Making the trailer as smart as the truck: report from the Freightwaves/Spireon webinar

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With so much focus on telematics in the truck cab because of the upcoming April 1 ELD enforcement date, a webinar this week sponsored by Freightwaves and Spireon focused on systems to track the trailers that the cabs are pulling.

Spireon describes itself as a "vehicle intelligence company." Its equipment tracks a wide array of vehicles, but the focus in the webinar was on the equipment it installs on trailers, and what can be done with the data that is produced from it.

Roni Taylor, the vice president of strategy and development at Spireon, moderated the webinar. She said the trailer telematics adoption rate is "at an all time high." Taylor said she recently attended an American Truck Association technology meeting, "and we heard more about smart trailers than we've ever heard in the past." "As fleets get more sophisticated, they're looking for more data around the equipment, and that also includes the trailer," Taylor said.

Dan Deppeler, the vice president of Paper Transport Inc., a 700-driver trucking company out of Wisconsin, said the use of telematics in trailers has provided more benefits than the company originally anticipated. "We started simply to solve the issue of locating assets in the field," he said on the webinar. "When we got into it, we decided to go down the cargo sensing path, and that gave us a greater awareness of the available equipment that is out there."

That helped to solve one problem that is of particular concern to drivers, Deppeler said: empties. "Just knowing where the trailer was isn’t enough," he said. "We wanted to know the status of that trailer, and these systems give us the ability to push that information right out to the driver."

Paper Transport is in the early stages of adopting Spireon's trucking telematics systems, and the enhanced ability to locate empties has been an "immediate benefit," Deppeler said.

But data generated by trailer telematics can come in all shapes and sizes. Jason Penkethman, Spireon's chief product officer, said while capturing the data is important, "the value to our customers is what we do with all of it." As an example: "In practice, this means knowing things like the number of turns per trailer and then benchmarking how long trailers are sitting idle at customer locations."

Trailer data can turn up some interesting findings, Penkethman said. For example, trailer utilization data at one company revealed that 10% of the trailers at one distribution center had not moved in three months, and it wasn't because of a lack of traffic. Drivers inevitably drift toward the "prettiest trailers," but that creates the problem of some of them sitting too long for truly efficient operations, according to Penkethman.

Data can come to customers as a report, which Penkethman said inevitably is backward-looking, through a dashboard, or real-time alerts. "If a trailer is being tampered with, you want to know about it right away, not read it in a report a day later," he said.

Or it can come to a company via an application programming interface (API), a wide-ranging definition that enables interoperability and the sharing of data. Penkethman said the API developed by Spireon enables data to come seamlessly into any customer's operating platform.

A discussion on any sort of aspect of the trucking market inevitably drifts back to driver recruitment and retention. Deppeler said Paper Transport has an enviable 20% turnover rates for its drivers with the company more than two years, and it views trailer telematics as a part of its retention tool. "When a driver has to search 20-30 minutes for an empty trailer, and then find the empty is not at that location or isn't empty, that's when the frustration levels gets high, and they might go somewhere else to work," he said. "That could be the last thing that pushes them."

One aspect of the trailer market that will slow the growth of smart trailers is their lifespan. Deppeler said trailers are 10-15 years assets, so it takes time to get better-equipped trailers into fleets. But he added that as recently as three to four years ago, "if you asked about a smart trailer, it wasn't on people's radars very much."