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Making the right technology choices

By Lucas Deal

Omnitracs says it works hard upfront to develop applications with strong customer demand and a good return on investment. “Customers are pushing us to be better,” says Christopher Platt, vice president of strategic accounts and sales.

From the tractor’s front bumper to the trailer’s back door, there’s almost no surface on a truck that cannot be improved or optimized with new technology. The story’s no different inside the cab, or even at a fleet terminal, where new and more advanced asset monitoring, maintenance and efficiency programs are being released seemingly weekly and promising to provide the ultimate solution for uptime.

It’s almost overwhelming, said Tom Boyer, vice president of maintenance for St. Louis-based Hogan Truck Leasing. “There are so many great technologies on the market right now,” Boyer said. “It can be hard to stay on top of them all.”

But as difficult a task as it may seem, Boyer and other fleet managers say there are methods to managing trucking’s technology boom.

By mixing driver and supplier insight with predictive financial metrics and in-house data, carriers can develop repeatable strategies for evaluating and selecting new technologies.

New and more advanced
asset monitoring, maintenance and efficiency programs are being released seemingly weekly and promising to provide the ultimate solution for uptime.

At Southeastern Freight Lines (CCJ Top 250, No. 27), Woody Lovelace, senior vice president of corporate planning and development, said his team starts every investigation into a new technology by trying to answer how the tool in question can fit into the less-than-truckload fleet’s operation.

While fit can mean many things, at SEFL it equates to finding what Lovelace described as the balance between whatever “weakness a product is addressing” compared to the Lexington, S.C.-based company’s overall objectives.

Spec’ing scores of new features and products into SEFL’s tractors each year isn’t feasible, so Lovelace’s team tries to find solutions that check the most boxes — addressing key performance indicators and moving the fleet closest to its performance and financial goals.

Though Taylor Brown operates a lease fleet, he tries to do the same for his clients. “We’re always open to trying new things,” said Brown, executive vice president for Urbandale, Iowa-based Brown NationaLease. “We just want to make sure what we’re considering provides a benefit to [our customers].”

Most suppliers are aware of that expectation and have made it a priority to fulfill it.

“We work hard upfront to develop applications with strong customer demand and a good return on investment,” said Christopher Platt, vice president of strategic accounts and sales for Omnitracs. “Customers are pushing us to be better.”

Product determinations also require the ability to predict implementation, usage and long-term profitability.

“There are some technologies that have nice formulas you can look at where you can see quantifiable data, but others aren’t like that,” Boyer said. “You have to be able to see what a product can give you.”

In this seventh edition of CCJ’s Tech Toolbox, we look at how fleets can evaluate technologies available on the market today and determine which ones are the best fits for their business to maximize efficiency and profitability.

Also be sure to visit CCJTechToolbox.com for other installments and multimedia content and to sign up for special Tech Toolbox webinars and newsletters.Next month: Technology’s role in providing business insights.


Drivers behind many decisions

By Lucas Deal

At Hogan Truck Leasing, customer input is used not only to determine the best technologies to onboard for its leased units but also as valuable data for its sister company, Hogan Transportation.

Arguably the best identifiers of new technology for a fleet are its drivers. Between their time behind the wheel and interacting with their contemporaries and customers, drivers have the most opportunities to see and hear about trucking’s latest needs and the technological developments to meet them.

For fleets undecided on what product to onboard next, driver input can be a steadying influence.

“We get a lot of driver feedback — in fact, we encourage it,” said Tom Benusa, chief information officer for Transport America. “We always want to know how we can make them safer and more efficient.”

Transport America has operated a driver council for many years for this reason. Benusa said the council allows the Eagan, Minn.-based truckload company to hear directly from its front-line employees about their daily pain points and possible solutions, as well as to receive updates on how other newly implemented technologies are working out.

Brown NationaLease’s Taylor Brown said his company is equally inquisitive with its customers and their drivers.

“That has always been a huge benefit for us — customers coming to us and asking if we’d be willing to try something or consider something because they think it could help them,” Brown said. “We’ll try just about anything if a customer is asking for it.”

