by Thomas Wailgum

Truck Drivers Told to Keep on Computing, Despite Risks

Sep 28, 2009
Enterprise ApplicationsIT LeadershipOutsourcing

In the name of supply chain efficiency, companies continue to ask truck drivers to respond to and enter more electronic data while driving. Now Congress is eyeing whether the in-the-cab-computers pose too much road risk to other motorists.

For years, transportation and logistics companies have been computerizing the 18-wheelers that continually truck goods back and forth across North America.

Advances in technologies allowed these companies to gain huge efficiencies in supply chain planning and inventory management, freight routing, on-board wireless communications, cargo and vehicle tracking, and reducing theft and loss.

At UPS, for example, the conspicuous brown delivery vehicles contain a wealth of data drawn from more than 200 sources housed inside the trucks: sensors in the engines gathering data on vehicle speeds, RPMs, oil pressure and engine temperature, notes a notes a 2008 profile. In addition, other sensors track the number of times a truck goes in reverse, what doors are open and when, the time the truck spends idling, and how and when the seatbelt is being used.

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All of these advances at UPS and other logistics and delivery companies have certainly improved the core and critical decision-making by the drivers operating the vehicles.

But some of those technologies and devices that call for driver interaction and attention have created a vexing unintended consequence—and are now coming under intense scrutiny. A recent New York Times article, Truckers Insist on Keeping Computers in the Cab, analyzes the debate between the trucking industry and watchdog groups over the safety of long-haul truckers’ use of computerized devices.

Safe-driving advocates continue to push for tougher “distracted-driving laws,” yet the trucking industry and drivers have come to rely on the efficiencies gained from computers, on-board communication systems and GPS devices. Michael Belzer, a Wayne State University economics professor and expert on the trucking industry, says in the article that truckers have no choice but to use their computers while driving, owing to the restrictive deadline pressures they face.

It’s hugely expensive and inefficient for drivers to pull over to use their computer systems: $1.50 per minute when a truck is idling, says Randy Mullett, VP for government relations at Con-way, which operates one of the U.S. biggest trucking fleets, in the Times article. “Let’s figure out a way to work with Congress that doesn’t make these technology advances obsolete or less efficient than they are,” Mullett told the Times.

The overarching problem, however, is the escalating pressure for trucking companies to add even more sensors and computers aboard these 18-wheelers and other vehicles—for instance, as carbon-emissions data on companies’ entire supply chains becomes a requirement, companies try to better manage supply chain risk and volatility, and radio-frequency identification (RFID) technologies propagate even more.

Truckers, it seems, are just like the other people on the road who are not supposed to be texting and talking while driving, according to the Times article: One truck driver, with a laugh, chooses to ignore the message on his computer screen: “Do not use while vehicle is in motion.”

“We’re supposed to pull over, but nobody ever does,” says the long-time driver in the article. “When you get that load, you go and you go and you go until you get there.”

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