“Transportation and logistics aren’t the sexiest industries in the world,” admits Raz Bajwa, founder and CEO of Plymouth-based IndusTrack, which helps vehicle fleet owners improve efficiency and safety. Aside from fully driverless vehicle systems, which won’t hit the market for years, there aren’t many headline-grabbing innovations here.
Nevertheless, a brief peek behind the scenes at Minnesota’s warehouses, trucking firms and contracting businesses tells a promising story. The state’s transportation and logistics firms are implementing a host of cost-saving, efficiency-enhancing, safety-boosting measures using the latest technologies and processes. These innovations could soon change how your business ships, receives and moves.
Paperless Task Tracking, Invoicing & Recordkeeping
“The logistics industry, especially on the short-haul side, requires a lot of paperwork,” says IndusTrack founder Raj Bajwa. That means a lot of paper waste — and a lot of room for error due to misplaced sheets, illegible handwriting and other perils.
IndusTrack is among the first (the company’s technology is patent-pending) U.S. firms to create a “single-platform” solution for paperless work orders, task tracking, client invoicing, payroll and other functions for logistics companies. Through seamless integration with QuickBooks, IndusTrack’s solution functions as an extension of corporate accounting systems — dramatically reducing the time and waste associated with recordkeeping.
Though IndusTrack’s solution is available today, the company continues to refine and expand it. Highly customized versions cater to specialized niches like snow removal; in the near future, Bajwa expects to expand these versions’ functionality and apply them to new niches.
Automatic Safety & Efficiency Tools
Futuristic technologies hitting the market now (and set to hit in the next few years) could significantly improve road safety.
For starters, increasingly prevalent GPS tracking apps automaticvally record long-haul drivers’ hours of service (HOS) — the amount of time they’re actually out on the road, not sleeping or eating at a rest stop. Previously, drivers tracked HOS manually, raising the risk of errors or cheating. And automatic hours-driven tracking isn’t just good for safety: Employers may incur hefty federal fines when drivers exceed their allotted HOS during a haul.
Other automatic safety apps curtail distracted driving and prevent accidents. Using GPS sensors, the system senses when vehicles are in motion and automatically locks employer-issued smartphones, tablets and laptops until the vehicle leaves the road. Automatic braking and acceleration-control systems are rolling out in long-haul truck models; Volvo, an early adopter, has a commercialized auto-braking system that senses obstacles and stops fully loaded trucks on a dime.
Other automatic apps don’t directly address safety, but still offer clear benefits to logistics firms. For instance, IndusTrack develops a Power Take-Off (PTO) tracking system that measures how much power a truck’s auxiliary systems — cab lights, heat, electric outlets — use when the truck is idle. An IRS tax credit offsets PTO fuel costs, meaning the PTO tracking app can save even modestly sized long-haul trucking companies thousands of dollars per year.
Better Navigation Systems
Vans and cars can use Google Maps to determine the most efficient route from Point A to Point B, but what about vehicles that need to get from Point A to Point Z, with multiple stops in between?
IndusTrack and its peer companies make a host of navigation software solutions for route drivers. IndusTrack’s software, which Bajwa and his team are continuously refining, features pre-set destinations; in-cab navigation; real-time re-routes and detours for construction, traffic and other obstacles; actual versus planned route maps that measure distance covered (and thus efficiency); and real-time vehicle tracking (which facilitates opportunistic routing to nearby job sites). Future innovations will enhance these functions’ responsiveness and improve learning.
Bajwa expects substantial improvements in truck route navigation technology, too. Currently, Google Maps isn’t great at identifying optimal truck routes. Plenty of apps are capable of finding and displaying the shortest, most efficient paths for large and/or high-clearance vehicles — those without low bridges, narrow side clearance, tight turns, weight restrictions and other obstacles. But they tend to be expensive: SmartTruckRoute, for instance, comes with a $19 per month subscription fee. In a world where Google Maps is free, there’s certainly room for a less costly alternative.
Fully Electric Trucks
Tesla’s success proves that fully electric cars can be made safe, fast and fun with currently available battery technology. But fully electric 18-wheelers are another matter altogether. BMW just released an all-electric semi for in-town deliveries, but its paltry 60-mile range means it’s not ready for the open road.
“All-electric [long-haul] trucks are the future of the trucking industry,” says Bajwa, “but that future will not arrive next year.”
Still, trucking companies and major distributors are working hard to commercialize extended-range electric technologies. Wal-Mart recently introduced WAVE, a prototype hybrid truck with a carbon-fiber trailer; Peterbilt and Cummins are working on a 10 mpg “SuperTruck”; and a super-aerodynamic AirFlow BulletTruck achieved upwards of 13 mpg on a recent cross-country demonstration ride, according to Green Car Reports.
With the typical diesel truck clocking in at 5 or 6 mpg, the cost savings — and environmental benefits — of fuel-sipping semis are obvious for Minnesota’s long-haul trucking industry. By 2025, when new EPA fuel consumption rules for long-haul trucks take full effect, the state’s fleet could be a lot more efficient.
Before then, less comprehensive technologies could support incremental efficiency improvements. Bajwa cites automatic engine shutoff systems, which power down truck engines at stoplights, and powerful batteries that keep refrigeration equipment and power systems running during overnight layovers without consuming additional fuel — or using PTO equipment.