Locating That Lost Highway

If you’re an irregular route trucker, you’ve probably been lost before or at least stuck facing a road, a bridge or an alley that wasn’t intended for your truck. Or worse, you’ve been ticketed, damaged your truck or failed to make a scheduled delivery time because directions were garbled, your map was out of date or you weren’t even in the right town.

“Consider the city of Fairview, Tenn.,” says Tony Stroncheck, president and founder of ProMiles. “There are 21 cities in Tennessee that have that name. If you try to look it up in an atlas, you’re lost.”

Nightmare scenarios abound on the highways and byways of America’s road system, but over-the-road drivers have more tools than ever before to find the cheapest, easiest and quickest way from Point A to Point B.

Advances in technology have brought global positioning system-aided navigation devices into an affordable range and improved the accuracy of routing software down to the street level. Today’s trucker is likely to consult a GPS devise or routing software like those made by Prophesy, ProMiles, PC*Miler or Rand McNally, in addition to their trusty atlas.

“Your traditional map or atlas won’t tell a driver the bridge height,” says Bill Ashburn, vice president of sales and marketing at Prophesy, a map and routing software company. “It won’t tell him the best sequence to follow if he has multiple stops. And it’s not going to give him an accurate mileage count.”

Atlases
Still, atlases, especially those designed for truckers, are popular and essential, say the companies that make them. “Paper products like atlases and maps are still the dominant routing tool for drivers,” says Mark Scholzen, data manager for Rand McNally. “Drivers keep them for around four years on average, even though there’s a new version every six months.”

Rand McNally’s new 2004 large scale atlas for truckers is full of useful information and is bound with rings so it can lay flat.

His company’s new 2004 Large Scale Motor Carrier’s Road Atlas is a compendium of trucker information, including 46 pages of state and federal regulations, fuel taxes, motor carrier documents and government contact numbers. Plus, the book is printed on a tear- and stain-resistant material that cuts down on glare and resists the abuse of even the most rugged user. It’s bound with metal rings, instead of a traditional flat binding, which allows for ease of use. And then there’s the size. Instead of a dot on the map, Albuquerque, N.M., and thousands of other U.S. cities are readable from a distance.

The atlas also features weigh station locations, designated truck routes with dimensions highlighted on the maps, information on truckstops, hazardous material restrictions and an accurate account of mileage that is more exact than the traditional industry standard Household Goods Miles. The large-scale version retails for $125.

Routing software
While an atlas can help you find where you’re going, routing software can tell you – in plain English – how to get there, avoid toll roads and even calculate your fuel tax mileage. While such software has been on the market for a decade, its affordability and usability is just reaching a sweet spot for truck drivers, says Ed Siciliano, vice president of sales and marketing at ALK, parent company of PC*Miler.

Priced between $200 and $500, most software programs allow a driver to map a trip, print out directions, route based on shortest distance or most fuel efficient route, take into account toll roads, truck routes and even construction sites, and keep track of fuel taxes. At the end of a trip, most programs allow a driver to account for those fuel taxes, which lightens paperwork. Most integrate with existing dispatch systems, which means company drivers may use directions or maps from the programs if their dispatchers use such software. Most of them also integrate with accounting software, so drivers can keep track of fuel taxes, mileage and other useful information.

PC*Miler, for example, offers truck-specific routes and mileages for rate determination and quotes, trip cost and time estimates, fuel tax reporting, load planning, freight bill auditing and logistics analysis. It also offers other tools for larger carriers such as dispatch, driver pay, log auditing and carrier selection. The makers of PC*Miler estimate that if 1 percent of your miles are avoidable out of route miles – the industry average – you can save hundreds of dollars a year using its software to bypass such miles.

Prophecy’s owner-operator Mileage and Routing software generates routes, gives driving instructions in time amounts as small as seconds, accounts for bridge heights and commercial vehicle restrictions, avoids toll roads, provides detailed maps and integrates with other software for accounting, fuel taxes and fuel optimization.

TruckMiles, on CD-ROM from ProMiles, is a routing and mileage program that costs $199. Based on the company’s online version, TruckMiles allows truckers to map their routes using practical truck routing or shortest truck routing methods, can track expenses and reduce toll road use and includes a profit margin estimator. In addition to full color maps, it includes multiple stop and driver pay calculations and a rate calculator for empty or loaded miles.
The various routing software titles are popular not only for their maps and routes.

Many owner-operators and their spouses use the software to keep track of fuel taxes, estimate rates and plot fuel stops. Chris Lee, a project coordinator for ProMiles and a former driver, says routing software can significantly reduce the amount of time a driver or his partner spends doing paperwork.

Software like DeLorme’s Street Atlas USA 2004 is a high-tech alternative to paper atlases and maps.

“They no longer have to manually calculate how many miles they did in a particular tax jurisdiction,” Lee says. “Routing software is much more effective and much more attractive than it ever was.”

That’s especially true for fuel tax.

ProMiles, for example, is often used by auditors in fuel tax audits. Drivers who use the software can pre-audit to prevent any discrepancies. Another big reason owner-operators and company drivers buy the software, says Prophecy’s Ashburn, is to validate what they get paid for a trip. “A shipper tells them the pay between here and Chicago is $1.08 a mile,” Ashburn says. “The driver asks, ‘What do you have for miles?’ The shipper says 1,080, but it’s really 1,120.”

That’s because some shippers still rely on the old Household Goods Mileage standards, which are inaccurate and often short drivers miles. In Ashburn’s scenario, a driver is shorted $43.20, unless he is able to negotiate the longer, more accurate mileage. “HHG is no longer the standard,” Ashburn says. “People have evolved to using practical miles.”

Navigation Aids
While most drivers still use paper maps and atlases, or print maps from routing software, some fleets and owner-operators are turning to satellite-aided navigation devices. Whether plugged into a laptop or palm computer, the GPS-based systems give real time maps and directions and can even reroute a driver if he has missed a turn.

Such navigation devices are widely available in cars, and many feature audible directions. Mapmaker DeLorme offers the Earthmate GPS, which plugs into a laptop’s USB port and uses the government’s global positioning satellites to track a truck’s progress. The Earthmate device interacts with DeLorme’s map software, showing a driver where he is on a map, all in real time. The device costs $129.95 and includes the company’s Street Atlas USA 2004 software.

ALK, maker of PC*Miler, also offers Co-Pilot, a plug-in device for laptops and pocket PCs. While Co-Pilot costs around $449 for the trucking version, it comes with a range of features, including voice prompts. The system provides spoken, turn-by-turn directions to any address and can reroute within seconds if a driver makes a wrong turn. The software even responds to voice commands. Best of all it’s designed for truckers, which means the routes will be truck safe.

While such devices are becoming more affordable, most truckers still rely on their trusty atlases. Still, GPS navigation aids and routing software are becoming more attractive as truckers look for ways to save money and time.

“These devices simplify life and save money,” ProMiles’ Stroncheck says. “They [drivers] stay legal, stay on the road and stay in business.”

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