Learning to work and profit in the digital cloud
A put-down, directed at annoying whiners, used to go like this: “Here’s a dime—go call somebody who cares.” But does anyone under 40 even get the punch line these days?
Less than a generation ago, most truck drivers conducted business just as their fathers and grandfathers had: from roadside public pay phones and with a shoebox full of paperwork and receipts under one arm. Then came cell phones, followed by satellite positioning systems, increasingly affordable and portable computing power, the Internet, and, finally, technology that pulled it all together: the smartphone.
Trucking hasn’t evolved into the space age world of the Jetsons, but the industry has moved into the cloud. Now, through company intranets and global social networks, a driver and his truck are constantly connected for business and for recreation, and—as drivers increasingly recognize—for better and for worse.
Most obviously, the same technologies that let drivers instantly reach friends and family also expose drivers to interruption and distraction. And while communication tools combined with load-matching databases make for a much more efficient marketplace, a just-in-time supply chain puts a great deal of pressure on the men and women behind the wheel.
More subtly, despite this pervasive connectivity, drivers say they are more isolated than ever on the road. What’s going on?
Make the rounds of a truck stop parking lot and ask professional truck drivers about how they’ve tapped into this modern age of trucking—about tips and tricks and tools for managing business from the cab—and almost uniformly the answers are a variation of “my smartphone and my wife.”
But stick around for a cup of coffee and chat with drivers, and you will hear about a reliance on a wide range of gizmos and gadgets. Indeed, so much technology has been so seamlessly integrated into the cab and into everyday trucking that most drivers hardly give it a second thought.
This growing dependence on technology is most apparent in talking to industry veterans. Drivers new to trucking don’t have the perspective of someone who pulled cross-country loads way back when the years still numbered 19-something.
John Wieczorek considers himself to be an “old-school” owner-operator. He grew up in the shop of his father’s small trucking company, and he’s been running his own rig for 32 years. He’s been with Mercer Transportation for the last 12 of those years, hauling mostly sensitive military freight. Wife Carol has been driving with him for 11 years.
“Let me tell you, the digital age will never take over,” he says.
But a quick run-through of their on-the-road routine shows just how digital the Wieczoreks truly have become. For starters, “the iPhone is always in his hand,” Carol notes.
“The cell phone has been the greatest improvement in the trucking industry,” John says, and he recalls the “pleasure” of stopping in the rain to find a pay phone and call for loads, get directions, or talk to family. And many young truckers today may have never even used one, Carol points out.
“I’m strictly Apple all the way,” John says. “They told me, ‘once you buy your first one, you’ll never go back.’ I started with the iPhone, then the iPad, and now I’ve got an Apple laptop.”
Of course, what’s an owner-op without his coffee-stained road atlas, duly annotated with observations on loading docks and routes?
“A truck driver’s got to have an atlas!” he says.
“I try to keep it behind his seat at all times,” Carol adds.
Well, except his paper atlas has become more a security blanket than a critical tool. They now rely on mapmaker Rand McNally’s digital version, complete with satellite tracking.
And that’s just the beginning of their move to digital connectivity.
Among the other devices prominent in the cab of their 2013 Freightliner is a Qualcomm MCP-200 for communication with Mercer (and he also uses a Mercer app and posts to the Mercer driver Facebook page).
The Wieczoreks receive Dish satellite television with a Winegard “in-motion” receiver mounted on the roof of the sleeper. That’s a recent update; they decided they were missing too many shows with a receiver that didn’t work while the wheels were turning.
They also have his-and-hers SiriusXM radio receivers, solving the problem of who decides what to listen to.
“Now we get trucking news instantly,” John says. And while he misses tuning in to the late Truckin’ Bozo, he doesn’t miss the static of AM radio.
The Wieczoreks manage their business from a MacBook, using the ProfitGauges accounting package. But, as John points out, their data is stored in the cloud, so the latest numbers are readily available on any of their devices.
To submit paperwork and get paid, they use TripPak and an HP all-in-one device to scan documents and transmit them over the Internet. Additional on-board technology includes a BestPass multi-state toll tag and multi-camera video system.
Significantly, integrating the new technology into trucking operations hasn’t been particularly difficult, the Wieczoreks contend.
“I adapt to things pretty quickly,” John says. “The hardest part of new technology has been these new engines,” he adds with a laugh—although he wasn’t entirely joking.
John and his son built his tractor from a glider kit with a 1998 remanufactured Detroit 12.7L engine. Again, he’s serious about keeping his old-school reputation—at least when it suits his operation and his home-built tractor that is getting 8 mpg on super single tires, he boasts.
They did outsource the refurbishment of their salvage-yard sleeper find.
“I try to salvage and repurpose everything I can,” John says.
And as someone whose whole life has revolved around trucking, he is not at all sold on change for change’s sake.
