Enhancing efficiency, safety and customer service
Lynden’s trucking operations uses many technologies to improve safety, productivity, and the customer experience.
In the trucking industry technological innovations—also referred to as “digitized trucking”—include everything from systems designed to detect and wake tired drivers to semi-autonomous operations to kinetic energy recovery systems, predictive GPS, and electronic log devices. “In some ways, it is a Wild West landscape of the next best thing,” says Paul Carpenter, director of the Heavy Truck and Heavy Construction Equipment Program at Northern Industrial Training (NIT). NIT provides training and safety services as well as business support to industry partners throughout Alaska.
Digitized trucking is an evolving concept that means different things to different people, according to Carpenter, who has been involved in logistics leadership for more than twenty years as a speaker, trainer, manager, and truck driver. He explains: “To the driver, digitized trucking means that an app on their phone can find them a safe parking space for the night, a shower in the morning, and the world’s best coffee. It also means getting better directions, GPS-based speed and truck routing information, and not having to worry as much about log book violations.”
He continues: “To the carrier, technology delivers an enterprise wide impact. Intelligent transportation workflows maximize driver and equipment utilization efficiency and increase accuracy of maintenance schedules and route plans. To the customer, transportation technology equals transparency. Knowing where your freight is and ‘when’ your freight is. Combine that with a great user interface and real-time updates, and the customer has an experience likely to drive repeat partnering.”
Innovations in digitized trucking are steadily improving safety, efficiency, fleet and driver management, and customer service. All of this translates into benefits for Alaska and the nation as a whole. In Alaska, 94 percent of all communities depend exclusively on trucks to move their goods, and trucks transport about 70 percent of the nation’s freight by volume, according to the Alaska Trucking Association.
Alex McKallor, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Lynden, says the basics of moving freight via highway have not changed considerably. But what has changed is information flow between trucks, customers, and operations. And this information tied to strong systems has greatly improved planning and execution.
Lynden is not limiting its focus on innovation to just trucking but is concentrating on all areas of its transportation services. “We have and continue to leverage available technologies to improve safety, environment, efficiency, and our customer experience,” McKallor says. “Whether freight moves via water, highway, or air, we see the available technologies evolving at an increasingly rapid rate, so this is definitely a moving target—but always toward improving safety and service.”
Competition is also a motivating factor for Lynden’s penchant for leveraging technology. “At Lynden, improving safety, environment, and regulatory compliance is non-negotiable, but everyone knows transportation is a competitive business, and competition certainly drives us toward all the things that improve efficiency and customer experience,” he says.
Lynden has equipped its trucks, including those of Lynden company Alaska West Express, with on-board event recorders that automatically record video when triggered by events such as sudden braking.
Electronic logging devices, commonly called ELDs, play a major role in the area of safety in the trucking industry. In December 2017, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration began requiring some interstate drivers to use electronic recording devices as part of their efforts to enforce hours-of-service regulations and reduce driver fatigue and paperwork for motor carriers and drivers. But not everyone is obligated to use ELDs. Only fleets and drivers who are required to complete paper logs must to adopt compliant ELDs—unless they’re currently using automatic onboard recording devices that are grandfathered or unless they meet some other exemption.
However, there is growing confusion around the application of ELDs, including choosing the proper hardware/software, connectivity issues, and concerns about how the devices are supposed to work at the roadside. “When it comes to selecting a reliable, compliant device—that will remain compliant and continue to offer reliable maintenance and service—you may as well be buying a TV from an online retailer,” Carpenter says. “We’re still very reliant on peer reviews and peer experience.”
For these reasons, NIT is orienting its students to equipment intelligence and continuing to train on how to properly complete paper logs and navigate with a paper map book. “Fundamentals are crucial to know. As amazing as technology is, we continue to see fines or downed trucks if ELDs malfunction,” he says. “We also see trucks going down the wrong road or getting lost off route if GPS is inaccurate or malfunctioning. It is always the driver’s responsibility to be on appropriate routes, not exceed hour requirements, and understand what’s required for their vehicle height, weight, and cargo. Those fundamentals do not change much.”
Carpenter point outs that ELDs have been in use for decades. Werner Enterprises, a Nebraska-based freight carrier and transportation and logistics company, pioneered the use of electronic logs in 1994. And the industry has followed suit. “Industry confidence and legislative support took twenty years to catch up to what was once a visionary’s strategic plan,” he says.
