The Trailer-Tracking Triathalon

J.B. Hunt began its search for a reliable way to track trailers four years ago. Here’s the gauntlet of vendors they ran through to get to where they are today:

Hunt originally wanted a satellite-based tracking system because of the uninterrupted coverage across the continent that these networks offered. But failures led them to abandon this route.

1st Choice: GE Capital subsidiary GE Logisticom’s GlobalWave.
Reason abandoned: GE Capital shut down Logisticom; eventually, GlobalWave was sold to Vistar Datacomm, a unit of Bell Canada.

2nd Choice: Orbcomm Vantage, a low-earth-orbit satellite tracking system.
Reason Abandoned: Technical problems, and financial insolvency of vendor. Orbcomm went bankrupt a little over a year later (the company has since found new funding).
Roads not taken:

  • Qualcomm “tethered” Trailer TRACS, which required connection to an OmniTRACS unit in a truck to communicate.
  • Vistar DataComm, the restructured OrbComm and EarthTrak, other vendors in the space, didn’t meet Hunt’s technical requirements for sensors, untethered operations and battery life, or weren’t considered based on their corporate size and finances.

    Terrestrial Networks:

    Having ruled out all the satellite options, Hunt was left with only terrestrial-based options. Hunt narrowed the field down to two choices: Qualcomm and Terion.

    Both of the main contenders were based on analog cellular technology. Qualcomm had a new system, Untethered Trailer TRACS, that used the control signals of the cellular network to send telemetry data, in testing. Terion’s FleetView system used a cellular modem to connect back to Terion’s servers.

    Choice: Terion Fleetview.
    Terion offered three advantages over the Qualcomm system. First, since it used all of the bandwidth of a cellular connection, its software could be upgraded in the field. Second, Terion offered an acoustic sensor-system that could detect whether a trailer was loaded. “Their sensor technology is ahead of the marketplace,” says Elaine Chaudoin, Hunt’s VP of operational services. Further, Terion offered the trailer-tracking service as a hosted application, providing access to it through a secure Web site. The speed with which the application could be rolled out also was cited by Hunt’s CEO Kirk Thompson.
    Roads Not Taken:
    Qualcomm Untethered TrailerTRACS.
    Pulled from the market because of concerns about the future of the national analog cellular network. Qualcomm is developing a multimode digital product, but it will not be available until at least late 2002.
    Other vendors (including ACT Communications, HighwayMaster Communications) weren’t considered contenders or didn’t get past Hunt’s first cut for technical considerations.



    Hunt and Terion quickly found that the load sensors, which had been designed to work with trailers lined with plywood, didn’t work properly on many of Hunt’s trailers made with different materials. Sensors had to be recalibrated.
    Additionally, some changes had to be made to the Terion Web application. “We had to modify the Web site to deal with the way we divide the country up,” says Palmer.

    Wireless Woes

    Shortly after Hunt committed to Terion, Qualcomm pulled its analog cellular product from the market. With cellular carriers stampeding to give more of their infrastructure over to digital cellular formats, the analog cellular network that Terion’s Fleetview tracking system employs has a limited life cycle in its current form. Qualcomm pulled out of the market entirely until it could come up with an alternative. Currently, the only “ruggedized” cellular communications units (those capable of surviving the heat and vibration that come with being built into a cargo trailer) available are based on analog technology.
    What’s more, there’s no one standard for digital cellular communications in North America. And ruggedized “multi-mode” cellular units-which can work on analog and multiple digital networks-are in development, but are at least nine to 12 months away from being available to manufacturers.
    Hunt has tried to cover its analog exposure in the Terion contract. “We made sure we were covered on the contract, so that we could switch to digital if required,” says Hunt CIO Kay Palmer. That would require a retrofit of all 17,000 units.

    More Vendor Worries

    There was another major hurdle-in August, Terion went through restructuring in order to avoid bankruptcy. The vendor laid off almost half of its staff as it eliminated its other product lines (a radio-based alternative to Qualcomm’s OmniTRAC) to focus on FleetView.
    “Whenever something like that happens with a vendor, there’s always cause for concern,” says Palmer. The result was an increase in the rollout time. “It drew their attention away from us,” says Brooks. Hunt had originally planned on deploying 17,000 FleetView units by the end of this year; so far, only 5000 have been installed in trailers.