Digital Triumphs

Data Drives Trucking Gains

By Felicity Landon

Breakbulk companies implementing technology that gathers and provides data points and then digitizes that information into usable, actionable intelligence stand to benefit from a triple win: reduced risk, reduced accident severity and frequency, and significantly reduced cost.

According to Nathaniel Leis, director of safety at U.S. trucking company ATS, there are cost reductions to be made through improved performance and reduced downtime across a transportation fleet. The trucking industry has the interesting dynamic of being the largest employer as a group in the U.S., while at the same time having a large number of small businesses. “And so, the industry leaders have the capacity to adopt the changes presented by digitization, while the overall industry is slow to follow,” Leis said.

He lists the many benefits to digitization in the breakbulk trucking industry: improved performance, reduced downtime, streamlined vehicle maintenance and trailer repair, and reduced fuel costs.

“The data available to identify mechanical problems before they become major breakdowns, coupled with systems to streamline power units into our shops, has the potential to reduce driver downtime, and repair cost,” he said. “For my money, however, reducing accident frequency and severity represents the greatest opportunity.”

Skyrocketing litigation costs related to accidents can be prevented by leveraging technology and digitization, he said. In the past decade alone, the average cost of litigated injury claims in the southeastern U.S. has risen by more than US$10 million, and it is becoming more and more common to see judgments and settlements in excess of US$100 million.

This, in turn, drives additional insurance and legal costs and impacts customers, drivers and the bottom line, Leis said. “The best way to prevent these losses is to not find yourself in the courtroom. And the best way to not find yourself in the courtroom is to prevent the accident in the first place.”

Widening Data Capture

ATS has begun to integrate its data in new ways relating to both the frontline and the operations management teams, in order to pinpoint how performance is affecting the health of the company. It has long gathered accident information and used that data to work to eliminate the occurrence of accidents of the same nature. While this has proven successful to a point, it has not eliminated those accidents overall.

Now, ATS has onboard technologies that provide it with additional performance data that can build a better picture of what are the precursors to certain accidents. These technologies are integrated into its vehicle’s systems and communicate basic performance data back to the office. “The data can be used to identify risky behavior that can be measured and linked to undesired accidents and other outcomes,” Leis said.

ATS has built an in-house tool that compiles data into an individual driver risk assessment. Hence it can identify drivers with a higher risk of an accident, analyze and target the risky behavior, and take action to lower the risk.
The data points range from lagging indicators such as previous accidents and moving violations, to leading indicators such as days away from home and days since last pay, in an attempt to identify real-time risk in driver behavior.

As Leis pointed out: “Data is great, but it is what you do with that data that counts.” ATS is using these technologies to “manage out” risk, not its drivers, he added. “The data is used to coach our team members to change their habits over time to become a safe and productive driver for ATS.”

Heading for Improvement

Core challenges for the trucking industry are a lack of safety oversight and driver retention, Leis said, and technology can help overcome both of them.

In years past, trucking companies built a safety culture, setting policies and expectations as a means to manage safety performance. They may have hired people within their organizations, or vendors, to follow their trucks for observations. Ultimately, they were forced to rely on the public to report poor driving habits, or negative outcomes to tell them that they have a safety performance problem.

Today, event recorders have opened a door into driver performance and work habits that allows ATS to proactively manage safe performance.

“Event recorders integrated into the electronic control module of our vehicles allow us to be alerted to driver habits that elevate risk … and to proactively work with our team members to reduce and eliminate these risks,” Leis said. Ultimately, this means ATS can reduce driver turnover by preventing team members from bumping up against the disciplinary policy, by using data and event recorders to improve the team’s driving skills and, more importantly, improving their skills at identifying risks and decision making.

There has been some resistance, however, to the introduction of these types of systems. “As with all change, there is resistance to some of the more intrusive elements of digitization,” Leis said. “The workforce is sensitive to truck automation and in-cab remote monitoring. Individual organizations are sensitive to the additional cost of new technology and the cost of change management, as well as the natural inclination to hold onto past practices.”

Digitalized Hurdles

Transport company Geodis provides its customers with a full digitalized system providing end-to-end visibility of their supply chains, including online freight management and tracking.

However, frustratingly, out-of-gauge cargoes in the U.S. are required to have permits, and it is up to the governing body to select the appropriate route that the journey will travel. “So we are not able to apply technology to route planning or route optimizing,” said William Cummins, global QHSE manager, freight forwarding, Geodis.

Rather, Geodis’ digitalization offering is geared towards allowing the customer to have real-time updates, providing the forwarder with journey management and improving safety for the driver and public.

“Safety managers are able to assist and engage at the moment an issue is detected or communicated via software or cameras – the units can be pulled over and a ‘stop work’ authorized until the issue is resolved and documented,” Cummins said.

Digitalization is advancing to the point that items are being received in systems as they pass through the gate to the facility, so that drivers do not have to sit in a long queue waiting to exchange bill of lading paperwork, Cummins said. “This is saving time and money.”

However, a challenge in the drive towards digitalization is that of unrealistic expectations. For example, customers in less-developed countries such as Papua New Guinea or Kazakhstan or, indeed, in the mountains of Norway or remote parts of Australia, frequently expect access to the same types of services when the infrastructure simply isn’t there.

“This is an issue that impacts all entities that move out-of-gauge cargo; expressing these limitations and documenting mitigation techniques that will be implemented is the responsibility of the project forwarder,” Cummins said. “Educating the customer is key to setting the correct expectations in all transport environments.”
Geodis takes a variety of steps to get around any technological/infrastructural shortcomings in a specific area, he added. For example, the company uses drones with live feedback from a control room to offer the same real-time experience. “We have also used real-time videoconferencing, digital meetings and other methods to link customers and operations teams in across the world.

“We see more and more advances being made in lesser-developed countries. Will this take some time to catch up? Yes, for sure. It takes global companies operating in these areas to set the standard and best industry practices to speed this change along and drive the culture,” Cummins said.  

Felicity Landon is an award-winning freelance journalist specializing in the ports, shipping, transport and logistics sectors.

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