Technology is an incredible tool. And as technology evolves, NIT evolves with it. “Truck operation may become plug-and-play, but trucks currently require skilled operators to successfully deliver mile after mile,” Carpenter says. “The role of the truck driver is changing in some ways, but truck driving professionals continue to require high degrees of specialized skill sets to safely move a rig down the road.”
Technological developments have made entry into the industry more accessible than in the past. Better creature comforts and more ease of use are helping to attract new population segments into the industry. “With the technological and operational advances, driving a truck is even more pleasurable than ever,” Carpenter says.
Driving a truck is also much safer now than in the past. Today, some motor carriers are taking advantage of other functions that can be combined in the ELD to leverage communication and vehicle tracking capabilities, says Aves Thompson, executive director of the Alaska Trucking Association. For example, they’re implementing event recorders to detect hard braking, hard turns, and other potentially dangerous driving habits, which provides valuable information to the driver and motor carriers.
Motor carriers are also employing multi-use devices for fleet management. A few examples include forward- and back-facing cameras that provide factual information for accident investigations as well as driver behavior and the installation of radio-frequency identification technology on trailers and tractors to track the land-based travel of their equipment. “Shippers also use this technology to give them advance notice when a trailer has arrived at a certain check point, such as the warehouse gate to alert them of an inbound shipment,” Thompson says. “Satellite tracking is required for Department of Defense contractors while carrying Department of Defense cargo. There are new applications becoming available almost daily to improve the safe operation of commercial vehicles.”
Lynden’s trucking operations use many technologies to improve safety, environment, productivity, and customer experience. For many years the company has designed its equipment to include integrated safety features. Early on, Lynden set its trucks so they could not speed and installed on-board computers that monitor vehicle and driver performance with regard to speed, fuel economy braking, idle time, and rapid braking, according to Jered Post, vice president of operations for Lynden Transport. “More recently, we have added collision avoidance systems that employ radar, lane departure sensing, and auto-braking along with anti-rollover systems,” he says. “Lynden also employs technology that anticipates mechanical issues before they become more serious risks down the road.”
Over the last few years, Lynden has equipped its trucks with onboard event recorders that automatically record video facing forward and inside the cab when a triggering event occurs, such as sudden braking. The company reviews all of the videos and proactively coaches drivers if needed. “However, by far most of the triggering events are not caused by our drivers or other professional drivers but, rather, other vehicles on the road doing dangerous activities like cutting off trucks in traffic,” Post says. “This technology serves as a good tool for training and provides a valuable reference should any issues occur.”
Students prepare to couple a tractor to a trailer at NIT's 80-acre training range.
Trucking has become “intelligent” trucking, Thompson says. And with that progression, there are applications to help improve overall efficiency. There are applications that monitor driving habits to help enhance fuel efficiency, as well as applications to automate maintenance scheduling. “As you can imagine, hand recording maintenance records for a large fleet can be labor intensive, time consuming, and downright boring sometimes,” he says.
There are also programs that allow for weigh station by-pass, providing great opportunities for compliant drivers and motor carriers. However, participation in these voluntary programs requires a good safety record as a driver or motor carrier. Thompson explains: “If the record is good and the weight is okay, the driver is given the green light to by-pass the weigh station without stopping. This is a great time-saver, as the average weigh station stop can be anywhere from about three to five minutes on a cursory inspection to forty to fifty minutes for a complete driver vehicle inspection.”
In addition, systems are currently being developed that will allow an enforcement agency to conduct a full systems analysis of the operation of a commercial vehicle while it is traveling at highway speed. Computer systems on the trucks are able to communicate with roadside or portable computer systems in an enforcement vehicle to facilitate such an inspection.
Thanks to these and other innovations, a connected digital supply chain is steadily evolving. Some years ago there was a movement from the onsite warehousing of freight to a “just in time” delivery, according to Thompson. “This changed the way stores are built,” he says. “No longer does a big box store need onsite warehousing space because the commercial trailer is now the warehouse.”
