Partners in Business: Computers, Mobile Devices and the Internet

Updated May 26, 2017
Increasingly, a smartphone is an important part of an owner-operator’s business life.Increasingly, a smartphone is an important part of an owner-operator’s business life.

It’s still possible to track an owner-operator business with paper and pencil. But with improvements in consumer technology, owner-operator apps and software and steadily dropping prices, tracking your business electronically makes more sense than ever.

You can outfit yourself with a powerful laptop equipped for wireless Internet access and software designed to manage your business for less than $1,000. Or you can find a smartphone for little or no initial cost that can perform many of the functions that used to be the sole domain of an Internet-connected computer, and you don’t need a Wi-Fi subscription. Some owner-operators are using an iPad or other tablet to have some of the advantages of a smartphone but with more of the feel of a laptop. The savings from analyzing, managing and monitoring your business, as well as revenue boosts utilizing sophisticated services such as online load-matching, will net you a speedy return on your investment.

HARDWARE
Any computer with the right software will allow you to track and analyze your data in much the same way that a good business services provider would – evaluating your costs, revenue and per-mile comparisons. But be prepared to spend hours throughout the year organizing your paperwork and entering the data. And depending on your expertise with the program you use, you could meet some frustration in crunching the numbers and making sense of them.

Basically, there are two main things to consider before making a hardware purchase:

  •  Determine what you want to accomplish. What is the return on investment time for the purchase? Can it be justified financially?
  •  Know your options. You don’t have to know everything about the hardware, but you should make sure it will run the needed software or provide the service required.

If you want to run trip-planning software with GPS, receive and send e-mail, keep track of your own fuel tax and scan your receipts to retain electronic copies, a laptop with a scanning and GPS device would be a wise choice. A multifunction smartphone or larger netbook (a miniature laptop, essentially) also may do the trick with the right peripheral devices.

If you decide on a laptop, consider one with a large screen and a built-in DVD player so it can double as an entertainment center on the road. Do you plan to surf on the Internet while you eat in truck stops or picnic areas? Make sure the battery life of your laptop is long. You may want a second battery as backup; the same can be said for smaller devices.

When shopping, consider all the retail options, not just national chains. Shopping online gives you many more models and prices to choose among, and some vendors allow you to customize the computer to your specs. Other tips:

  • Ask other owner-operators what they like and don’t like about their computers.
  • Read computer magazines and consumer product reports.
  • Visit manufacturers’ websites to configure computers and get a sense of direction.
  • Consider buying a refurbished computer from a well-known manufacturer for the cost savings. Be sure to ask about the warranty.
  • Ask what software comes free with the machine. Many come with a suite of Microsoft Office products such as Word and Excel, though similar software is available free for any user with a gmail account online via Google’s Drive function.
  • Keep all receipts, registration information and original packaging in case you need to return the computer or call for customer service.

TRUCKING BUSINESS SOFTWARE
Most business software is easy to use, even for the technologically challenged, and many providers offer manuals, online support and phone help lines. The market for owner-operator and small-fleet software has expanded rapidly with a shift to Web-based services. You’ve never had more choices for ways to manage your business, analyze your operations and increase your profit margin. Your choice of software depends on your needs and how computer-savvy you are.

For trucking business software, you have two general choices:

CUSTOMIZED SPREADSHEET.  If you’re so inclined, you can design your own spreadsheets or databases based on a standard program that already might be on your computer, such as Excel, Quicken or Microsoft Money. Google Docs’ online spreadsheets are an option for easily sharing with a spouse or business partner back at home or the office. Your business services provider can help you set this up, too.

TRUCKING-SPECIFIC SOFTWARE. Many software packages have been designed for owner-operators. These programs perform a variety of functions, including tracking expenses, determining cost per mile, calculating fuel taxes and recording maintenance and warranty information. The better programs can compile your data in different ways to generate reports that give you insights about your operation that might not be apparent otherwise.

Many software companies offer free online demos and online tours. Some programs also offer Internet access to your data and the software. That means you can manage your business anywhere you can find Internet access – something that’s become much easier as Wi-Fi (wireless Internet) service has spread to truck stops, rest areas, restaurants and motels, and cellular broadband access is a reality. With a new laptop or with a high-speed wireless Internet card inserted into an older model, you can subscribe to a Wi-Fi or cellular broadband service and turn your cab into a full-service office. Many such software packages have streamlined access via smartphones and tablets as well – integration with associated smartphone apps can simplify record-keeping as well.

RECORD-KEEPING AND LOGGING SOFTWARE
Laptop and smartphone applications are making keeping track of records easier for owner-operators. The XRS smartphone app, combined with a device that connects to your engine’s ECM, is capable of providing logging functionality on a smartphone to satisfy federal regulations of electronic logging devices (ELDs) for hours-of-service recording, as can other similar apps, some with online accounts for retaining receipts. Other smartphone apps like BigRoad and KeepTruckin serve as stand-ins for paper logbooks and can likewise be outfitted as fully ELD-capable.

With the free Expensify app, you can log mileage and store photos of receipts for purchases less than $75 for tax recordkeeping.

