March 21, 2011
Column | techwatch

Hey, your GPS is ringing

The introduction of truck navigation apps for smart phones is making computer-directed routing affordable for even the smallest independent trucker.

By James A. Cooke

The same breakthroughs in mobile communications technology that have led to an explosion in low-cost mobile apps for consumers are now carrying over into the world of commercial trucking. Take vehicle navigation systems, for instance.

As recently as five years ago, a truck driver who wanted a GPS-enabled routing system was pretty much out of luck. Although there were a number of navigation systems on the market, they were designed for motorists, not truckers. While they could calculate a route from point A to point B in a flash, they couldn't plot a truck-specific route, one that took into account factors like low bridges; vehicle length and weight restrictions; and environmental considerations, like bans on hazardous cargoes.

In the last few years, a number of vendors have jumped in to fill that gap. Manufacturers like Garmin, ALK Technologies, and Rand McNally in the United States and TomTom in Europe have all released versions of their navigation systems aimed at motor carriers. These commercial versions don't bear much resemblance to the compact GPS units familiar to motorists. A trucking navigation system is a touch-screen device about the size of a large book that can be mounted on the dashboard in a truck cab. Before a trip, the driver enters data like the truck's dimensions, the destination, and any special requirements into the navigation unit, which then calculates the optimal route and provides spoken directions.

Of course, all that added functionality comes at a price. The commercial navigation units typically cost hundreds of dollars, which has put them largely out of reach for the small, independent trucker.

But now that's starting to change. In April 2010, ALK released a voice-guided navigation app for truck drivers that runs on the iPhone and a range of other GPS-enabled devices, including laptops and rugged handhelds. ALK charges $149.99 on the iTunes store for the iPhone version of the app, CoPilot Live Truck North America. (The app is also available for the Android phone.)

To plan a trip, a driver enters his rig profile and destination. The CoPilot software then calculates a route based on vehicle size and cargo type, taking into account restrictions such as low bridges; height, weight, and length limits; and prohibitions against hazardous cargoes. To get spoken directions, the driver simply places the smart phone in a special mounting unit affixed to the cab's dashboard. ALK spokeswoman Mary Kelly says that if the smart phone has wireless Internet connectivity, the "application can also access dynamic info like real-time traffic, real-time weather, and real-time fuel price services."

In January, Garmin also jumped in the game, adding a navigation app to the iTunes App Store for the low, low price of $34.99. The app, called the Garmin StreetPilot for iPhone, is designed for motorists, which means it lacks the truck-specific features offered by, say, Garmin's higher-end 560LMT GPS unit. Still, it could be used by truckers as a low-end solution. As Garmin spokeswoman Jessica Myers puts it, "Truckers can use the app and it'll provide them with directions. But it doesn't have the extra bells and whistles."

Other makers of truck-specific navigation systems are likely to follow suit, introducing low-cost versions of their own technologies for use on mobile devices. In fact, a Rand McNally spokesman said the company plans to release an app for the iPad later this year. There's no excuse now for any fleet manager or truck driver to resort to an old-fashioned map to plot a delivery route.

About the Author

James A. Cooke
James Cooke is a principal analyst with Nucleus Research in Boston, covering supply chain planning software. He was previously the editor of CSCMP’s Supply Chain Quarterly and a staff writer for DC Velocity.

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