Tracking what's trucked

SAN FRANCISCO (11/17/2003) - Trucking company Schneider National Inc. learned through a blind survey 15 years ago that its customers would give it more business if the company could track goods in real time. That information started Schneider on a journey to find the best technology available to keep tabs on its vehicles and their contents.

"We were a pioneer in the field of onboard wireless communications," notes Paul Mueller, vice president of technology services at Schneider.

Qualcomm Inc. developed satellite positioning technology with an antenna on every tractor and a keyboard and display to receive messages in the cab. Schneider worked with Qualcomm to develop sensor tracking to connect the system to the engine so the company could monitor idle time, speed, engine RPM, and hard braking activity.

That was then. Now Schneider is working again with Qualcomm to do what it calls "untethered trailer tracking," that will follow the trailer when it is not connected to the tractor or the cab. "We are developing with Qualcomm a technology that will be able to run and communicate wirelessly, using battery power," Mueller says. An ultrasonic status monitor will send a signal right into the trailer to determine if it is empty or filled with cargo. Having that piece of information is an important key to running a lean supply chain.

The system triggers an alert when the trailer moves from one cargo state to another. Another sensor, called a hook sensor, knows when the trailer is connected to a tractor or when it is riding on a flatbed rail car. The combination of all of that information, plus GPS, triggers a message to the fleet management system in Greenbay, Wis.

"We think that this is a technology that will revolutionize the industry and raise the stakes in terms of asset utilization," Mueller says.

Of course, just having the information is good, but knowing what to do with it is even better. "It will be fed into our fleet management and optimization system. It's more than looking at a screen shot of a map. It is taking the information that is sent to the trailer and turning it into high-value information about where to assign loads to equipment and when to send drivers. It becomes part of the process for running our business," Mueller says.

Although he declines to give specifics on how much the technology means to the company's bottom line, Mueller adds: "Productivity of our drivers and physical assets is critical. Having the ability to communicate in real time adds to driver productivity."

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