Hogan Truck Leasing’s Tom Boyer said his company is equally appreciative of driver-based customer feedback. Customer input is used not only to determine the best technologies to onboard for its leased units but also as valuable data for its sister company, Hogan Transportation.

Boyer said that in his 26 years with Hogan, he’s seen many technologies accepted in one of the company’s fleets make their way to the other — and vice versa. The key, he said, is duty cycle; a technology thriving in one fleet is likely to be pitched to another, but only if the usage variables are similar.

“We have varied operations out there, and certain equipment works better in specific applications,” Boyer said.


How suppliers catch your eye

By Lucas Deal

Geotab says that when coupled with its device’s plug-and-play installation and minimal unit cost, information on how the product can reduce downtime gives potential customers a clear understanding of the company’s value proposition.

Driven by customer demand and an increasingly competitive marketplace, OEMs and technology providers are turning to advanced data and analytics as tools to earn market share.

Today’s sales pitches are more than just product demonstrations; they also feature return-on-investment calculators, detailed lifecycle/functionality projections and field-testing reports.

“We try to offer a significant amount of information on each product we offer,” said Shane Groner, director of field business development for Eaton. “When we launch a product, we want our customers to know how it works in the field.”

Ray West, TMW Systems’ senior vice president and general manager of transportation management software products, said his company uses a similar strategy. By leveraging its strong presence in the fleet community to develop duty cycle-specific investment calculators, TMW can take an excerpt of a potential customer’s data “and run it against our product and show them what their savings could have been” had they used one of the company’s solutions.

Which types of technology are you using in your fleet?

Safety technology (collision mitigation,
lane departure warnings, stability control, etc.)

30.5%

Fuel-efficiency technology (aerodynamic devices,
6×2 axles, tire monitoring/inflation, etc.)

40.1%

Asset management technology (vehicle routing,
mapping, geofencing, etc.)

49.4%

Driver management technology (ELDs, etc.)

46.2%

Maintenance and service technology
(Telematics, predictive analytics, service event management software, etc.)

38.5%

None of the above

28.0%

Other

1.4%

Source: CCJ survey of fleet professionals, 429 respondents

Savings earned through seamless integration and functionality have won customers for Navistar, said Jim Nachtman, the company’s product marketing manager of on-highway trucks.

“When a fleet looks at a powertrain, they look at the overall package, not just performance,” Nachtman said. “We work to focus on that total cost of ownership and their savings over the long term.”

Other technology providers such as Geotab focus their message on the costs associated with not implementing technology. Scott Sutarik, the company’s business development and OEM sales manager, said the remote diagnostics provider builds its ROI calculations around downtime and the potential expenses a fleet can avoid by identifying maintenance issues before a breakdown.

When coupled with the Geotab device’s plug-and-play installation and minimal unit cost, this information gives potential customers a clear understanding of the company’s value proposition, Sutarik said.

That’s the goal, the suppliers say. Not every customer is right for every technology, and the more information a supplier provides up front, the easier it is for prospective customers to sort through all available technologies and find the best fits for their specific needs.

Now accepting ideas

Vehicle and software technology providers also are showing an increased acceptance of customer input regarding new technologies.

At Eaton, “we rarely design products anymore without direct customer input,” Groner said, explaining that the company’s goal with upfront customer interaction is to ensure it dedicates its research and development to products its customers desire. A fleet choosing between several technologies will lean toward the best problem solver nearly every time, he said.

Bringing a customer’s idea to fruition also helps with traditional selling. “When you get to the production phase, you already have a built-in customer base,” Groner said. “They’re invested in the product.”

Some technology providers also have found their own innovations to be valuable for discovering other customer needs. Using data acquired through its nationwide dealer network, GCR Tires & Service has built performance metrics and alerts into its fleet management solutions to better inform customers of tire maintenance issues in real time.

“This is a value-add we can provide our customers — diving into their operations and understanding what is going on with their vehicles,” said Ron Greenleaf, regional sales manager for GCR’s Mountain District.


