Types of location tracking for freight shipments – pros and cons

It’s natural to assume that by implementing Electronic Logging Devices (ELDs) for your shipments you will not only comply with the latest FMCSA mandate, but will also be able to track your shipment successfully. The answer is a bit trickier than a solid “yes”.

You see, ELD’s – physical devices with GPS meant to help track shipments – have been around for over 20 years, but only recently has the US government mandated their usage.

While larger carriers and logistics companies are more incentivized to use these devices, the government requirements and actual capabilities to track and integrate with transportation management and other systems are quite different, meaning not all shipments are going to have the same tracking capabilities. This means alternative methods are still popular, and on the rise. Let us consider them all in entirety along with their pros and cons:

ELD Devices

An ELD is a battery-powered physical device with GPS that is connected to the vehicle engine, and hence rides along with the shipment.

Advantages

● Completely automated: The driver doesn’t need to do anything. Tracking is initiated automatically and is not reliant on a driver’s cell phone or software on the phone. Therefore, the chances of malfunctions or phone battery dying, are less as well.

Disadvantages
● These devices are battery powered and even though the battery life is long, they must be charged between stops.
● Physical devices will always cost more to purchase and maintain than services do.
● The ELD requirement by law can often end up with a driver using a device with less capabilities that may not integrate well with other systems, or at all!

Mobile applications:

Mobile applications are being used across industries because of improving network speed and reliability, and decreasing cost. For freight tracking, mobile technology is a natural fit since telecom network coverage is now available across most areas, and usage of smartphones has become extremely common. Mobile applications for freight tracking use the phone GPS to send updates to logistics providers & transportation management systems.

Advantages
● The associated Geographic Information System (GIS) – that calculates travel time and analyses routes to suggest the best path – has become intensely detailed over the years. Truck drivers can even look forward to alerts about one-way-streets, underpasses with height restrictions, and weight limits on bridges.
● Higher location accuracy using built-in phone GPS rather than pings from cell towers.
● Manual check-in time provides more accurate data about check-in completions.

Disadvantages
● Manual check-in means that the driver has one more chore to do, apart from downloading and using an application.
● Even though telecom network coverage has become much better with time, it can still be spotty in places. This places drivers at risk of non-compliance.
● Simply using a mobile application – even one which completely tracks the route and stoppages – doesn’t make you compliant. The mobile application must be linked to an ELD connected to the vehicle’s engine.

Pinging cell phone location:

There are some services that include features for tracking drivers from their cell phones without use of an application. They must opt-in to the program via text message to allow tracking of their location using “pings” from cell towers. Project44, for instance, offers app-less cell phone tracking that requires minimal intervention from the driver in the form of responses to a few messages.

Advantages
● Minimal involvement required from the driver.
● Smartphone not required

Disadvantages
● This technology is slightly less accurate than GPS
● Its usage is not automated, and drivers must still opt-in to use it.
● This kind of triangulation technology may be reaching its end of life. Cell phone carriers may be deciding to remove these capabilities in the near future.

GPS Container Tracking

In this setup, a GPS tracking device – which also includes an accelerometer – is affixed to a shipping container. This kind of device is of two types: magnetic and locking mechanism. The magnetic GPS device can be affixed to the side of the shipping container where it is protected from collisions with other containers. The locking mechanism type of device is affixed to the lock of the shipping container after the goods have been loaded into it. Whenever the container moves, the tracker is shaken into action, and sends its coordinates via cellular or satellite network.

Advantages
● Off-the-shelf availability
● No need for additional infrastructure
● High accuracy

Disadvantages
● Clear access to open sky necessary to send signals
● Since GPS requires plenty of power, rationing its usage can be tricky
● Immediate location tracking not possible if the GPS has been kept dormant to save power.
● Relatively expensive

Short Range Wireless Tracking

This kind of tracking includes a variety of techniques that exclude cellular and satellite tracking such as Bluetooth and RFID tags. Their usage varies with each specific technology and provides scope for customization.

Advantages:
● The cost of hardware and ongoing usage is significantly less than that for GPS/GSM tracking and cellular tracking.
● Longer battery life of components.

Disadvantages
● The requisite infrastructure is a lot more complicated than that required for GPS (which is usually self-contained).
● Engineering the system to give results will take lot more time and effort since a variety of components will have to be integrated to work together.

The Way Forward

The transportation and freight tracking industry, as a whole, is being directed by advancements in technology. While there are several contenders, the most prominent and impactful wave as yet is that of the Internet of Things (IoT) – a network of dedicated physical objects that contain embedded technology to communicate and sense or interact with their internal states or the external environment. By bringing together people, processes, and property, IoT collects data and helps businesses analyze their productivity, which is especially useful in tracking shipments. The Internet of Things Fleet Management is fueled by the wave of digital transformation brought about by mobile computing, cloud technologies, and digital analytics in association with existing technologies such as GPS and RFID tags.

As per Berg Insight, an IoT market research provider, the number of active tracking devices deployed for cargo loading units reached 3.7 million worldwide in 2017. Growing at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 19.6%, this number is expected to reach 8.9 million by 2022. Furthermore, as per Business Insider (BI) Intelligence: “connected fleet management solutions will reach 180 million commercial vehicles in North America, or 90% of the total market, by 2020. This would represent a tenfold increase from 2010.” Those are some pretty big numbers, indicating that the time is not far when implementing IoT strategies becomes second nature to shippers.

What you should do

The ELD mandate states that fleets that are already equipped with electronic logging technology have until December 2019 to ensure compliance with the published specifications. So, you have time to properly analyze your requirements and see how best you can adhere to regulations while reusing the same capabilities to maximize your visibility into your freight and improve your productivity. You will also need to factor in the cost – not just that of the hardware and its installation which are one-time expenses – but also the data plan and the cost of fleet tracking software.

An ideal solution would be to set up a hybrid system with different tracking tools and methodologies, that together comply with official norms. Depending on your usage, you may work with many different carrier or logistics providers that have varied standards of tracking. You should especially look for solutions that would help you gain eyes in typical blind spots – within a warehouse, or the shipment’s condition (when it is perishable). A third party IT service provider such as Aptude may be able to configure a cost effective and versatile set-up for your company that enables you to not only be compliant, but also efficient, by leveraging insights about freight movement, stoppages, delays, and space organization. What has been your experience with tracking freight so far? What innovations are you trying out to gain greater visibility, compliance, and productivity at your organization? Feel free to share your thoughts below!

By |2018-10-15T15:20:12+00:00October 15th, 2018|

About the Author:

Jerry Virgo
Jerry is a software engineer and content writer with an expertise in developing desktop, mobile, and web applications. To contact Jerry, please feel free to reach out to jvirgo@aptude.com.

It's What We Do