No place to hide

January 1, 2004 By    

The sophisticated technology that the Department of Homeland Security may mandate for hazardous materials haulers can also benefit a propane marketer’s bottom line.

New wireless vehicle tracking innovations are hitting the hazmat marketplace almost monthly. Equipment manufacturers say the new designs will meet or exceed the anticipated government security requirements, while at the same time are becoming more cost-effective and user-friendly for business operations.

“Not only do these devices provide an immediate means of addressing security, but they also give you a bigger bang for your buck for business management purposes,” says Claude Alexander, vice president of sales and marketing at TouchStar. He claims propane operations can be 5 to 10 percent more efficient with the addition of this equipment.

“It’s a tremendous return on investment to get your trucks as efficient as possible, and now it’s a Homeland Security issue,” agrees Barry Grahek, DesertMicro president.

With today’s newer automated tracking and route planning customer service systems, it’s possible for a propane marketer with 10 trucks to achieve efficiency improvement rates of 15 to 25 percent, Grahek contends. He says the technology has become affordable enough for marketers to put GPS in all their trucks, and the propane industry is beginning to take note of the benefits.

“In the past eight to 10 months we’ve seen a three-fold increase in inquiries,” he says. Sixty percent of DesertMicro’s prospective customers want to learn more about the business efficiencies that can be realized, while 40 percent are concerned with security issues and the equipment’s ability to remotely monitor and shut down a truck if necessary.

Today's technology offers route mapping and more. The GreyHawk Technologies system shown here also reminds drivers of items such as locked gates, dogs on premises or a hard-to-spot tank.
Today’s technology offers route mapping and more. The GreyHawk Technologies system shown here also reminds drivers of items such as locked gates, dogs on premises or a hard-to-spot tank.

Now being referred to as M2M, which stands for machine-to-machine communication, the field of wireless vehicle connectivity is also known collectively as telematics. It includes a host of technologies such as cellular telemetry, radio frequency identification and global positioning satellites.

The core development of these systems came through government projects related to battlefield asset tracking and space exploration. In civilian life, these concepts are being applied to everything from monitoring chemical levels in swimming pools to ensuring pinpoint efficiency for propane deliveries.

“Each truck is a part of your office. This means faster response time, better allocation of resources, reduced stand-by time and the optimum productivity of your field workers,” explains Damon Boyer, director of sales and marketing for Automated Wireless Environments Inc.

“Every company utilizing this technology has realized dramatic increases in productivity, decreases in field worker stand-by/down time, and the ability to provide the customer with a specific contact time, and therefore, greater levels of satisfaction.”

The mapping function is at the heart of the company’s RF/GPS vehicle locator system.

“On your monitor you will see a map of your entire service area with all GPS-equipped vehicles identified as icons. At any point your dispatcher can zoom-in on a selected vehicle, determine its exact location, track progress toward scheduled appointments and adjust routes or service calls based on this information. Additional detail information of each vehicle type, a ‘panic button’ for emergency situations and the ability to trace the history of a designated vehicle allows the dispatcher to use the application to determine the optimum use of your company fleet,” Boyer says.

Base Engineering offers cab-mounted keypad codes to prevent unauthorized persons from operating the vehicle.
Base Engineering offers cab-mounted keypad codes to prevent unauthorized persons from operating the vehicle.

As with calculators, color TVs and microwave ovens, which were priced beyond the reach of most people when first introduced, vehicle telematics is becoming more affordable as it catches the industry’s attention as a viable business and security solution.

“We have dedicated ourselves to eliminating the possibility of our clients’ fleets being used as weapons against our families and homeland,” Boyer says, noting that a new Automated Wireless Phase 2 engine monitoring and emergency remote controls system is expected later this year.

Accelerated pace

The fallout surrounding the attacks of 9-11 seems to have dramatically accelerated the pace of telematic innovations getting to market, especially for hazmat haulers. Regulations being considered include systems ranging from remote vehicle shutdowns to real-time vehicle mapping capabilities for both bobtails and cargo tankers.

Figure 1.
Figure 1.

