Tom Kyrk’s career as a truck driver predates the introduction of the Apple iPhone in 2007, but not by much. Still, he’s been around long enough to witness the revolution in consumer electronics and connectivity that is now reshaping the way truckers work and play.
“Even though I’ve lived it, the technology has changed so fast it’s really hard to explain it to someone who hasn’t been through it,” says Kyrk, who lives in Butler, PA, and drives for Stevens Transport. “In the old days, you had to pull out an atlas and roughly calculate the mileage, and do this and do that to make a trip plan. Now I can plug a location into a truck-friendly GPS or even Google Earth and get a good idea of the route options. And in most cases, the system has considered traffic in the route calculations.”
When he first started driving for a fleet with a Qualcomm system installed, messaging charges were high, and it was prohibitively expensive to get into details. So Kyrk still relied on a cell phone to get important details from dispatch, shippers, and receivers. And those cell phones were not yet smart.
Jump ahead to today, and there is indeed a device and an app for virtually any activity a trucker needs to conduct a day’s business.
“With the right app, I can now do things in five minutes that might have taken several hours or even days of back and forth phone calls,” Kyrk says, and as an example he points to how much time and effort was required to report even minor damage to the truck: Polaroid photos, forms, faxes—and lots of time trying to chase down the proper decision makers to determine how to proceed. “Now you just snap a couple of pictures with your smart phone, email it, and everyone who needs to know about it has the information in 20 or 30 minutes.”
And during a recent bout of bad weather in the Northeast, a combination of new technologies (detailed weather radar and forecasts, along with real-time road condition updates) allowed Kyrk to plan his stop so that he avoided the worst parts of the storm and the traffic backups.
“So while everybody else was digging out, I was able to deliver my load on mostly clear roads,” he says. “In the past, I would’ve been reliant on trying to call the weather lines and decide if it’s safe or not safe—and the odds are I would’ve stayed parked for another 6-12 hours and missed that delivery and messed up the rest of my week.”
Kyrk is quick to note, however, that he continues to use his atlas to double check for truck restrictions, and that drivers who’ve always relied on routing technology can have problems if there are tech glitches.
“The one pitfall of all this technology is that new drivers have gotten so used to it, they don’t always stop and think of the old-school way—picking up the phone and calling and asking questions, confirming that the load will be ready, that kind of thing,” he says. “But if you learn how to use it, and make it work for you, there are so many tools out there that can make your life a lot easier—but none of it replaces good old-fashioned common sense. And a good old-fashioned atlas.”
The cab of an average long-haul truck has enough electronics “to outfit a Best Buy,” suggests the RoadPro Family of Brands, and there’s always some new device that promises to make the job a little easier and the downtime a little more enjoyable.
To gauge what drivers want, RoadPro surveyed members of its Road Warrior Club on what new technology most appealed to them. Their answers revealed a strong bent toward the practical and proven.
Technology which respondents wanted most:
- Smart TVs – 67%
- Self-service truck stop kiosks – 60%
- Smart watches – 40%
Not surprisingly, less practical technology, such as virtual reality and video games, was not as popular.
Technology in which respondents had the least interest:
- Robotic shopping carts—80% uninterested
- Video games—67% uninterested
- Virtual reality—60% uninterested
- Augmented reality —60% uninterested
RoadPro fleshed out the survey by asking Facebook friends what mobile electronics they wanted. Laptops, dashcams and tablets led the wish lists, though a number of respondents said they didn’t want any more devices, and several mentioned they simply didn’t have room in the cab for any more.
And that’s why more technology providers are turning to multi-purpose devices such as the Garmin’s dēzlCam LMTHD, which is a trucking-specific navigator with built-in dash cam, and Rand McNally’s TND Tablet 80, a hybrid truck GPS and Android tablet, RoadPro suggests.
Another company that is basing its business around a multi-purpose device and bundled services is ONE20, which features a branded Samsung Galaxy Tab E 8-in. connected Android Tablet, powered by AT&T’s LTE network.
“Until now, technology has been part of the problem, not the solution, because mobile devices and apps have all been developed with the fleet or general consumer, rather than the driver, in mind,” said founder and CEO Christian Schenk. “The technology is not the value. The tech is the catalyst, the means to get access to the value.”
Specifically, ONE20’s free membership begins with a mobile app that includes truck-safe turn-by-turn navigation and exclusive discounts from ONE20 partners to help drivers save even more money on and off the job. ONE20 also plans to roll out a free, mobile device-based ELD this summer.
“Drivers are the most connected workers in the world,” added John Moscatelli, director of transportation solutions-IoT at AT&T. “When you find someone who’s going to transform the industry, you pay attention. This whole concept—building a community from the drivers up—is revolutionary. It’s not a change in technology; it’s a change in the business model.”