One of the current issues with logistics, Thompson says, is the delays at loading and unloading points because of a backup of trucks. This causes delays which may require the driver to stop on the way home because he/she is “out of hours.” “Digitizing the exchange of manifests and bills of lading can expedite this process,” he says. “It will also help for scheduling purposes, so drivers are not unduly delayed while waiting to pick up or deliver a load. Some drivers’ compensation is determined by the mile and, of course, when the wheels aren’t tuning, the driver ain’t earning.”
Enhancing fleet efficiency is also being addressed by technology. Large fleets specifically are appropriately concerned with optimization across hundreds or thousands of pieces of equipment, Carpenter says. “For instance, when you consider optimizing 500 or 1,000 power units to gain 1/100th of one gallon of fuel per mile, investments in optimization technology begin to make overwhelming fiscal sense,” he says. “Conversely, if we’re talking about optimizing a fleet of ten trucks, the current cost of technology required would most likely be financially disruptive.”
Currently, the industry is seeing Uber-like technology and Internet load boards being widely used to match loads with capacity, reducing overall market empty miles, Post says. “This has had a positive impact, but has not had any major displacement of established operators as was seen in the taxi business,” he says. “In our estimation this is because the constraints found in the taxi business do not exist in the trucking industry where capacity and flexibility to enter and exit markets is unconstrained.”
In locations where it makes sense, Lynden uses route optimization software that greatly reduces miles while providing customers an estimated time of delivery as their freight is on a delivery route, Post says. The optimization systems take into account customer locations as well as available receiving hours, the type of delivery location, and the equipment needed.
Lynden, which moves a substantial amount of temperature control freight, also has remote monitoring of its refrigerated equipment as it is moving goods on the highway or on a barge in the ocean. This helps the company to ensure temperatures always stay within a safe range for perishable items such as seafood, produce, and other groceries.
An Alaska West Express truck at the Port of Alaska.
In terms of the future of digitized trucking, autonomous or self-driving vehicles are highly anticipated. Many companies are testing self-driving vehicles, and there is no question that someday the technology will be ready, McKallor says. But perhaps a bigger challenge than the technology will be the regulatory and public acceptance, beginning with passenger vehicles. “We anticipate self-driving commercial vehicles will be even farther in the future,” he says. “Even as technology advances, there is—and will continue to be—a high demand for safe, professional drivers in the industry.”
He adds: “As the world moves toward self-driving vehicles there will be steps in-between that will add greatly to safety and efficiency. One example would be the electronic coupling of two or more vehicles on the highway where they can reduce separation and aerodynamic drag, boosting fuel economy about 10 percent. This technology has a lot of promise and will come way ahead of self-driving vehicles.”
Thompson says the technology related to autonomous vehicles is developing much more rapidly than many expected. But he thinks the current emphasis is on “assisted driving” rather than driverless. This means that while the vehicle can operate by itself on the highway—for the short term—there will be a driver in the seat to ensure safe operation and for the purpose of getting from the terminal or warehouse to the highway on both ends of the trip. “Given the projected driver shortages over the next few years, these autonomous vehicles may help to reduce the problem of driver shortage,” he says. “Full implementation of this technology will take a few years, but it is coming.”
The technology involving self-driving vehicles is definitely on the horizon, but it has a long way to go before it can be reasonably safe for widespread use among the general public, Carpenter says. In general, he sees the technology emerging more in areas off of the public roadways. “Construction sites, mines, and ports are finding automated technology to be incredibly useful where consistent, predictable, and repeatable functions are required,” he says. “Generally, humans are pretty unpredictable, so those types of automated functions can only reliably occur where people aren’t… so far.”
Overall, it’s an exciting time to be involved in the world of trucking, Carpenter says. “For a long time, there was only minimal change in the industry. Someone would make a lighter component or a tire with less rolling resistance. And while those advancements were important, nobody fully cracked code that would unlock streamlined utilization until recently. Now that we’ve all got access to how to maximize fleet and enterprise efficiency, it’s exciting to see how it is being used to fuel the economy and how the economy is driving innovation.”
He adds: “An exciting symbiosis is happening right now where high technology meets old school hard skills. And this symbiosis requires a special group of individuals to support our economy in the exciting and evolving world of truck driving and supply chain logistics.”
Tracy Barbour has been an Alaska Business contributor since 1999. As a former Alaskan, she is uniquely positioned to offer in-depth insight and enjoys writing about a variety of topics.