Laptop software such as that offered by Driver’s Daily Log (driversdailylog.com) has been used by operators for years now, replacing paper logbooks. Unless, like the XRS and specific versions of the KeepTruckin and BigRoad programs, they are federally-certified automatic onboard recording devices — at the end of 2017, certified ELDs — logging programs must be able to be retrieved and printed or emailed/faxed for view on request of law enforcement.

TRUCKING ONLINE
With a connection to the Internet via a smartphone, tablet or laptop, you can find virtually anything you need to know concerning technology and your business. Many owner-operators now use the Internet to:

  • Check traffic reports, weather and fuel prices.
  • Find and book loads.
  • Send bills of lading.
  • Keep in touch with family and friends.
  • Keep in touch with dispatch.
  • Manage bank accounts and finances.
  • Stay up to date on trucking news.
  • Plan routes.
  • Conduct research.
  • Shop for the best prices on equipment.
  • Send receipts and settlement statements to business services providers and organize tax records.

In addition to those already mentioned, following find a closer look at some of the most helpful owner-operator applications:

LOAD MATCHING
Freight matching once meant scraps of paper with phone numbers stuck on truck-stop bulletin boards, or postings on a TV monitor. Today, online load boards link owner-operators to inbound freight and backhauls based on posting time, equipment type and specific lanes. All the major boards now have optimized access to loads via smartphone apps or custom mobile sites. Typically offered via monthly subscription or a nominal fee, load boards vary in size and quality.

Some of the major load services:

  • Truckstop.com, the first load-matching service on the Internet, formerly known as Internet Truckstop. Via www.truckstop.com you can access real-time searches, credit reports, weather information, road conditions, fuel optimization and mileage and routing information. Plus it’s also accessible by e-mail, fax or phone. The ITS Trucker app enables IT on iPhone and Android platforms.
  • DAT TruckersEdge (www.truckersedge.net) is powered by the DAT network, the oldest and largest load board in the United States. TruckersEdge.net also provides the freight matching service available through OverdriveOnline.com, and a special mobile version of its website for smartphone users. For users without a TruckersEdge subscription, DAT offers the My DAT Trucker app for nearby load searches.

In recent years, as operators view a load board, it’s often been difficult to be certain whether the load is a good one or not. Consequently, they’ve had to check broker credit scores and call for load details such as pickup and delivery points and rates.

That’s been changing. More automation and transparency is gained with the marketplace model offered via websites and custom-designed software from companies such as uShip, Convoy, CargoChief, Cargomatic, Uber Freight and others. Traditional freight brokers also have made strides in technology with in-house load matching services of their own, with some of the larger ones also moving into more automation of the freight transaction process.

EQUIPMENT
All major truck and engine makers have websites where visitors can see the latest products, look up warranty information and find service and repair facilities. Many equipment makers also have developed smartphone apps linking users with dealers and service locations for warrantable and other repairs and roadside assistance. Search the apps market on your phone to download the apps, most available for iPhone and Android.

Truck sites and associated apps include:

Engine and engine oil sites include:

Parts databases are available via:

TRUCKING INFORMATION
Dozens of sites provide other information tailored to truckers. Overdrive’s website, OverdriveOnline.com, offers a constantly updated mix of interactive forums and blogs from Overdrive editors, video, news, features, reader trucks photo gallery and more.

Social sites like Let’s Truck and Overdrive’s Facebook page also provide forums for thousands of truck drivers through dozens of specialized bulletin boards and sharing venues, including those for owner-operators and others dedicated to topics important to them. Through these discussions, truckers and industry experts share vital information and offer solutions to problems.

Truck stop chains such as Pilot Flying J (MyPilot app), TA Petro  (TruckSmart app) and Love’s (Love’s Connect app) list their amenities and offer locating services and parking and up-to-date fuel prices via their smartphone apps. The Trucker Tools app offers similar functionality for diesel-selling locations nationwide, deals on services at various stops, message boards and load-tracking tools (www.truckertools.com). Companies such as ProMiles (www.promiles.com) provide truckers with accurate routes and mileage; the smartphone-specific Trucker Path app provides some similar functionality.

For market data, keep an eye on rate and lane stats via DAT’s Freight Solutions website, www.dat.com. Their “Trendlines” weekly reports track average spot and contract freight rates, with analyses of the best and worst lanes in America – important if you’re self-dispatching.

Federal and state governments have websites that allow you to pay taxes online, research regulations and report possible violations. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (www.fmcsa.dot.gov) site has links to all trucking regulations as well as pending rulemakings.

Trucking associations such as the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association (www.ooida.com) and the American Trucking Associations (www.truckline.com) also have their own websites, as do state trucking groups.

MONEY/BUDGETNG SMARTPHONE APPS

  • The free Chase Mobile app allows Chase account holders to snap a photo of a check with an iPhone or Android phone and deposit it directly.
  • Create central space for tracking account balances and bill payment due dates with the Pageonce app, available on iPhone, Android and Windows Mobile platforms, as well as for laptop web browsers.
  • Create and track budgets with Mint.com and Ace Budget’s iPhone or Android apps.
  • Need cash? The ATM Hunter app by MasterCard for iPhone, Blackberry and Android phones locates the nearest ATM.
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