by Tom Kelley
Employing different technologies, such as dead reckoning (DR), the Global Positioning System (GPS), or varying combinations of the two, the systems all promise to make it easier to find your way or find your equipment.
While efforts to mandate 24-hour surveillance of truckers through the use of on-board “black box” technology have resulted in extensive negative feelings regarding GPS systems, there are many valuable uses for navigation and tracking systems.
Before we get into how and why to use GPS, it’s best to explain how the system works, and most importantly, clear up some widely held misconceptions.
GPS was originally created by the Department of Defense to provide soldiers with accurate location information. In its present form, GPS uses 24 satellites continually orbiting the globe. The satellites perform the very simple task of broadcasting the identity of the satellite and a very accurate time signal.
Contrary to a popular misconception, the GPS satellites are not able to constantly monitor the receiver/user. Transportation industry tracking systems use a return line of communication, either through a separate communications satellite or a cellular phone system, to return the position information from the truck to the dispatch center.
Dead reckoning (DR)
DR is a simple system of direction and distance. Beginning with a user supplied point of origin, distance information from the vehicle odometer, and direction information from an electronic compass, DR systems plot your path along a digital street map. When you also supply a destination point, the system can be used for Turn-By-Turn (TBT) directions for your trip.
DR by itself is not without problems either. The biggest problem with DR comes in the form of drift. Odometer inaccuracy, owing to wheelspin or tire underinflation, as well as compass problems between buildings or under bridges can both lead to cumulative errors in position. Another difficulty is that a point of origin must be accurately known.
The best of both worlds comes when both GPS and DR are combined into a single navigation system. Using GPS to correct absolute location against DR’s drift, and using DR’s direction and distance data to filter out off-track GPS fixes and fill in GPS holes, combination systems have higher accuracy than either system alone.
How can I use it?
So now that you know more accurately where you are, what can you do with that information? On-board navigation and vehicle tracking are quickly emerging as growth markets for GPS hardware. At virtually every truck industry trade show in the past few years, there has been at least one new product introduced for commercial use.
Mapping & navigation software
The single most popular use for GPS technology is as a component of an on-board mapping/navigation system. Even if your route has been the same for years, DOT construction projects or truckstops suffering from a power blackout can create the need for a detour with little or no notice. Granted the mapping programs are more popular among owner-operators working for expediters and specialty fleets, due to the wider variety of delivery locations, but even in the line-haul community, few truckers who have tried the mapping systems are willing to give them back.
On-board mapping systems have been widely available ever since the government committed to keeping the GPS system running back in 1996. Unfortunately, many of these early offerings were less than practical for use in OTR trucking.
Early systems relied on hard-drive memory for the map data, limiting the amount of the country that could be loaded into the system at any one time, and also creating some durability problems within the cab environment. This issue has been solved by moving to ruggedized and/or solid state hardware in today’s systems.
The first commercial map databases were also impractical because they were divided into regions to enable storage in smaller memory resources, creating a problem for anybody whose travel involved moving from region to region. Today’s map databases have been segmented in such a way that every system has coast-to-coast highway (including near-highway areas) map data, with the ability to add off-highway detail maps for various regions as required.
Another problem with these early mapping systems was the lack of data regarding low-clearance bridges and other route restrictions for trucks. Today, mapping vendors who specialize in routing software for large fleets have optimized their software to operate on portable computers, making the products practical for use on the road. Pricing of these packages also has been structured to be appropriate for the single-user working as an owner-operator.
Mapping & routing software packages
PC Miler www.alk.com
Founded in 1979, ALK Technologies develops products ranging from consulting and customized information systems to packaged software solutions for motor carriers, shippers, rail carriers and barge companies, amongst others. ALK offers two products developed for owner-operator in-cab use.
The Pocket CoPilot, designed to work with a handheld PocketPC, includes a GPS receiver, the routing software and a mapping database that allows detail segments of non-highway mapping to be loaded and unloaded from the PocketPC as necessary. This unit retails for just under $300, not including the PocketPC. The “truck version” of CoPilot 2001 is designed to work on a laptop computer, allowing the entire mapping database to be loaded simultaneously, and is priced just under $400. By way of comparison, these two packages offer a single (one-truck) user all of the routing and mapping functionality of the company’s PC Miler program that sells to fleets starting at $1,500.
Both systems allow door-to-door routing, with frequent destinations stored for quick retrieval. The truck-related route restrictions for 658,000 miles of North American roads are built into the database, as are the locations of over 4,000 truckstops. Bridge and tunnel “waypoints” can be set in the routing process to accommodate toll, traffic, tunnel or hazmat restrictions. Routing can be programmed to avoid tolls, and specific road segments also can be programmed as routes to avoid.
According to company founder Alain L. Kornhauser, although the software is designed to allow state mileage tracking for IFTA reporting, those users concerned about the “black box” potential of the system “can simply turn the recording feature off.” As with the fleet office version, the in-cab products also can be used as a non-GPS route layout program.
