An 'iPad' for truckers

  • Article by: MEGAN NICOLAI
  • Updated: April 20, 2011 - 9:47 AM

Tablet computers now have a new home: the highway.

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Ron Konezny, CEO and founder of PeopleNet, holds the latest tablet computer that targets the trucking industry.

Photo: Richard Sennott, Star Tribune

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Tablet computers are handy and portable. But it's unlikely that an off-the-shelf version of an Apple iPad or Samsung Galaxy will be mounted in a commercial truck anytime soon. That's because the trucking industry operates amid a thicket of regulations that restricts the types of communications devices that can be used in the cab.

Enter the Tablet, Minnetonka-based PeopleNet's newest computer system for commercial trucking, and the first on-board computing system that can be removed from a truck's cabin, allowing drivers to communicate both in and out of their rigs.

Released in January, the Tablet's portability allows drivers to capture signatures as proof-of-delivery, communicate with their company, receive permits, reconcile fuel taxes and photograph damage to deliveries. The Tablet is only removable once the truck is stopped, however, assuring safety for drivers and employers alike.

Ron Konezny, a founder and the CEO of PeopleNet, said the idea for the Tablet came after listening to customer demands for a portable way to communicate with dispatchers and watching the success of the Apple iPad.

"We try to take off-the-shelf technologies and recombine them in a big way," Konezny said.

The Tablet has all of the software featured in PeopleNet's two earlier in-cabin computer models, such as truck-specific GPS, computer-based data-logging, and text-based communication with dispatchers. The Tablet has a seven-inch touchscreen, a Windows 7 operating system and Wi-Fi connectivity. It's also more durable than standard tablets and, if left at a specific location for too long, it has the ability to send out a distress signal to the owner to prevent loss or theft.

Integrating the Tablet and the PeopleNet on-computer system into a commercial truck is priced around $2,500. Konezny admits this price tag may seem a little steep for smaller companies.

"Many of these companies have to spend most of their budget on an upgrade like this, so talking them into the benefits of our system can be tough," Konezny said.

However, the system's ability to cut costs has been proved for the fleets that have adopted it, due to more efficient communication between drivers and their employers and the ease of logging data electronically, Konezny said.

Murry Fitzer, CEO of the 225-truck Florilli Transportation in West Liberty, Iowa, bought the Tablet system for his fleet after shopping around for a while.

"The Tablet offered the longest useful lifespan for the products out there," Fitzer said. "And adding new products or software can be done with a minimal amount of installation each time."

The federal government is taking steps to require such computer systems in commercial trucks to replace cellphone-based communications. In the post-Smokey and the Bandit era of CB radios, truckers have relied on cellphones for their communication needs. But new regulations by the Department of Transportation and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration have restricted cellphone use by truck drivers, which is seen as a serious risk on the highway.

That's where PeopleNet saw an opportunity for its on-board computers. More than 200 trucking fleets have adopted PeopleNet's Tablet on-board computing systems, including a purchase from St. Cloud-based Anderson Trucking Service Inc. The Tablet became commercially available in January.

PeopleNet's systems can also help trucking companies comply with regulations that restrict how many hours a day drivers may work and how many consecutive hours they must spend off the roads. Before, most of this tracking was done on paper and faxed to company headquarters. But with PeopleNet, this information is logged electronically and sent straight to the back office, saving truck drivers a daily trip to Kinko's.

Konezny also said that PeopleNet's customer base will get free software and Internet interface updates. PeopleNet is currently reaching out to third-party developers to determine what kinds of applications drivers and trucking companies would like to use.

"If you put a gadget like this in people's hands you can get 10 different outcomes," Fitzer said.

Megan Nicolai is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune. megan.nicolai@startribune.com.

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