Performing a cost-benefit analysis

By Lucas Deal

Fleets deciding on an investment in trailer side skirts also may need to consider market adoption. An accepted technology such as side skirts can have later resale value in addition to upfront fuel economy savings.

A cost-benefit analysis is a valuable resource for a fleet to evaluate potential technologies and identify products and/or services best suited for integration.

These comprehensive analyses consider every financial implication of a specific program or investment to determine if it is financially sound, building a baseline for comparing a potential investment against both an existing or an additional future investment.

A CBA starts with cost determination.

In the case of trailer skirts, a carrier would need to identify exactly how much a fleetwide rollout would cost. Itemized by step — asset cost, installation, maintenance and repair, driver training — these costs should be estimated using supplier rates and industry research to best determine the likely realistic final cost.

Failing to consider time and employee commitment as costs can derail a CBA before it gets off the ground. A technician pulled from a bay for skirt installations lowers shop productivity. And don’t neglect a technician’s efficiency: Tasking a new or slow employee to perform installations can be costlier over the long haul than giving the job to the best, fastest worker.

“The quicker any installation is done, the quicker a fleet can start working toward their [return on investment],” said Deryk Powell, president of Velociti, a transportation technology deployment consultant.

Calculating that ROI and the technology’s overall benefit comes next. For trailer skirts, this would include an itemized list showing fuel savings per unit per year, reduced undercarriage maintenance and more.

Also consider market adoption, Powell said. An accepted technology such as side skirts can have later resale value in addition to upfront fuel economy savings.

After the cost and ROI lists are developed, do the math. Costs should be evaluated against benefits to determine if or when the skirts will become a net-positive ROI. An accurate ROI date is essential for carriers with shorter asset turnover cycles.
“For us, it always comes down to that ROI,” said Woody Lovelace of Southeastern Freight Lines. “How quickly can we get to that payback?”

Transport America’s Tom Benusa aims for 12- to 24-month paybacks for most new technologies in his fleet.

“We keep our trailers 10 years, but we’re not going to take on something with a 10-year break-even point,” Benusa said.


Turning opportunity into tech reality

By Lucas Deal

Transport America worked backward to build a plan that would uncover, evaluate and select a software provider that appeared best suited to cut down on time-consuming trailer-hunting experiences for its drivers.

When driver feedback and corporate research uncovered trailer tracking as a worthwhile technology to onboard at Transport America, Tom Benusa said his team’s first step toward adoption came internally with the development of a comprehensive selection and implementation strategy.

“Once we knew drivers were having trouble finding empty trailers and were driving around looking for empty trailers, we knew that was a problem we had to solve,” said Benusa, the company’s chief information officer.

From there, Transport America worked backward to build a plan that would uncover, evaluate and select a software provider that appeared best suited to cut down on time-consuming trailer-hunting experiences for its drivers.

The first step was researching all potential providers. Benusa said Transport America worked quickly, first by compiling a full list of trailer-tracking vendors, then evaluating each company’s suite of services against the fleet’s specific needs.

This initial stage was followed by outreach to the providers, where Transport America requested more information — and from the contenders, brief demonstrations — on how the monitoring software in question would meet its asset management goals.

After presentations from “most of them” and “discussions with all of them,” Benusa said Transport America brought the top two candidates to its corporate office for detailed conversations and to discuss implementation.

Transport America used these meetings to answer all its remaining questions regarding both systems — including system functionality, driver reporting and pricing models — while also giving the suppliers a platform to answer the question of “Why should we select you?” Benusa said.

Using the selection criteria developed months prior, Transport America then chose the provider it believed most likely would help it meet its goals. This brought the company to its final step before fleetwide implementation: field testing.

Benusa said Transport America retrofitted nearly 50 trailers with the selected software and began a two-month-plus trial. The company tracked more than two dozen data points during this period — against both the software provider’s claims and the fleet’s internal goals and expectations.

It was only when “it met all of those expectations that [Transport America] finally moved forward and signed the contract,” he said.


Asset management equipment tops poll

By Lucas Deal

CCJ ’s survey shows — this December’s ELD mandate notwithstanding — that most technology found in trucks today is purchased proactively, not required.