“We feel that this will become mandatory within the next 18 months,” predicts Bill Landers, director of sales and marketing for Vertrax Inc. “Propane is considered a rolling bomb; eventually you will have to track your vehicles. It’s coming down the road, and we’re ready.”

Steve Bledsoe, vice president of GPS Solutions, agrees. “This technology is great for this law that may be coming, plus it keeps track of your employees’ productivity.”

Vertrax products offer functionality based on both the cell phone system and the country’s robust network of satellite communication channels — a key concern for propane marketers in isolated geographic regions not well covered by cellular transmissions.

In a recent demonstration of a remote controlled vehicle shutdown system from Satellite Security Systems, satellite communications were used to disable a fully loaded moving petro-chemical tanker truck 530 miles from the California demonstration site.
In a recent demonstration of a remote controlled vehicle shutdown system from Satellite Security Systems, satellite communications were used to disable a fully loaded moving petro-chemical tanker truck 530 miles from the California demonstration site.

“We’re reaching the point where wireless is becoming cost-effective” for propane marketers of all sizes, says TouchStar’s Alexander. “The Homeland Security point was never an issue before. But as you talk to the smaller companies they realize that this is something they will have to do to keep up with larger competitors.”

Mark J. Schumacher, marketing manager for truck electronics at International Truck and Engine Corp., says the current equipment is a true building block for the vast array of more sophisticated transportation management tools coming down the road.

“This has a pretty broad market appeal to it,” he says of his company’s ever-expanding line of Diamond Logic truck control systems. “With the ability to electronically control operating limits, the potential for equipment damage is significantly reduced. This is something we were developing prior to 9-11, and there is an extensive set of benefits for this beyond Homeland Security.”

The U.S. Transportation Security Administration is also considering implementing smart card-based commercial drivers licenses, says International’s Vera Gavrilovich, who has prepared an extensive report on Homeland Security issues within the trucking industry. A driver’s DMV data would be embedded on a small computer chip.

These types of technology developments provide an enticing array of business options for the propane industry to consider. “Bread-crumbing” allows a business manager to view a bobtail’s daily journey directly on a computer screen map. “Geo-fencing” can automatically set off an alarm or induce corrective action when a truck strays from its planned route or ventures too close to a restricted area – places such as nuclear power plants, dams, national monuments and sensitive fuel storage depots.

A driver authorization system from Base Engineering Inc. utilizes cab-mounted keypad codes to ensure that a vehicle is not operated by anyone other than the designated employee. The unit can be applied to several components on a truck, making it more effective than a traditional belt-mounted shutoff device, according to Steve Belyea, company president.

Figure 2.
Figure 2.

The Base system costs about $400 per bobtail; a satellite-based remote shutoff currently under development is expected to cost about $1,000 per vehicle.

The Base product line includes features that detect and react to vehicle rollovers, tank leaks and attempted truck hijackings. Shutoffs can be applied to an assortment of vehicle controls such as throttle and brake components, hose reels, power take-off units and designated valves.

Embracing technology

Industry experts note that telematics have been monitoring overseas fuel operations for years. Th U.S. propane industry has long lagged behind Europe, Australia, Africa, Latin America and the Pacific Rim when it comes to embracing these applications, they say.

While American propane marketers traditionally are slow to change the ways they do business, equipment manufacturers are starting to see real acceptance of this technology.

Past resistance among domestic propane marketers related mostly to the expense involved in getting the systems installed and operating. “That was an issue we were running into, but now there aren’t a lot of up-front costs with this technology,” observes Landers at Vertrax.

Terry Veber is vice president of operations for the Rice Companies, a third-generation family business based in Greenfield, Mass. Founded in 1951, the enterprise includes a chain of convenience stores, wholesale ice delivery and a network that distributes bulk propane, gasoline, diesel and other petroleum products.

“As an industry, we need to start adopting these technologies for the future. We need to have better communications with our trucks. If we don’t start being a little pro-active now, we can start paying big costs later when these things are mandated,” he contends.

Rice is making competitive hay with its SmartDrops and SmartTrax systems from Vertrax.

