Cover Story

| July 02, 2009

The buzzword in communications technology these days is location. As details are unveiled of the new GPS-aware applications available for the iPhone, T-Mobile’s G1 phone and Windows-based smartphones, their use is spreading quickly in personal and business circles, including the world of owner-operators. Not only is the traditional use of GPS for routing and trip planning becoming more refined, but truckers are finding that location data can be put to good social and recreational uses, too.

Enhanced navigation
It’s an old complaint – that heavy reliance on a GPS navigation unit can route you into a lake. Search on the Internet for “GPS truck crash,” says FWCC driver Mark Pritchard, and “you’ll find stories of truck drivers getting themselves killed because they went somewhere with the GPS navigation exclusively.”

One such story concerns car hauler Marcos Costa, who was using a GPS system and whose brakes failed on a downhill run in the Crescenta Valley via Angel Crest Highway in Southern California. Costa ran straight into a bookstore and survived. At the time, it was legal to run on that route, but after the crash (one of several off the hill), Caltrans temporarily banned five-axle vehicles on the route.

That restriction wouldn’t register on older GPS systems, but today’s navigational tools are becoming more tailored to trucking. Werner driver Cal Buell uses the new premium WorldNav 7200 from Teletype, which was built with truck drivers in mind. As a field tester, he helps update map data.

“I was on Minnesota Highway 60 recently,” he says, “in a section that went from two-lane to four-lane and they’d just been doing work on it. My GPS was telling me I was running in a farmer’s field.” He reported the change to Teletype. They told him they already had it and it would come in the next update.

Dan Titus, a vice president for ALK Technologies’ PC Miler and CoPilot navigator businesses, says the company is continuously updating its North American maps, with much of the news coming from drivers who use either their PC Miler standalone navigators or the CoPilot laptop and smartphone software. “Many drivers actually send ALK their GPS Track log files that allow for anonymous submission of vehicle locations,” he says.

Pritchard runs with Microsoft Streets and Trips in his laptop, but his iPhone is also quickly becoming a prime navigational tool. Its GPS functionality and its integration with Google Maps gives a reasonable view of any location, particularly useful on unfamiliar delivery and pickup sites.

Often, he says, “you’ll find that the address is on one street but the truck entrance is in the back. I used to use Google on my laptop, but that requires a clean connection – you can use Google Maps on the iPhone anytime you have a cellular connection, and you can see the truck gate before you get there on your satellite view.”

Trip planning
With both the new GPS devices and GPS-functional mobile smartphones, you can access data about your route, plan stops and know with assurance the unit will get you to your stops without resetting your origin and destination with each stop. For instance, Werner driver Buell has programmed 40 to 50 Werner drop yards into his Teletype WorldNav model 7200.

Storage for user-added points of interest is particularly helpful, he says, to irregular-route long-haulers, who might deliver to some destinations only occasionally. “You can program that location” and, next time you go, avoid repeated map work.

Garmin claims its new Nuvi 465T truck-specific navigator is the first to include the entire National Truck & Trailer Services breakdown services directory in its nationwide points of interest, which can be displayed on the map of your current location.

This data extends to indentifying weigh stations, fuel and rest stops, and other attractions ahead. When you’re entering a more urban area with many points of interest, most navigators allow you to automatically zoom in and identify restaurants and other attractions you’re passing.

Real-time data on changing conditions
Real-time road conditions are showing up in GPS units and GPS-functional smartphones. In the iPhone, says driver Mark Pritchard, the GPS application with Google Maps has the capability, in many metro areas, to overlay the color-coded traffic data available on Google’s online map service.

Real-time rich data capability is a big advantage of GPS-functional devices with a communications link to cellular networks like the iPhone or a Windows-based smartphone or laptop running CoPilot Truck, says ALK’s Dan Titus.

Says telemetrics service provider Blue Sky Network’s Carlton van Putten, “On a rudimentary level, the drivers will all have GPS in their phones.” As cell providers move in that direction, GPS navigation device manufacturers are going the opposite way. Garmin’s Nuvi 465T comes standard with subscription-free lifetime traffic alerts for most major metro areas nationwide from map-data provider NAVTEQ Traffic. It will notify drivers of traffic delays and road construction.

Garmin has announced the planned release of its location-based-services-centric Nuvifone in two different versions, the G60 and M20, says spokesperson Jessica Myers. Truck routing won’t be available on the products, but may be added later, she says.

Real-time weather data, too, is available on various devices and in different forms. Pritchard, for instance, skirts approaching road and weather problems via “the iPhone’s Internet browser – a Safari application,” which he says “works really well with the webcams the states are installing. You can access them directly from the state DOTs’ sites. Having that in the palm of your hand – that’s revolutionary.”

Geocaching
Geocaching falls under fun, not business, and it’s well-suited to those who are on the move. Pritchard describes geocaching as a “high-tech Easter-egg hunt that goes on all year long.”
Geocachers have hidden thousands of containers worldwide, mostly in parks and other public property. In each case, the person establishing the cache logs the GPS coordinates (latitude and longitude) and gives discretionary clues, including difficulty levels, posting everything on a website such as www.Geocaching.com.

Most caches have a log book to sign. “Then you go to the website and leave your log,” says Pritchard, who’s been experimenting with the activity for years.

When drivers Christie and Frank Williams (“TwoTruckers” on Geocaching.com) of Powers Lake, Wis., launched their GeoTruckers.com site in 2006, they were reacting to the dearth of a central location for information on cache sites accessible to large-vehicle drivers. GeoTruckers has attracted more than 600 members since, with about 500 listed caches accessible by trucks.

At the site, Christie provides links to bookmarked lists of caches that are available for download to your GPS receiver. In the Garmin StreetPilot that he and Williams use for navigation in their truck, Christie has programmed his cache list. “The unit will actually start chiming, telling me there’s a point of interest nearby,” he says.

Christie warns that a basic in-vehicle navigational unit that cannot be switched over from its mapping function to basic GPS can be a problem off road. He’s tried various GPS-functional smartphones and found them to be less accurate than standalone GPS devices.

Social networking
Increasing GPS functionality has combined with web-based social-networking sites to bring back face-to-face interaction.

Wired magazine’s February cover story on GPS discussed the WhosHere app for the iPhone that allows users to make their location and profile information available to other users. While writer Matthew Honan’s experiments with the app turned up a user nearby named Bridget who claimed to use WhosHere only for “finding people to have sex with,” truckers and others normally use such functions for less exotic purposes.

For example, they leave photo-location records of where they are or where they’ve been run the possibility of face-to-face interaction with others of similar interests motivates users of BrightKite.com to maintain their microblogged, geolocated record. Driver Pritchard describes the service and its iPhone application, which allows for the use of GPS data to cross-reference with your posts, as enabling just that.

“When I get where I’m going, I say, ‘Here I am,’ essentially,” as BrightKite logs his location, he says. “I can look at the history of others who’re using the service. Say I come across a couple guys I know who are also truckers. One of them, say, has checked in here very recently. I message him and say, ‘Hey let’s get a cup of coffee and gab for a while.’”
Pritchard says he’s waiting for a developer to address the social possibilities for truckers. “I would imagine that something like a BrightKite written for truck drivers, accessing the phone’s capability, would go over quite well,” he says.

Donna Smith envisions such a function as a “cross between Twitter and a CB.” Donna and her husband, Allen Smith, are the progenitors of the iPhone Trucker app. Though the app is a news and resource aggregator for iPhone users, the Smiths are working to leverage the GPS capability of the iPhone to enable connections among the trucking community.

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