All hands on tech

| September 01, 2006

Pioneer makes a unit that features a blind-spot camera system and voice commands and plays a variety of audio and video formats, including XM Satellite Radio, whose programming includes traffic updates. “You set the parameter to route you the fastest way,” says Dennis Mintor, a national accounts manager for Pioneer. “If you run into traffic congestion, this system will ask you, before you get there, if you’d like to be rerouted. It saves a lot of time, not to mention fuel.”

As diesel prices surpass $3 a gallon, owner-operators will look to such devices as investments, Driscoll says. “If you can do some smart routing, you can definitely save on fuel and time,” he says. “I’m finding that more people I talk to in the industry are painfully aware that they have to do whatever they can to get a competitive edge.”

In less than five years, GPS/traffic update systems could be standard equipment on new trucks, Driscoll says. “All the technology is there. There is nothing stopping the truck manufacturers from offering it.”

However, Don Philyaw, director of sales and marketing support for Volvo Trucks North America, says there is a lack of truck-only routing systems. Such units would be designed to route trucks around streets where they are barred. This is a temporary snafu, though; reliable data is becoming available. Another barrier: Built-in systems are as expensive as some of the add-on systems now popular in the marketplace. “As these issues are resolved in the near future, and as the cost of this technology comes down, it would not surprise me to see this technology be used more frequently,” says Philyaw, adding that such systems could become standard on sleeper tractors.

SUBSCRIPTION TRAFFIC UPDATES. Broadcast radio stations have offered traffic updates for local listeners, especially during rush hour, for years. Still, such broadcasts are of limited use to long-haul truckers who don’t know the local frequencies. Many stations have begun passing along the updates via the Internet, as well.

Today, however, subscription services such as satellite radio and Clear Channel Radio offer metro-specific traffic updates nationwide. Often these are incorporated into in-cab GPS systems. XM currently offers traffic updates for 40 metropolitan areas, Clear Channel for 50, but as more truckers and four-wheelers buy into such systems, coverage is likely to expand.

“In those out-of-the-way places, you don’t have many people living there, but you will have lots of people driving through,” Driscoll says.

ELECTRONIC SIGNS. Traffic updates and routing suggestions are available in many cities via electronic signs, often part of federally supported intelligent transportation systems.

Atlanta, for instance, uses electronic signs to inform drivers of traffic conditions miles ahead. Along the I-285 loop, drivers can tell how many minutes it will take to reach a certain exit. If an accident has a lane blocked ahead, the signs warn drivers to take an alternate route to avoid the backup.

Future electronic signs will communicate directly with in-cab telematics, according to a recent presentation by Larry Lair, vice president of 3M’s Traffic Safety Systems Division. For example, a truck will detect a “caution” sign far ahead, out of the driver’s visual range, and alert him with a signal. Even future pavement markings will communicate traffic and road conditions data to drivers, Lair says.

511 PHONE SYSTEMS. Before 2000, there were some 300 phone numbers for information on road conditions and traffic. Now traffic conditions in a third of the country are available by dialing 511. Like 911 systems, state-run 511 systems connect callers to local operators.

States with active 511 systems include much of the Midwest, Florida, Kentucky, North Carolina, Virginia and Washington state. More than 54 million calls have been made to the system since its launch, according to the Federal Highway Administration.

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