IT hits the highway: Big rigs go high tech

From handheld computers to advanced safety systems, emerging technologies are poised to transform the trucking business

"Harry Potter must not escape."

Those were the words that J.B. Hunt Transport Services received from Scholastic, the US publisher of the Harry Potter books, as it prepared to ship tractor-trailer loads of the final book in the wildly popular series to distributors' warehouses nationwide last summer.

The publisher was determined not to release any copies of the book before the official on-sale date. One reason why Scholastic chose J.B. Hunt over other trucking services was the carrier's ability to ensure that "we knew where the load was and that it couldn't be delivered early," says Kay Palmer, CIO and executive vice president.

J.B. Hunt had a three-hour window in which it was expected to distribute hundreds of trailer-loads of books to locations nationwide. The company staged the delivery by picking up the books from the printer early and storing them in secure, fenced holding areas positioned within 150 miles of every delivery location.

The operations center used GPS technology to gain visibility into these areas by monitoring the location of every trailer hourly. Operations could also "ping" each trailer, and, using data from infrared sensors inside each trailer, check that the contents were inside.

To ensure that the trailers remained securely on location, the trucking company used a technique called geofencing to create a virtual perimeter around each distribution point. If a trailer moved just one-tenth of a mile beyond that invisible perimeter line (set by specifying surrounding longitude and latitude coordinates around each address), the system alerted the dispatch center.

If a truck left too early, dispatch could contact the driver. The system also created alerts if a given trailer hadn't left by the end of the three-hour dispatch window. By using the technology, J.B. Hunt was able to meet the terms of its contract. No books were delivered early -- or late.

That's just a simple example of how technology is beginning to transform the trucking business -- and just in time. Faced with rising fuel costs, tighter regulation and fierce competition (there are more than 800,000 trucking companies in the US), major carriers are beginning to adopt a constellation of emerging technologies that promise to improve efficiency and safety while helping them comply with federal safety and labor regulations.

The technologies include enhanced systems that monitor and communicate vehicle conditions and performance, enhanced GPSs that keep tabs on tractors and trailers, and safety systems that issue warnings or even take action to help drivers avoid an accident -- all working in real time.

"Productivity solutions have arrived," says Palmer, adding that J.B. Hunt has invested in many of them. Most of the technologies coming out today have been evolving for five to 10 years. Not all of them are ready for the road, she says, but many are close enough that she expects the company to adopt them more broadly in the next few years.

In some cases, the technology has finally matured enough for production use; in others, the prices have finally dropped to the point where carriers can justify the extra cost. Here's a look at what's already here -- and what's coming.

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