More and More carriers, as part of their operating strategies, are using technology to help them drive down expenses. They are employing technology to generate consistent and reliable data for better managing of fuel cost; labor; equipment performance, maintenance and repair costs; and safety, which helps achieve improvements to the bottom line.

In general, five key areas should be addressed when optimizing temperature-controlled fleet operations: asset management and utilization, customer service, alerts, remote operations, and remote management. So says Tom Flies, senior vice president, product management, of XATA Corporation, an Eden Prairie, Minnesota business that specializes in on-demand fleet software to improve overall transportation operations.

Asset management and utilization allow continual monitoring of the status of refrigerated trailer fleets, Flies says. By monitoring and reporting on temperature status of refrigerated loads, this data can be relayed to customers to provide proof that their goods have been handled correctly.

Alerts provide the ability to notify individuals when the refrigeration system is not operating to normal standards, which could result in damage to the goods being transported.

Reefer monitoring devices, he goes on, can be used to remotely operate a reefer unit, allowing the starting, stopping, and setting of temperature levels, saving fleets from having unnecessary operation of reefer units, as well as saving on labor to manually start the units. And with these devices, data such as fault codes or maintenance requirements can be remotely managed, removing the need to have someone physically monitor the status of the reefer unit.

Onboard technology

An integral element for accomplishing all this is automatic onboard recording devices (AOBRD), says Flies. They are also being used to improve operational productivity and fuel efficiency, for proactive vehicle maintenance, to provide feedback on driver and vehicle performance, to help with compliance and fuel tax reporting, and more.

“It's interesting these devices, originally designed for the express purpose of electronically capturing driver records of duty status, have been effectively used to save millions of dollars operationally,” he notes. “But when you think of all the separate elements of data that need to be gathered and synthesized to electronically capture a driver's log, as well as the technological advances in truck engines, such as the ECM (electronic control module), it's easier to understand how this is possible.”

AOBRDs come in two key types: tethered and untethered. When operating in a tethered environment, the onboard recording device operates as a standalone reefer management system, interacting directly with the reefer unit. In an untethered environment, the onboard recording device can work together with the reefer unit via an interface with a third-party reefer monitoring provider.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) currently allows fleets to use onboard recording devices to record a driver's duty status. “This can be a benefit to fleets,” says Flies, “because AOBRDs not only are an accurate and up-to-date record of duty status, it frees the driver from having to log his time.

“The system will even alert the driver if he is approaching an hours of service limit related to daily driving, daily duty, and weekly duty. Further, onboard recorder systems do all the analysis of the records of duty status, removing the human administration element from this task.”

Driver supervisors have access to immediate feedback on driver performance related to safety, regulatory compliance, fuel economy, speed, and so forth, “so they never have to ‘chase the data,’ and can move immediately into working with drivers to improve individual behaviors and organizational performance.”

In addition, onboard recorder systems can handle a fleet's records of duty status storage, so it doesn't have to worry again about filing driver logs and purging these files every six months. The system can retrieve and record duty status as needed.

Key benefits

Fleets using “automated driver logging” are getting a payback of happier drivers, reduced administrative costs, and even drivers more focused on driving safely, provided the information from these devices are communicated and executed properly. Drivers need to understand the goals and objectives of the move to AOBRDs, know why this is important, know their role in making this happen successfully, and understand the benefits to them.

“Drivers are a critical component of the onboard solution,” says Flies. “If they don't know that they are an important part of creating the solution, the technology is likely to fail.

“In my experience, the biggest bang for the buck with such systems comes in the area of fuel economy. When drivers and fleet managers can come together and really measure fuel wasted by excessive speed and idling, and then do something about it to improve performance for the benefit of all, the results can be astounding. The timeframe in which this can be accomplished, depending on the carrier's execution of its programs, can be quite short — perhaps three to four months for some carriers.”

Complete solutions

Best-in-class onboard technology solutions aggregate data from both engine and driver inputs to create management information. Lower cost options may include only GPS locations, or perhaps only driver inputs.

“With only part of the data, the carrier is left with only half of the solution,” Flies says. “A total solution includes communications and driver input that is tethered to the vehicle.”

Once a fleet has its information, it still needs to use it effectively to improve productivity, safety, etc. After all, for measurements to be effective, they must be quantitative, defined, and focused.

“Throughout the short history of the automatic onboard recording device, vendors have tended to sell a hardware solution and have expected the carrier to find ways to use it to their benefit,” he notes.

“One of our customers recently said at an industry conference: ‘Onboard technology by itself will not produce performance improvement,’ and we agree with this as a fundamental principle It is only when technology is teamed with process improvement and trained individuals that costs are reduced, and safety and compliance are enhanced.”