Based on recent surveys for the company’s Top ONE20 report, Schenk provided American Trucker some “common themes” on truckers and the use of technology:
- Smartphone adoption is wide: out of 650 respondents, 96% had a smartphone. Of those smart phone users, 63% were Android.
- Tablets “have come a long way,” with 50% of drivers having tablets today, and with Android having a 60% share of tablet users.
- The ONE20 survey base still has some catching up to do on ELDs before the mandate’s December deadline: 40% reported already having an e-log. But among owner-operators, that number drops to 25%.
Pick and choose
Even though Kyrk serves on the RoadPro Pro Driver Council, he didn’t have the same priorities when it comes to technology as the drivers in the survey. He suggests that if he had the time to take advantage of a smart TV, he’d soon be looking for another company to drive for. And while he doesn’t have a problem with self-service kiosks, “when it comes to checking out, I want that little bit of human interaction,” he says. “That two to five minutes I talk with the person at the counter might be the only time that I have an interaction with a human being that day.”
As for smart watches, Kyrk—who worked for several years at an electronics retailer before he became a trucker—has been looking but has yet to make a buying decision.
“The technology is still developing. I haven’t found a watch—yet—that I’m willing to pay the price for, for what it does,” he says. “It’s like when smart phones first came out. People didn’t really see the use until the apps started adding functionality and the price started coming down. We’ll see the same thing, but it’s going to be a little way down the road.”
As an alternative, Kyrk does like fitness bands with Bluetooth connectivity to a smart phone that relays messages to the driver’s wrist. Oddly, and even though driver health and fitness is at the heart of Kyrk’s website, RoadTestedLiving.com, he’s not sure the fitness bands accurately gauge the activity of people who spend 10 or more hours in a truck every day. He does encourage drivers who participate in a fitness challenge to ensure that all participants’ steps, for instance, are measured with the same device.
“A friend of mine, with a different brand of fitness band, was riding in the truck one day and spent most of the day in the sleeper,” he says. “By the end of the day, after I was in and out of the truck, she still had twice as many steps—and I think she got out of the bunk once.”
Kyrk, who routinely reviews products for his site, offers some shopping tips and recommendations for other trucker apps and gizmos:
- For anyone looking at GPS systems, the question is whether to get a dedicated, truck-specific unit that has the ability to add functionality such as e-log capability, or to get a consumer tablet and then install a GPS app and other tools. Kyrk says he carries both. He also notes that the hardware should be rugged for use in a truck, and that off-the-shelf consumer tablets have more options for customization.
- “If you don’t have a Bluetooth headset and you use your phone in your truck, you’re nuts,” Kyrk says. And there are many brands and styles to choose from. Whether over-the-head, earpiece, or neck bands, drivers should find one that fits comfortably. He also points to a variety of advanced features now being offered, such as noise cancellation and voice command. Drivers should also consider durability and battery life. “Anybody can find one they like—just talk to friends and experiment,” he adds.
- In terms of apps, he likes the free routing from ONE20, and the truck stop information offered by the TruckerPath driver network. Similarly, Truckbubba offers voice alerts to go along with driver reports from the road ahead. For weather, Kryk uses both WeatherBug and Weather Underground. For entertainment, he likes the variety offered by iHeartRadio after he dropped his satellite radio subscription. For driver health, he notes that a wide variety of apps are available to help monitor and track medical conditions and maintain medical records.
- Indeed, an emerging technology that might someday truly benefit truck drivers is telemedicine, or the ability to get a medical consultation via the internet. “Medical care is probably one of the things drivers neglect the most. I can’t tell you how many times over the years I have intended to be home for an appointment, and something beyond everybody’s control occurred and I had to reschedule,” Kyrk says. “We’re seeing the development of technology that has the potential to give drivers better access to services that the average person takes for granted. I don’t think that we’ve scratched the surface yet. Smart watches and some of these other technologies can tie into that. The potential is exciting, and it’s coming.”
- And even CB radios “have not lost their place,” Kyrk adds. “They probably could and should be used more than they are.”
But he does express concern that all this technology might prove to be a distraction for drivers.
“It’s like everything else we have in the truck, even safety devices: They can be a blessing if properly used, but they can also become a huge distraction and a hindrance to safety if you’re not careful,” Kyrk says. “It can go either way. We sometimes forget in this industry that the tools are often only as good as the person using them.”
Driver involvement in the development of these tools is the key, he concludes.
“The technology in new trucks is innovative—but the actual technology drivers use on a daily basis, the mobile technology, is still underdeveloped,” Kyrk says. “These technology companies need to actually listen to drivers more. They need to realize drivers are their partners, rather than going out and paying a consultant to tell drivers what they need and want.”