier.

In fact, IT developers are working now to make it easier for humans to interact with their machines — by making the machines more human. The March/April issue of MIT's Technology Review offers a preview of one such effort: an Internet "do engine" that would replace search engines with a virtual personal assistant designed to help users complete tasks.

The new software is a product of a start-up company called Siri and is intended to enable users to type or speak commands in casual sentences, like asking the ‘assistant’ to find a midpriced Chinese restaurant in a particular part of town and make a reservation there. "We believe that in five years, everyone's going to have a virtual assistant to which they delegate a lot of the menial tasks," says Dag Kittlaus, Siri's cofounder and CEO.

For busier-than-ever fleet owners, this may be the ultimate in wireless technology integration, the sweetest business music of all: smart machines communicating and working together 24/7 on behalf of the business enterprise and then reaching across the digital divide to communicate with their users — in the user's very own human language.