While the trucking industry hardly seems like a bastion of high-tech innovation, big rigs have been at the forefront of wireless communications for the last 15 years. Now a new type of wireless data system is ensuring constant connectivity without breaking the bank.
Western Distributing Co., based in Denver, has been using a wireless tracking and dispatching system for seven years. But that system, which was based on a terrestrial network, or cell network, was often unavailable, especially in remote rural areas.
In an effort to improve connectivity and functionality, Western is in the process of upgrading its 190 freight trucks using a new product from Aether Systems Inc. The Owings Mills, Md., vendor is the second-biggest player in the fleet communications market, which is dominated by wireless giant Qualcomm Inc.
The product, called MobileMax, is a single unit that combines a transceiver and an antenna. It uses both a satellite communications system and a proprietary wireless data network that was owned by Motient Corp., a company Aether acquired three years ago. Aether is hoping that MobileMax will provide drivers with better, cheaper coverage than they've had before, said Mike Brown, vice president of marketing for Aether's transportation unit.
When the terrestrial network is available, MobileMax utilizes that network because of its lower cost. If that network is unavailable, it switches over to the satellite system. Qualcomm's rival system uses only satellite communications, which are very reliable but can be expensive, said Clem Driscoll, president of CJ Driscoll and Associates, a research and consulting firm based in Palos Verdes Estates, Calif.
MobileMax has a host of valuable functions, said Dino Guadagni, vice president of Western. For instance, the system monitors fuel mileage on a daily basis, helping Western pinpoint early signs of engine trouble in its vehicles. By catching problems early, the company avoids last-minute repairs, which are often more costly, and avoids thousands of miles of driving in vehicles that get poor gas mileage, he said.
The system also can alert warehouses expecting deliveries that a truck is within a certain distance of a delivery site, so the warehouse can be prepared for a delivery. And, throughout the delivery period, customers can be updated on when they can expect a shipment to arrive.
That can be important for recipients of many of the perishable goods that Western delivers. Customers need to know right away if a shipment is going to be late.
Wireless communications systems are increasingly common in trucking, Driscoll said. Qualcomm introduced similar products in the late 1980s, and today about 30% of the 1.5 million long-haul trucks on the road use a system such as Aether's.
Driscoll said that many trucking companies will find Aether's system and others compelling because these products can help them realize a return on their investments, simply by keeping tabs on trucks' locations.