The dazzling array of technologies installed in commercial trucks—from smart sensors to wireless network connections to collision-avoidance systems and customized smartphones—can help fleet managers improve their oversight of day-to-day operations, whether it’s monitoring equipment location and condition or delivery performance. But the rise of the “connected cab” is proving even more valuable in another area of fleet operations: recruiting and retaining increasingly hard-to-find drivers.
If that sounds improbable, just ask Jeff Jackson. Like fleet operators everywhere, Jackson, who is executive vice president for operations, dedicated contract carriage, at Penske Logistics, says his company faces unprecedented competition for drivers. When his company goes to interview a prospective driver, “they’re really interviewing us, because they’ve got four other road tests they’re going to next,” Jackson says. “So they’re checking ‘Is the truck clean? Is the tech easy to use?’”
“We sell [ourselves by telling them] ‘We’ve got really good technology that is easy to use,’” Jackson adds.
In Penske’s case, that really good technology includes a company-developed Android-model smartphone that comes preloaded with apps that give drivers instant access to data like estimated time of arrival (ETA), including traffic and weather impacts, and that make their lives easier—for example, by providing automated arrival and departure notices, electronic proof of delivery (POD), engine fault codes, accident and breakdown reporting, and electronic driver vehicle inspection reporting. The devices also incorporate ELD (electronic logging device) capability for tracking drivers’ hours of service.
Penske issues drivers one of these smartphones at the start of their route each day and offers “dock to dock” tech support until the driver returns the handheld unit at the end of the trip.
As for what’s driving the trend among fleets to up their technology game, part of it is the expectation among drivers, particularly younger ones, that employers will provide them with the same kinds of technologies they’re accustomed to using in their daily lives—if not substantially better.
“The driver shortage has created a vacuum that is [pulling] the next generation of drivers into the mix, and there are expectations that what they see in the cab will be [more advanced than] what the previous generation had,” says Mayank Sharma, head of the product management and user experience group at Teletrac Navman, a developer of asset management systems and fleet management software. They expect their trucks to be equipped with technology that’s at least on a par with what they have in their personal cars, Sharma adds, “so there’s ‘consumerization’ happening in fleets.”
But that’s just part of the story. In addition to helping attract members of the digital generation, today’s in-cab technologies offer important safety benefits, fleet experts say. “There’s definitely a lot of new technology in the cabs now, but that tech helps to pick up things a driver might miss,” says Andrew Blundon, a trucker with 30 years of experience and a certified driver trainer at Ryder System Inc. He cites collision-avoidance systems that can alert drivers to vehicles in their blind spot and lane-departure warning systems as two examples. “A driver has more things to do than an airline pilot. He has to make so many quick decisions, and this advanced equipment makes driving a truck easier.”
Despite the demonstrable benefits, the prospect of working in a “connected cab” isn’t always an easy sell. While younger employees tend to take to the latest digital tools, they can be intimidating for some older drivers who see the technology as impinging on the independent lifestyle of a driver, says Matthew Carr, vice president of operations at CPC Logistics Inc., a company that provides drivers and services for private fleets in North America. “It’s what we need to find the workforce because they’re a connected audience and we need to engage them,” he says of the technology. “But right now it scares some people.”
Drivers tend to be particularly skeptical of the dashboard cameras that record both the traffic outside the vehicle and the actions of the driver inside. “Cameras [that are integrated] with the vehicle can be intrusive or offensive to some drivers,” Carr says. But their suspicion is unfounded, he adds. The cameras aren’t there so that fleet supervisors can micromanage drivers, he says. “In reality, they are there to support a suite of coaching tools and to protect the driver.”
To that last point, Carr notes that drivers often undergo a change in attitude about cameras once they experience those protective effects. In the event of a crash, “there’s a tendency to blame the guy in the big lumbering vehicle,” he says, “when in reality they’re the trained professionals and those around them are more likely to be driving unpredictably.” In such cases, footage from dashboard cameras can be used to demonstrate that a driver was not at fault, exonerating both the driver and the fleet, Sharma says, adding that these capabilities are leading more drivers to accept the technology.
In the never-ending effort to manage their fleets more efficiently, trucking companies are turning to many of the same technologies their drivers use in daily life. Packed into an 18-wheeler, the high-tech tools have created a connected cab that not only supports better freight visibility but also improved vehicle safety and employee satisfaction.
“When it comes down to it, we need to be able to [retain] the drivers we have and attract the ones we don’t in order to position [truck driving] as an attractive career—one [that offers] both connected technology and the independence of being a driver,” CPC’s Carr says.