“As far back as I can remember, I was riding with my father, sitting in restaurants listening, hanging around the shop,” he says. “The old drivers miss the diners, the tables at greasy spoons where you could sit and talk.”
And what’s happened?
“Technology,” he says without hesitation.
The Wieczoreks are not alone in their concern for truckers losing touch with each other because they are so connected to everyone and everything else.
“I enjoy what I do and I enjoy people when I meet them out here, but all this technology has isolated the truck driver,” says Tina Gordon, a company driver from Dayton, OH, who works for CalArk. “It’s forced the driver to stay in the truck more.”
In that regard, she calls the mandatory 30-minute break in the hours-of-service rule “a good thing.”
“It motivates drivers to get out and move around,” Gordon says. “Some of us get no exercise at all, sitting up in the truck like we do. To be honest, I’m not the healthiest person in the world because I sit up in this truck all the time.”
With many sleepers now equipped with microwave ovens and mini-fridges, “you can do everything in these trucks now—they’re basically mobile homes.”
And even when drivers make their way to a truck stop restaurant, most will be sitting in a booth talking on their phones, she notes.
“I do miss the conversation,” Gordon says.
But she does appreciate the many advantages offered by modern technology and connectivity—even as she admits to be a late adapter.
As a driver who’s been in trucking for 21 years, she remembers the downside to the good ol’ days.
“When I first started working, the company gave us pagers,” she says, laughing at the not-so-ancient history. “Every time that pager would go off, we’d have to go find a truck stop phone. Then you got a busy signal, and you’d start over and redial that 800 number. I was so overwhelmed when I finally got with a company that had Qualcomm.”
The use of Qualcomm has since expanded significantly from the early days of basic load dispatch to today’s systems, which can provide as much operational information as companies and drivers want to include.
“I like it, but I’m not one of those people who want to put a cover over the box,” she says. “A lot of it has to do with how close the company watches you.”
And while plenty of drivers worry about the Big Brother aspect of modern technology, Gordon sees a real safety advantage to constant communication.
“You can be out there on the road and run into a real sticky situation,” she says. “If that company doesn’t keep a constant watch over your Qualcomm, then what’s the use of having it—you’re just stuck.”
Indeed, she’s quit using her CB.
“I just don’t run with a CB anymore. To me they’re obsolete,” Gordon says.
Gordon also considers herself “old school,” although she doesn’t think twice about using the GPS capabilities of her phone—and getting misdirected by an earlier navigation unit has left her unwilling to rely on them.
“I’m a prehistoric person,” she says, but then demonstrates she’s not exactly driving a wooden-wheeled oxcart. “I integrate the directions dispatch gives me with Google maps.”
The downside to all-purpose smartphones is too many people on the highways, including truck drivers, are letting themselves be distracted, Gordon explains.
“It scares the bejeebers out of me,” she says. “I’ve got my phone set up to send a text saying I’m driving and I’ll reply later. That’s awesome.”
Gordon doesn’t have a wireless plan for her laptop, and while her smartphone is good for basic communication, many important web pages don’t display properly. So, she can’t work with the editor and page designer as she helps get her husband’s book ready for publication.
And, she admits, she spends time following her friends on Facebook and playing Candy Crush.
She also does a lot of her shopping online and uses the Internet to familiarize herself with the different areas she runs from Ohio to Texas, while using the CalArk yard in Hurricane Mills, TN, and the adjacent Pilot Travel Center as her central base.
“After driving all day, you don’t feel like carting your laptop and everything you need over to McDonald’s to get WiFi,” she says.
A connection through the services offered by IdleAir has been an ideal solution, she explains.
“I love IdleAir. I wish they had it in all the areas I deliver to. It’s the only time I get to watch TV—just kick back and relax,” Gordon says. “The climate in my truck is just so much better, and my CPAP machine works better. I get better quality of rest.”
Of course, 15 years into the 21st century, trucks are more sophisticated than ever and have more on-board computer processing power than the Apollo spacecraft that took men to the moon and back. Yet a big rig from that era could still do the job today—at least in terms of powering a load from coast to coast.
Essentially, freight still moves on roads pretty much as it has for the past 100 years, and while the highway system and equipment are superior, advancements have been incremental.
As American Trucker detailed in the January issue, many transportation experts expect the real revolution to come when computers, combined with sensor technology and digital control systems, will actually take over driving the trucks. The role of humans in the cab will necessarily change substantially if it’s not, ultimately, eliminated.
Some expect autonomous trucks to be commonplace on America’s highways sooner rather than later, but most drivers are skeptical.
On the other hand, as John Wieczorek points out, “Who would’ve thought [just 20 years ago] we could be rolling across New Mexico surfing the Internet from the bunk?”
Professional truck drivers don’t have to love all this technology, but those who don’t understand it and adapt will find themselves dinosaurs, indeed.