“It’s a winning situation for everyone involved,” says Veber. “It’s pushing us, but in a way I’m glad it’s pushing us because it can make us more efficient. It’s an incentive for our drivers because they can see how well they are doing” at reaching the company’s production goals.

Veber previously was in charge of procuring supplies for a ski resort. Upon entering the propane industry six years ago, he was taken aback at how “backward” the industry was in regard to implementing various advances in business and technological strategies.

When the Vertrax system was introduced to Rice’s business tools, “I almost fell out of my chair because I’d been trying to get them to do this,” he recalled. Initially, he simply wanted a paper map on the wall to plot all the delivery points. Now it’s better than he imagined because the mapping is done automatically on a computer screen with a flashing icon representing each propane vehicle on the road.

“We can see where our trucks are every 15 minutes,” he notes.

The satellite connectivity is much more efficient that the old system of two-way radios, says Veber, noting that cell phones don’t work well in his area. Drivers can instantly be informed of changes in the delivery schedule, and the tracking feature saves wear and tear on the vehicles in addition to providing added safety and security.

The software enables school zones, hospitals and other sensitive spots to be avoided or minimized, and a suspension-busting back road pocked with potholes can be bypassed entirely. It also helps new drivers because the route directions are clearly defined.

Veber says the daily ritual of sorting delivery tickets is a thing of the past; the equipment takes the order information and puts the delivery drops in a rational order based on the local area’s layout and traffic patterns. The bobtail operators appreciate the automated assistance and the freedom from office time.

Companies using this type of equipment need to take time to explain the equipment’s intent as well as its benefits to employees, says Mike DiGerorgio, director of transportation and safety at Paraco Gas in New York.

“Communication with the work force is so important because when you start a program like this they think ‘big brother’ is looking, and that is not the case. It wasn’t a productivity issue with us; it was a customer service and security issue. The equipment has a huge customer service benefit that serves the entire operation,” DiGerorgio says.

“These tracking systems help a company become more efficient. All you have to do is push a button and you know where your guy is.”

Tracking down business

Village Energy of Cheshire, Vt. has 11 trucks to serve its 6,000 accounts, and company President Ned Bowman recommends the benefits of hardware and software systems from Automated Wireless and UPS Logistics Technologies.

“I don’t have to keep a bunch of tickets,” says Bowman. “The system is telling me the optimum routes. It even comes back and says ‘You don’t need 10 trucks today, you only need nine.'”

The automated ticketing function saves a minimum of 20 minutes a day per driver, and Bowman says Village has achieved an across-the-board 10 percent reduction in miles driven, vehicle wear-and-tear and diesel consumption.

A new UPS system aimed specifically at the propane industry is due to be rolled out in June.

“You can get more stops per route,” claims product manager Cyndi Brandt, who says the system’s “preferred roads” function eliminates the propensity of drivers to create their own personal shortcuts that really take longer or present other problems such as overly bumpy roads.

Drivers also don’t have to drive with one hand and read a map at the same time, a feature that allowed Sippin Energy Products of Monroe, Conn. to slice time drivers spend poring over maps by 75 percent. Driver office time was reduced by 50 percent, and ticket sorting has been eliminated entirely, Brandt says.

Biometrics is getting a thumbs-up from Hal Simmons, safety coordinator and operations manager for Delta Liquid Energy of Paso Robles, Calif. Delta is participating in a pilot program with GreyHawk Technologies Inc., whose MobilTec application uses the driver’s fingerprint to control access to the vehicle and related apparatus.

“We’re preventing a hijacking from ever taking place,” says Terry L. Colson, GreyHawk’s vice president of sales and marketing.

In a process that takes just five seconds to complete, the driver is prompted to leave a fingerprint on a special reading device. If the proffered print doesn’t match the finger on file, the vehicle won’t start. The procedure can also be applied to releasing the brakes or other functions. Even if a truck is left running it can’t be driven anywhere by someone not authorized to do so.

