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App-less cell phone-based freight tracking is dead

 Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves
Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves

Note: This story has been updated to clarify that apps which depend on tracking capabilities to function will continue to work, even as app-less tracking is discontinued.

As visibility into shipments become increasingly relevant, track and trace solutions now play a vital role in the transportation and logistics industries, helping fleets automate real-time location tracking of shipments. Cellphone-based tracking has been one of the easiest ways to do this, because companies are not required to set up extensive infrastructure to monitor freight movement.

However, due to recent government scrutiny, cell phone pinging would be disabled by the major telecom service providers in the upcoming month, which is a cause for concern among fleets that rely entirely on app-less mobile signal tracking. “Sprint and AT&T have already stopped sharing location data, with T-Mobile announcing that it will stop sharing by the end of March. I believe Verizon will follow suit shortly thereafter,” said Jason Traff, president and co-founder of Shipwell.

Much of this has to do with consumers getting conscious of their privacy. Traff explained that telecom service providers never intended to walk this path, as they started selling data initially for reasons that were legitimate – like for emergency medical services and distress signals. Slowly, they extended their aggregated services, with track-and-trace becoming popular among law enforcement agencies and bounty hunters who used it to track people without their knowledge or consent.

Quite recently, a group of Senators have called on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to investigate the business dealings of telecommunications companies with bounty hunters over their data-sharing arrangements. The Senators wrote a letter charging the service providers have failed to regulate themselves or their partners, thus exposing consumers to serious harm.

The concern is valid since there have been sporadic occurrences of security breaches. With consumer data being leaked, it kicked off a government investigation that put pressure on the carriers to stop trading location data. The fallout of this debacle has hit the freight industry as well, even when the issue that revolves around privacy and being tracked without consent does not necessarily apply to transportation-related use cases.

“It is a part of the public perception shift, where consumers are increasingly more protective over their data and on how it’s used. I think transportation is almost an unfortunate bystander in this, as you’ve always had to have a carrier opt-in and permit you to track them,” said Traff.

The impact of this development is enormous, especially with regard to shippers and third-party logistics providers (3PLs). Traff explained that transportation management systems (TMS) have integrated tracking automation that works on an app-less cellphone-based ping, and once that is taken out, they have a problem with accessing real-time visibility. “Looking at the largest trends in transportation with things becoming more connected and automated, taking a step back in terms of visibility has a big impact on the operations of shippers and 3PLs,” said Traff.

However, the future is not as bleak as it sounds. Though app-less cell-phone pinging is going away, companies that depend on app-based tracking would have no reason to worry. Also, the move to eliminate app-less phone tracking would possibly rive the industry to place greater value on data coming from the electronic logging devices (ELDs) – that after the mandate last year, is ubiquitously present across all trucks that travel U.S. roadways.

Companies are developing iOS and Android applications that draw upon ELD data. However, the downside to this is that many truckers still don’t have smartphones, and so companies need to figure out a way to circumvent this. But with more data coming out of the cab like the hours of service (HOS), companies can inch closer to freight operations automation like geo-fencing locations, automatically understanding and paying for detention and dwell times, and even helping to match freight based on location and the number of HOS that a trucker has left for the day.


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Vishnu Rajamanickam, Staff Writer

Vishnu writes editorial commentary on cutting-edge technology within the freight industry, profiles startups, and brings in perspective from industry frontrunners and thought leaders in the freight space. In his spare time, he writes neo-noir poetry, blogs about travel & living, and loves to debate about international politics. He hopes to settle down in a village and grow his own food at some point in time. But for now, he is happy to live with his wife in the middle of a German metropolitan.
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