All Keyed Up

Just 10 years ago, the average trucker’s high-tech toolkit included only three items: an atlas, a CB radio and a pocket full of quarters for a pay phone. Although the trucks were more advanced, the basic methods of communicating and navigating hadn’t changed since the golden age of trucking in the 1960s and ’70s.

More than any other decade, the 1990s fundamentally changed the way truck drivers do business. The cell phone, which in 1992 was a hulking 5-pound bag that was too expensive and too limited in range, is the most obvious form of this evolution. Cellular handsets have replaced the CB and the pay phone as the communication device of choice for truckers and companies (see “Ring of the Road). More surprising, perhaps, is how many truckers now rely on computers.

In a recent survey of Truckers News readers who own a computer, for instance, more than 40 percent say they use it for business purposes.

Owner-operator Jack Felker is one of those truckers who uses a laptop computer to make his life on the road a little easier. Felker says he has a Global Positioning Satellite system hooked up to his laptop, and runs software from mapmaker DeLorme to plan his routes. “I can pre-plan my route and it will highlight it so all I have to do is follow the arrow on my screen to my destination’s address,” he says. “I know when I have a turn coming up and I immediately know if I’ve gone the right way. I am basically the little arrow on the map.”

Hundreds of carriers have turned to GPS units to help drivers with directions or provide maps on in-cab display screens. “It’s accurate down to less than 50 feet and is also full of other useful information like the correct time and exactly how fast you are moving,” Felker says. “The miles it tells me the trip will be are right on, and it also tells me how much farther to my destination as I travel. I don’t spend valuable time trying to find where I need to be, and my phantom unpaid miles are as low as they come.”

Trucker Curtis Ferguson uses a home computer to keep in touch with family and friends, sending e-mail rather than racking up long-distance charges. Ferguson, who trucks in the Texas Panhandle and eastern New Mexico, also uses his computer to keep up with industry news and weather reports. Ferguson is one of the 66 percent of truckers who have access to the Internet. In fact, of those truckers who use computers for business, more than half use e-mail, according to the Truckers News survey.

Other truckers use computers in business because their carrier requires them to do so. For more than a decade, thousands of drivers have used Qualcomm units to communicate with their fleet headquarters. Today, more than 150,000 drivers have access to e-mail through Qualcomm’s CabCARD program. Drivers for carriers that track trucks with PeopleNet’s g2x system also have access to e-mail.

But e-mail is just one service truckers use computers for. Of truckers who use their computers for business, nearly 60 percent use them to track income and expenses. Another 55 percent use their computers for routing, and 52 percent track and estimate mileage by computer. Truckers also use their computers for tax preparation, load matching and checking the weather.

Trucker John “Cletus” Goins, a trainer with M.S. Carriers, uses his computer to track his bank accounts and investments, as well as to e-mail and make travel arrangements. He also researches subjects of interest. “I would like to use a laptop in my truck,” he says. “My dad and I share a computer at home.”

When he’s on the road, Goins stops at public libraries to use a computer and access the Internet. Most truckers surveyed say they access the Internet at home, but 25 percent access the Internet from truckstops.

Computers have also begun to replace television as a means of in-truck entertainment. Felker uses his laptop to play games and movies, when he has time, and took his television out of his truck. “Now that I have this laptop I sure would not want to be without it,” he says.

But there’s one function Felker’s computer doesn’t currently have that he would like to add: “It would be helpful if DeLorme could build a feature into the GPS that would indicate where the smokeys are on the map.”



TRUCKERS NEWS SURVEY RESULTS

Which of the following best describes your computer use?

  • Own a computer at home, but do not use it for business: 34%
  • Own a computer at home and use it for business purposes: 29%
  • Own a computer I keep on board my truck for business use: 12%
  • My company provides truck with an on-board computer: 12%
  • Own a computer I keep on board my truck for personal use: 9%
  • Don’t use a computer: 19%
  • Other: 8%

Do you have Internet access?
Yes: 66%

If you have access to the Internet, where do you access it?

  • From home: 92%
  • From truckstops: 25%
  • At motel/hotel: 13%
  • In truck (wireless): 9%
  • Other: 7%

If you use a computer for business purposes, what do you use it for:

  • Income/expenses: 60%
  • Routing: 55%
  • E-mail: 54%
  • Mileage: 52%
  • Tax preparation: 41%
  • Weather: 36%
  • Load matching: 21%
  • Log book: 7%
  • Other: 11%
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