Until recently, some trucking companies used index cards to keep track of drivers and shipments. Between the times a trucker called in, he was virtually unreachable, his whereabouts a guess at best. Now, more companies have found a way to stay in constant touch with their drivers and check their locations automatically.
About 15,000 trucks are linked to their headquarters through a communications system that bounces signals from a satellite. Industry experts expect the network eventually to include 300,000 trucks.
The system, introduced by Qualcomm Inc. of San Diego in 1988, is beginning to improve the industry's efficiency and service.
Trucking companies are finding that the huge amounts of information they receive through the system enable them to help plants schedule production and manage inventories.
Dispatchers on the network can more readily find a convenient pickup near a driver about to make a delivery.
They can let plants and stores know almost immediately when a truck is running late _ crucial information for those businesses that depend on lean inventories and just-in-time shipments. Sometimes they can divert a truck bound for another destination.
For drivers, often wary of being monitored by management, the system has made their jobs easier. If they break down on a lonely stretch, they can call headquarters for help.
Dispatchers can plan more efficient routes, enabling drivers to cover more miles and earn higher pay. Routes can be arranged so drivers end up near their homes when they have time off.
Drivers often complain about spending too much time away from their families. The rigors of their jobs have resulted in such high turnover that many companies must keep some of their trucks parked for lack of drivers.
"You save costs by reducing driver turnover," said John S. Larkin, a trucking analyst for Alex. Brown & Sons. "It will make the driver stick around longer."
The system, which Qualcomm has dubbed Omnitracs, costs about $4,000 a truck initially, plus the $50 a month that Qualcomm charges to relay messages.
No land-based system can always stay in touch with the trucks. Qualcomm's major innovation was a compact satellite dish less than a foot across, weighing just 11 pounds and selling for about $200.
Such satellite antennas, which are on top of the trucks' cabs, had cost $1,600 to $2,000.
Most companies still require their drivers to call dispatchers two to four times a day to give their location and receive updates about where to deliver shipments.
The conversations can be time-consuming for drivers and dispatchers alike, and even then mistakes and misunderstandings are common.
With the Qualcomm system, a driver punches messages as long as 2,000 characters into a terminal mounted on an arm extending from the dashboard.
The antenna transmits the message to the satellite, which in turn bounces it to a central computer at Qualcomm's processing center in San Diego.
From there the messages are transmitted by phone and satellite to the trucking company headquarters, where a computer routes them to the proper dispatchers.
Messages from dispatchers back to truckers show up on screens on the terminals.
The system automatically provides dispatchers with the location of each vehicle on electronic maps. The drivers, on their terminals, can call up data on shippers and on customers awaiting delivery, including directions to their destinations.
The network uses the KU satellite communications band, which has reasonably priced space. Two satellites are used in the system.
One carries messages and helps fix the location of the trucks, while the second satellite also helps to determine location.
Omnitracs is being used by about 100 trucking companies, which send a total of 400,000 messages a day.
Schneider National Inc., the nation's largest long-haul trucker, invested $40-million to help Qualcomm start the communications system.
Starting with eight employees five years ago, Qualcomm has grown to 620 employees. The company had sales of $46-million in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30.
Schneider has equipped its entire fleet of 6,700 trucks with Omnitracs.
The system also is being used on boats, ships and cars. It has been tested on the open roads of the West and the streets of Manhattan. The government has adopted the system to track shipments of ammunition; the Department of Energy has used it to follow shipments of nuclear waste.
Trucking companies and their customers are only beginning to use all the information they can glean from Omnitracs. Software for analyzing the data still is being developed.
Larkin, the analyst, said trucking companies "will be able to establish a tighter irreversible link with their customers by sharing with them all the data they need to understand how their product is moving through the logistics pipeline."
Companies such as Procter & Gamble have set up teams of their suppliers, truckers and customers to find ways of coordinating production, transportation and sales.
"We're using the system to help us find out how to have them work to our advantage," said Ralph Drayer, general manager of customer services for Procter & Gamble.
To avoid errors, some companies now send their delivery orders directly into truckers' computers rather than calling them in by phone. Some companies also have begun to pay trucking companies by computer.