Why This Truck Fleet Turned to the Cloud to Boost Driver Productivity

January 24, 2017, 2:12 PM UTC
Swift Transportation Microsoft Azure app.

Commercial truck drivers spend more time than you would think doing busy work, including data entry, instead of driving. Massive carrier Swift Transportation hopes to streamline that paperwork by issuing new Samsung tablets to the drivers of its 18,000 big rigs, all to be connected to the Microsoft Azure cloud service.

The idea is to provide drivers with a modern device—in this case, Samsung Galaxy Tab E tablets running Android. The ancient system being replaced involves a mobile gadget (running Windows XP) that is hardwired to the truck dashboard, which means it can’t be used for outside inspections, said Daniel Lilley, vice president of fleet innovations for Phoenix-based Swift.

The current process, which was state of the art when originally installed, is very manual and requires the driver, when he or she arrives at a customer site, to go into the system and “scroll through 60 different forms to get the one he needs,” Lilley said. And there is no validation step to prevent data entry snafus.

What’s more, scrolling through those screens and typing in info is time-consuming. Since drivers often repeat the process four or five times a day, it’s frustrating to them, not the least because they are paid when they drive, not when they’re entering data, Lilley noted.

Swift spent 18 months working with its own Six Sigma process experts along with tech consulting firm Blue Dot Solutions rewriting the process, seeking to make it more error-proof and streamlined.

The goal was to compress the steps into a comprehensive, more easily navigated workflow so the driver can enter what is needed—data about the load to be delivered, departure times, and so forth—and then get on the road. “We built a lot of turn-by-turn directions and other information into the system along with those 60 macros,” Lilley said.

Part of the design process involved putting the process experts into trucks with drivers, so they could document the steps needed to complete a trip successfully. So far, the new system has undergone six weeks of early testing; Swift has been pleased by the early results—for example, it’s easier to locate trucks more quickly—and the technology is being rolled out more broadly starting this week.

Swift Transportation's older trip logging system
Swift Transportation’s older trip logging system

But that’s just one part of the project. Next up, Swift will likely install routers that can collect more data about the truck itself, such as engine performance, and share it with the company’s drivers and managers. “That will open up real-time data from some 60 sensors to me, ” Lilley said.

That data will flow to the tablets and from there via cellular connections into a service running on Microsoft (MSFT) Azure cloud, where it will be aggregated and analyzed. Swift plans to use the Azure IoT hub for this work, Lilley said. IoT stands for the Internet of things, a term that describes a growing ecosystem of millions of sensors on devices from Fitbits (FIT) to home appliances to semi-tractor trucks that collect data about their usage and operations.

Swift’s new logging system

That data needs a place to be collected and parsed, and that is where Microsoft IoT hub comes in. Making data about engine and transmission performance, braking system status, and temperatures available to technicians in Swift’s home office has huge ramifications for safety and maintenance.

Right now a truck’s check engine light can mean many things, but the driver may have no idea what the problem is. By opening up more sensor information, Swift’s drivers and technicians will have a better chance of knowing if that light means “stop driving this second” or “get this sensor replaced the next time you’re in the terminal.”

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Swift is working with truck makers to decipher the fault codes to make this a reality. One big promise of the IoT is that it enables remote diagnostics on equipment working in the field. That data can pinpoint when and where fixes need to take place, minimizing downtime and poor performance, and increasing safety.

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One example cited by Lilley: “The truck actually knows if you’re low on diesel exhaust fluid, and if you don’t fill it up, you’ll only be able to go 30 miles an hour. But all the driver sees is a dashboard light.”

He’s banking that Swift’s use of the new hardware, alongside the data flowing from trucks to the cloud and into the Swift’s own backend systems, will represent a huge improvement.

DATE: (Jan. 24 10:35 a.m.)This story was updated to note that the old Swift system ran on Windows XP.

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