If routing restrictions and reporting features are not a concern, DeLorme offers a wide range of GPS-enabled and non-GPS mapping software packages. Widely available as consumer-friendly software, DeLorme’s latest GPS-enabled package is the Earthmate Road Warrior Edition. This package contains everything you need to use GPS with a Palm OS handheld or laptop computer.
The water-resistant Earthmate GPS unit comes with a 4-foot cable for flexible positioning away from windshield glare and heat, and an adapter cable for connecting a Palm handheld to the Earthmate. The included Street Atlas USA Road Warrior Edition software provides hands-free, voice-activated map controls for use with a laptop. Solus Pro software enables the use of a Palm handheld to locate and view the stored contacts on detailed street-level maps.
A popular choice with Land Line readers, ProMilesOnline is the web-based version of ProMiles Mileage Guide, the desktop mileage guide from ProMiles Software. ProMiles Online uses the same database as ProMiles Mileage Guide.
Features of ProMilesOnline include the ability to plan and enter trips with up to 40 stops and 40 fuel purchases per trip, designate segments of the trip as loaded or empty, customize routes for road speed or routing methods, save up to 50 trips for future recall, and use fuel optimization options to reduce costs.
The customizable reporting features of ProMilesOnline allow for recording only the information necessary. Trip details can be printed onto a single page for easy faxing or e-mailing.
ProMilesOnline generates a comprehensive route plan listing direction, stop, locations and in partnership with the Weather Channel, you can click on any of your stops to get a weather forecast for the area. The route plan can be downloaded via e-mail to use for driving instructions. When a trip is submitted, ProMilesOnline automatically generates a breakout of state miles for fuel tax purposes, including toll and non-toll miles.
ProMilesOnline includes a fully functional map that can be zoomed and panned. Entering a location in ProMilesOnline will zoom to it on the map. Maps can be “framed” down so only those parts of the map dealing with your trip are shown. Truckstop locations chosen by fuel optimization also are shown on the map.
ProMilesOnline generates a detailed itinerary, including dates, times, stops and DOT rests. The itinerary can be customized to fit your schedule. Fuel optimization – using up-to-date price data – is run automatically when you submit a trip.
For those who want mapping and routing capability without GPS features, Prophesy offers laptop-compatible packages in the form of its “Mileage & Routing” and “StreetRouter” programs. Both packages provide powerful routing and reporting capabilities, but the StreetRouter program adds detailed street-level mapping to facilitate urban deliveries and pickups. Like most of the mapping and routing vendors, Prophesy also offers a web-access version of its product that allows the large amount of mapping data to be off-loaded from the user’s laptop. Prophesy’s mapping data also includes the necessary truck-related routing restrictions.
The emerging market encompassing these GPS-based technologies, and others, has coined the name “Telematics” for itself. As defined, Telematics is the use of in-vehicle information to provide safety, convenience and comfort to the driver. Telematics can combine navigation and communication systems with other vehicle systems to provide new features. Crash detection or security sensors, for instance, could be used to trigger a computer-generated and location-stamped 9-1-1 call, without any input from a driver who may be away from the truck, injured or unconscious.
Into the future
As with any technology that finds a widespread consumer application, the cost of GPS hardware continues to drop while the performance and features are improved. Although cellular phone-based navigation and tracking equipment is available as an option today, the ability to “location stamp” cellular 911 calls will be made mandatory over the next few years. This means virtually every new cell phone soon will contain a small GPS receiver, bringing the possibility of several new navigation and tracking applications into production.
One proposed system would use all cell phones traveling along any given stretch of highway as thousands of tiny mobile traffic “probes” that would provide real-time data on average speeds and congestion density. Lest anyone worry about the “Big Brother” potential of such a system, remember the sheer volume of cell-phone users in any one area would make it impossible to collect anything more than statistical averages (more like a fish-finder than a radar gun). This real-time data then would be available through the existing regional traffic reporting systems.
Tom Kelley is a freelance technical writer from Charlotte, NC.
Why use GPS?
Apart from the convenience and safety issues, there still needs to be a compelling reason for those out on the road to accept the new technology. Competition is probably the single biggest factor. Not just competition within the trucking business, or competition between the various modes of highway, air or rail freight, but competition within the entire service industry. Widespread availability of computers and Internet connections have given the individual and business consumer the expectation of instantly available, always up-to-date information at their fingertips.
Think about the last time you had to pick somebody up at the airport. When you called to verify the arrival time, would you have accepted “Tuesday or Wednesday” as an answer? Probably not. And what about the last catalog order you placed? If you called to check on your order’s whereabouts, did you want to know right then, or would a callback in a day or two have been acceptable. You get the idea.
Any more, the “information” regarding a product or service is as much a part of the package as the product or service itself, so you need to consider the use of tracking systems as an important component of the service our industry delivers. After all, if the shipper didn’t care where his load was and when it would arrive, he probably would have shipped it by rail.