Full Speed Ahead

By  Michelle Maisto — July 31, 2008

"It's that old adage: If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

Barry Craver, Director of Freight Processing Applications for Old Dominion Freight Line, is discussing the rugged Motorola MC9060 devices that his drivers have been using successfully for several years now.

Motorola has a newer model available, the MC9090, and as older 9060s need replacing Craver and his team are phasing in the 9090s. "The handhelds we currently have will work for us for at least a couple more years," says Craver. "If we've got to order additional handhelds for expansion in new locations, we might look at the newer handhelds, but we're not committed to them yet."

That's not to say the company is sitting back on its mobile laurels. Craver and his team are now piloting telematics solutions, among other options, aimed at improving fuel efficiencies "Our philosophy has been, since the inception of our Information Systems Department, to create best-of-breed applications that fit our business, rather than our business having to fit some canned packaged," says Craver. Unimpressed by bells and whistles, Craver identifies needs within the company and develops applications that meet them.

Old Dominion, a less-than-truckload (LTL) freight carrier nearing its 75th year, deployed its first mobile solution in 2000. Since then, it's cycled through more than three generations of mobility products, learning what it takes to remain successful in the process.

The current deployment is rounded out with wireless coverage from the AT&T Wireless and Verizon Wireless networks, depending where in the country a driver is working. It operates using the Motorola Mobility Services Platform (MSP), which enables Old Dominion to remotely manage the 3,500 devices in use by its drivers.

"We call it rapid deployment," says Craver, "where you're basically provisioning and configuring a device to be sent out to a location. Then, once it's at a location, we can monitor the devices through the MSP and push updates to the devices, rather than bringing them in to our corporate office."

Having the management tools to deploy and maintain a mobility infrastructure from a single location is enormously important from an I.T. perspective, says Jerry McNerney, senior director of Motorola's Transportation, Distribution & Logistics Solutions Group. A worker with a failing device can hardly cancel a day's roster of assignments. "I.T. needs to get that person back up and working almost immediately," says McNerney. "For them to be able to have visibility into a device to make any repairs or adjustments, that's a huge way for people to have confidence that they're going to be able to maintain their schedules and drive revenue. And in today's business, driving revenue is an awful big deal."

Setting the Pace
Old Dominion is 13,000 employees strong and has nearly 5,200 tractors and 20,000 trailers covering 47 states. Craver compares Old Dominion's business model to that of an airline. "Unless you live in a major hub city, you go from your airport to a hub, and then get on another plane and then go to your final destination," he says. "That's exactly how we move freight in an LTL environment."

Profitability hinges on how effectively the company can manage its assets, and how close a view it has of them -- which is exactly the benefit it has realized with the deployment of the Motorola MSP and MC9060 devices. The solution can capture and relate information in real-time, which offers a drilled-down view into what drivers are doing and when. Because drivers are paid by the hour, the specificity of real-time information enabled O.D. to fine-tune its pricing models, which has increased profits.

"The handhelds are completely rolled out to all of our pick-up and delivery drivers," says Craver. "As they're making deliveries, that information is fed in real time back into our systems. It's not GPS, though. A driver will actually put himself en route to the delivery or pickup stop, and he'll arrive and complete that stop. When he completes it, he'll input who signed for it, or the details of the shipment and where it's going, and when he completes it, that updates our system in real time."

The benefits snowballed from there. Communicating through the solution has reduced the amount of voice-to-voice communications between drivers and dispatchers, which has made both sides more productive. Plus, now that each step is illuminated by the driver, customers can check order and delivery status online; it's a feature they appreciate, and it has made Old Dominion more competitive in the marketplace. Additionally, the real-time look at each driver's progress had the unexpected benefit of reducing miles between stops and improving the number of stops per hour. It seems the drivers became more conscientious, which is now saving the company in fuel costs and fuel tax dollars.

And of course, no discussion of trucking can overlook fuel costs, which Craver says will be the focus of the company's next mobile deployment. "Fuel is obviously impacting us, just like it's impacting everybody," he says. "Our challenge next is what we can do with our fleet to better manage the miles we're running and the fuel economy we're getting." The likely solution is a telematics system, a black box that connects to a vehicle's engine and communicates with a driver's mobile device, ideally via Bluetooth.

"Telematics has become a huge extension of the business," says Motorola's McNerney. "For example, if you have a truck driver who's going 60 mph, and another going 70 mph, it turns out the driver going 60 saves about 10% of fuel usage on a daily basis. Some of the leading operators are even checking, on a daily basis, how much the tires are inflated, because you can get better gas mileage [with proper tire inflation]. When you're paying ridiculous prices for gas, if you can save 5%, 10%, 15% of your costs from a gas perspective, that's a huge savings. And that doesn't even take into account the scheduling or the mapping aspect, where you can insure you're routing yourself from Point A to Point B as optimally as possible."

With government regulations changing, McNerney says telematics solutions are becoming more required than optional for trucking businesses where state borders are being crossed. While consumers pay taxes at the pump, trucking companies additionally pay state taxes on gas proportionate to the number of miles they drove in that state. "A lot of people are using electronic means to manage that type of activity," says McNerney.

Old Dominion is currently piloting three telematics solutions and is looking for real-time engine diagnostic information such as miles-per-gallon, odometer readings and any engine fault codes, so that repairs can be made proactively. Also under consideration is a rollout of mobile printers for the drivers, and a photography option in the Motorola handhelds, so that drivers can document scenarios such as the condition of a shipment at delivery.

"Old Dominion has been a very aggressive [adopter of mobility] from an LTL perspective over the last decade," says McNerney. "[As partners] I think we learn a lot from each other, and we push each other to be better and to provide a better complete solution." //

Michelle Maisto has been covering mobility for a decade.

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