Whether you order an item on Amazon, buy produce at a grocery store or fill your car up at the gas station, you're being impacted by trucking technology. For decades, the trucking and freight industries have been the backbone of American commerce and the national supply chain.
As of 2018, 51 million tons of freight, valued at more than $51 billion, were transported on average per day throughout the United States. That tonnage is expected to increase 1.4% per year until 2045. On average, truckers drive about 500 miles per day, or roughly 125,000 miles per year in a 50-week working year. The trucking and transportation industries are vital parts of the U.S. economy, and advances in trucking technology have benefited both trucking companies and their customers.
"In the world of commerce, people are expecting more every day," said Garland Chow, associate professor of operations and logistics for the University of British Columbia's Sauder School of Business. "All the improvements and adoption in fuel-saving technology [have], in some ways, allowed the trucking industry to respond to demand by their customers to lower the price."
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Fuel-efficient trucks, improved dispatching and GPS tracking, as well as the electronic logging device (ELD) mandate, have all impacted the industry at the enterprise level. Fleets comprising thousands of trucks have always had the opportunity to improve their margins through technology and data, but now these fleet management tools have trickled down to smaller fleets as well.
How technology is impacting fuel efficiency
Joel Morrow, co-owner and driver at Ohio-based Ploger Transportation, uses an in-cab tool called PedalCoach, a fleet management technology that analyzes truck driver behavior and coaches drivers to use fuel more efficiently on their runs.
"This is a drill-down thing focusing on efficiency," Morrow said. Most companies "get all this data – they have a hard time figuring out what any of it means. And here we get to look at stuff in real time in the cab with the driver on the road [who] actually understands what's happening."
PedalCoach accounts for factors like load, driver and precipitation, so drivers get accurate scores for their driving regardless of issues outside their control. Morrow said this can liberate the average truck driver from things like favoritism from dispatchers and skepticism at the shop about vehicle health. If your score says you've done your best, it's hard for bosses or mechanics to challenge you.
"I got a device in here that says I drove my truck to the very best of my ability," Morrow said.
Sometimes drivers have a problem with their truck that a mechanic cannot immediately find. Tools like PedalCoach can prove it's not the driver's fault that a truck isn't running as well as it should.
"See my score," Morrow would say at the shop. "It's 97% now. There's something else wrong with the truck." According to Morrow, this has always been a source of friction between the driver and the shop. "Now, I never have a problem, because my shop wants to look at the score and say, 'Oh, he's got a problem. Let's go find it.'"
Morrow said this is the most significant advantage of PedalCoach – that it levels the playing field among drivers.
Fuel economy tools and actionable data
Trucks aren't great on gas. The average semitractor-trailer truck gets around 6.5 mpg of diesel fuel. That means, on a large scale, improving fuel efficiency can mean big savings for freight companies.
Vnomics' True Fuel trucking technology also removes variables like precipitation, load, wind speed and elevation so that drivers can focus on making their run as fuel efficient as possible. Alan Farnsworth, CEO of Vnomics, said True Fuel provides auditory coaching to drivers.
"A quiet cab means a fuel-efficient cab," he said. True Fuel prioritizes real-time coaching with post-shift data so drivers can understand their current performance and plan for a better run the next day. "It's a combination of game-day coaching plus looking at the films after the game and figuring out how you want to do better the next time out."
Vnomics provides manageable, actionable data so both drivers and fleet managers can better understand their fuel economy. For example, Vnomics can help fleet managers plot truck speed with fuel efficiency in mind. Farnsworth said that up to a certain speed – say, 58 or 60 mph – fuel burns at a steady rate. In some cases, when drivers go above a certain speed, the burn rate outweighs the perceived time saved by the drivers. This type of information can encourage drivers to slow down, help small companies save on fuel and ensure consistent delivery times.
"Usually, the amount of time saved [by speeding] is dwarfed by the cost of the fuel that is wasted," Farnsworth said.
Tools like PedalCoach and True Fuel not only level the playing field among drivers, but they also provide companies with actionable data. Morrow said it's easy for companies to drown in fleet data and that the simple insights often have the most impact.
Other ways trucking technology is transforming the industry
Fuel efficiency is far from the only concern that new trucking technology addresses. In fact, the trucks of tomorrow are here today.
Autonomous trucks may sound like the future, but they're already here. At least one truck driver in Florida reported encountering an autonomous truck on a major Florida highway earlier this year. In the future, people traveling on highways may see the occasional autonomous vehicle on their routes, as autonomous trucks are cost-efficient and generally less likely to crash. Plus, in the event of a driver shortage, an autonomous vehicle can make up for any potential disruptions to the supply chain.
The transportation industry has long relied on diesel fuel to power its trucks, but electric trucks are making an impression on trucking companies. Some leading industry figures predict that electric trucks will make up one-third of the total national trucking fleet within the next 15 years, presenting an eco-friendly alternative that will lessen the transportation industry's environmental burden.
With GPS tracking tools, fleet managers can not only locate all their trucks, but also easily reroute their drivers as needed. GPS tracking technology can also check truck drivers' behavior, explain any delivery delays, allow for better customer service and delivery tracking updates, and more easily compare the distance traveled to fuel used. These types of GPS tools allow for smarter business decisions by fleet managers, which can increase fuel efficiency and cut costs.
Installing a camera system on a freight truck can help an individual truck driver more safely complete routes and indicate to fleet managers which habits they need to reinforce in their drivers. A camera system can also protect trucking companies from financial threats such as theft. Perhaps most importantly, a proper camera system for trucking purposes eliminates blind spots for the truck driver, potentially reducing accidents – thereby improving the safety of everyone on the road.
Ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft changed the way people travel around their local cities and towns. Their business model has been applied to how truck drivers find and ship freight. Trucking companies sometimes have extra room in their semitrailer trucks, and frequently, after a long-haul ride, a trucker may return home with an empty trailer. Apps like Convoy allow truckers and trucking companies to consistently find available freight so that small businesses can get their products and materials moved efficiently. Because of this, freight companies can increase their bottom line.
Better fleet software
As is the case with GPS fleet tracking and camera-based software, overall SaaS fleet programs allow freight companies and small businesses alike better track and manage fuel efficiency. Fuel usage metrics and driver efficiency scores are a baseline feature of many telematics solutions and software. This increased usage of data, and the findings that can accompany it, provide fleets with another tool in their arsenal to improve business operations.
Tech adoption in fleet tracking driven by safety and efficiency
Technology has always been a major factor in trucking, but with the ELD mandate, smaller fleets that might not have adopted solutions are starting to use trucking technology that cuts costs and increases driver safety. This opens the door for fuel economy tools like True Fuel. By coaching drivers and understanding basic fleet data, trucking companies can drive down fuel costs and make better decisions.
Max Freedman contributed to the reporting and writing in this article. Source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.