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The Evolution of Technology in Transportation

Joe Neal, CIO, Heniff Transportation Systems

The Evolution of Technology in TransportationJoe Neal, CIO, Heniff Transportation Systems

When I was growing up, I remember my Dad working in the technology field. He would come home with a stack of 80’s style dotmatrix printer paper with pages and pages of COBOL code in his briefcase. There were hand-written debugging notes on the pages with arrows going all over the place. At some point a little later, he brought the first 286PC home to aid his work. All of this was driven by the desire to improve their operational processes and add value utilizing technology.

When I entered my transportation career years later, one of the things I observed is that businesses are still striving to solve these same problems and challenges. They are still as relevant today as they were back then. As professionals in the technology space, we all want to add value back to the business, minimize risks, and do our part to contain costs. Depending on what type or stage your business is in today, those priorities could be weighted differently. For example, you could be a startup focused more on growth, or alternatively addressing cybersecurity, disaster recovery, and change management in the banking and finance field. It’s safe to say it is always a balancing act and each business needs to determine what priorities are most important to them.

In the transportation and technology field today, the idea around using technological tools to add value to the business isn’t new. Don’t misunderstand, the other elements of IT or ‘keeping the lights’ couldn’t also be more important in today’s environment. Almost every business process today is tied to some piece of IT infrastructure. In today’s world of everyone being “always connected” and “always on”, 24/7/365 outages and downtimes are noticed immediately and keeping things running 24/7 is the technology group’s number one mission. In the transportation arena; however, I believe we’re really at a transformational point in time today. Overall, we’re faced with this massive exponential growth of technology in general in the industry. 

These new tools give us all so much potential to add value to our business operations!

"Successful outcome won’t automatically happen just because the project has been completed. They need to be actively managed and used until they have been achieved"

Some of these include tools that can improve our driver and front-office business processes. Examples include driver interface products such as real-time paperwork scanning utilizing mobile smartphone applications, or custom developed toolsets that provide visibility and transparency to today’s tech connected drivers to view order details, work assignments or payroll data, with the goal to make it easier for drivers to do business with us. There have also been major shifts in technology regarding business to business communications. Historically, transportation communication between customers has been performed via EDI load tenders, EDI invoicing, and EDI shipment status updates. Even though EDI has been around since the 60’s and many businesses utilize EDI today, it’s still not fully prevalent in the industry. Many shippers still like to do business via email and calling into customer service centers. This is an area where RPA (robotic process automation) really shines. With the capability to now use document recognition and interface automatically with various TMS platforms, these toolsets have the potential to “close the loop” so to speak and give businesses the ability to automatically receive orders and invoices within hours even when dealing with customers who choose not to automate.

Next, there’s been developments underway centered around driver safety regarding the use of AI and machine learning within the industry. Probably the best example of this is in the use of cameras by fleets today. Some of these camera platforms now have the capabilities to not just “record, and store” footage for use in safety and/or legal efforts, but are now evolving into proactive real-time platforms to assist in identifying those good driving behaviors of a professional safety conscious driver. At the technical level,all of this is accomplished by cameras with embedded GPU’s and edge computing capabilities to identify such things as following distance, road conditions, weather, stop signs, and stop lights. This is very similar to what we are witnessing developing in the autonomous driving industry out in Silicon Valley.

Finally, there’s the regulatory FMCSA mandate regarding Electronic Logging Devices or ELDs. By December, 2019,almost all commercial vehicles in the US will be required to have an ELD installed inside to record a driver’s hours of service (driving, break, and on duty time). This provides the industry yet another opportunity to efficiently operate our fleets. We now have the capability to hook directly into the ECM of the truck to monitor performance, MPG, pro-actively analyze fault codes, communicate quickly with our drivers, and work with our customers in near real-time as we expose up to the minute track and trace tools capabilities. This is something that before the ELD mandate just wasn’t possible.

I believe the key to gaining maximum efficiency to all these new and exciting technologies; however, is our approach at how we go about realizing these potential benefits. Many businesses today assume that once they implement a new technology, they’ll automatically start realizing the savings and benefits. A study done by Peppard, Ward & Daniel (2007) laid out the five main principals to consider to realize benefits from Information Technology. They were 1.) ‘IT has no inherent value’ – just having the new flashy system deployed doesn’t necessarily do anything for the business. You don’t gain anything until you actually start using it. 2.) ‘Benefits arise when IT enables people to do things differently’ -this is the people element of the equation. Your operational staff needs to be open to change and re-shaping the way things have typically been done to improve. 3.) ‘Only business managers and users can release business benefits’ - business managers needs to be accountable and involved working with IT to help drive these changes. 4.) ‘All IT projects have outcomes but not all outcomes are benefits’ – or in other words many IT projects today fail or produce negative results, and care needs to be put in to evaluating solutions and technology tools before they are implemented. And lastly, 5.) ‘Benefits must be actively managed for’ – the successful outcome won’t automatically happen just because the project has been completed. They need to be actively managed and used until they have been achieved.

When you think about the all the new tools and technologies available today, it’s interesting to look back and reflect that even though we now have more potential in technology to improve our business then we’ve ever had before, the underlying way that businesses need to act to best utilize these amazing new tools hasn’t changed at all since the days of the 286 PC.

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