A recent CCJ survey of 429 fleet professionals shows asset and driver management equipment as the most commonly used technologies in today’s North American fleet marketplace.

With the electronic logging device mandate still months from implementation, no single technology garnered more than 50 percent of industrywide acceptance in CCJ’s survey, though asset management tools such as vehicle routing, mapping and geofencing software were closest, netting a 49.4 percent industry-wide usage rate.

Driver management technology (i.e. ELDs) followed at 46.2 percent, and fuel-efficiency technologies (aerodynamic devices, tire inflation/monitoring tools, etc.) came in third with a 40.1 percent overall usage rate.

On a fleet-by-fleet basis, more than 55 percent of for-hire carriers and leasing and rental fleets professed to using asset management technology, compared to just 18.9 percent of owner-operators. For-hire carriers also lead in industry acceptance of ELDs, with an adoption rate of 61.6 percent.

Conversely, leasing and rental fleets are the industry’s biggest adopters of telematics, remote diagnostics and other maintenance-based technologies, posting a 66.7 percent usage rate. Municipality respondents clocked in second in that category with a 57.1 percent acceptance rate. For-hire and private carriers had 40.6 and 38 percent acceptance rates, respectively, of the same products and services.

Larger fleets also have higher technology acceptance totals across the board.

Which technology has proven to be least beneficial to your operation?

Safety technology

8.7%

Fuel-efficiency technology

8.7%

Asset
management technology

7.4%

Driver
management technology

13.9%

Maintenance and service technology

13.5%

None of the above

46.5%

Other

1.3%

Source: CCJ survey of fleet professionals, 429 respondents

Only 15.3 percent of respondents claimed to operate more than 200 trucks, but among those fleets, asset management, driver management, maintenance, fuel-efficiency and safety (collision mitigation, stability control, etc.) technologies all scored acceptance rates of 60 percent or higher. The survey’s largest respondents (1,000-plus trucks) were even more pro-technology, with 91 percent acceptance rates for driver, fuel-efficiency and safety technologies, and mid-80s rates for asset management and maintenance tools.

CCJ’s survey also shows — this December’s ELD mandate notwithstanding — that most technology found in trucks today is purchased proactively, not required.

Nearly 63 percent of all fleet respondents say their first advanced technology purchase was made with a hope of improving operational efficiency. That total was nearly four times higher than government-mandated requirements (16.9 percent).

Even among the smallest fleet respondents (1 to 15 tractors), a desire for operational efficiency more than doubled government requirements (50.5 to 22.4 percent) in the acceptance of a new technology.

Despite these numbers, more than a quarter of all respondents (28 percent) continue to resist all advanced technology. Among operations of 200 trucks or less, these fleets attributed cost (34.2 percent), a lack of belief in the technology (31.6 percent) or unfulfilled ROI numbers (20 percent) as the main reasons for staying out of the technology arena.


Doing it yourself

By Lucas Deal

Rather than adopt a driver app that wasn’t quite right, Southeastern Freight Lines’ internal software developers built their own.

Developing one’s own technology can be helpful in instances when options on the market may not be suitable — or even available.

Woody Lovelace said that was the case with the development of Southeastern Freight Lines’ driver app. Lovelace said that when the carrier first provided its drivers with handheld computers in 1991, there were no complete applications available.

So rather than adopt a solution that wasn’t quite right, SEFL’s internal software developers built their own. Lovelace said it wasn’t the first time the company looked internally to solve a technology problem.

“Most of our core systems, we developed in-house,” he said. “When we’re looking at something new, we make sure to consider what kind of investment it would be for us to build it in-house as opposed to acquiring it.”

Likewise, Transport America followed a similar path when developing its own driver app.

Looking to implement an app that would allow drivers to “stay connected with our operations even when they were not in the cab,” Tom Benusa said his team accepted ideas for three months from its drivers on what they wanted the app to do; that time was followed by five months of design and development.

Transport America worked with a local software company to build the tool. The result was a “one-of-a-kind” app that Benusa said allows drivers “to know exactly what information is coming to their truck.”