The system stores and displays account histories for each stop, plus other details germane to the job at hand. Locked gates and frightening dogs are noted, as are reminders of other unusual conditions such as a hard-to-spot tank.

“We can show a map relating to where that tank is on the property,” Colson says, “and it’ll say ‘close the gate or the dog will get out.'” The system then automatically completes the invoice based on gallons pumped, taxes and any other factors.

TouchStar automation is gaining praise at Freeman Gas in Spartanburg, N.C. Thousands of dollars have been saved annually as the cost per ticket fell from 15 cents to 2 cents.

As with many propane operations, Freeman office staffers wear several hats “and during peak seasons they just about have nervous breakdowns,” says Rob Freeman, managing director. The hours that used to be spent keypunching now can be utilized for more pressing issues, and the radio no longer squawks with drivers calling in for directions and billing updates.

“The drivers say it spoils them,” says Freeman. “They save around an hour a day and they’re freed up to do what we pay them for — to serve the customer and track down more business.”

Trucking, security and hazardous materials industries call for cohesive, flexible national safety standards to protect against fuel transportation dangers.

As the Department of Homeland Security prepares future hazmat security mandates, there is considerable concern that the upcoming measures be functional, practical and affordable.

Another hot issue is whether regulations should be promulgated at the national level or left to various state and local authorities.

“The threat is too complex and the resources are too limited for a do-it-yourself approach,” says Drew Robertson, director of the Freight Transportation Security Consortium. Founded in 2001, the group is an alliance of companies providing asset tracking, vehicle monitoring, emergency response, rail and truck management systems, equipment financing and insurance.

“To make something that actually works you have to have the input of the industry,” he says.

“Safety and security are critical issues in our industry,” concurs Vera Gavrilovich, director of customer relations management and market analysis for International Truck and Engine Corp.

“The next few months will be especially important for our customers as regulatory decisions are made and transportation companies must respond accordingly,” says Gavrilovich, who has prepared an extensive report on Homeland Security issues within the trucking industry. The report is available on the company web site at

The Transportation Security Administration is testing a host of new technologies designed to restrict vehicle access or offer a wireless solution should something go awry. Biometric sensors, driver panic buttons, remote vehicle shutdown devices and automatic vehicle locator systems are all under an extensive federal review.

At the same time, some states and local jurisdictions want to implement their own rules, which may or may not coincide with what the TSA will require.

“The security response should be integrated across the national hazmat supply chain,” says Robertson.

Systemic change

The threat of terrorism differs markedly from traditional business risks such as accidents and theft.

“A specific terrorist attack on a tank truck or railcar carrying hazmats is designed to cause broad systemic damage across the entire economy. As we learned in the aftermath of Sept. 11, the secondary impacts of a catastrophic attack can be felt far beyond ‘Ground Zero,'” Robertson says.

“Correspondingly, a terrorist attack on a tank truck in South Carolina will have immediate negative impacts on tank truckers in South Dakota and across the rest of North America.”

Experts say cohesiveness in planning is key, which is why a bill requiring remote controlled shutoffs is drawing fire as it moves through the California legislature.

If passed, a state-mandated measure would likely be subject to court review because of its differences with federal standards. Still, the Western Propane Gas Association is stepping up its opposition to the bill.

“We want California to be in sync with the rest of the country,” says Mary Reynolds, the WPGA’s executive director. From a practical standpoint, a rule covering only California trucks would drive someone with evil intent to simply procure a vehicle from across the state line, she observes, adding that the cost of implementation is a concern as well.

“Our members certainly want to have secure facilities and they don’t want an incident,” says Reynolds, “but our focus is not to isolate California trucks; it puts this marketplace at a disadvantage.”

The California Highway Patrol recently supervised the testing of a remote controlled vehicle shutdown system. Satellite Security Systems, the Highway Patrol and InterState Oil Co. dramatically demonstrated a successful wireless remote shutdown of a fully loaded moving petrochemical tanker truck.

From Satellite Security Systems’ headquarters in San Diego 530 miles from the demonstration site, satellite communications were used to disable the truck in seconds. The vehicle’s engine was shut down, but its steering and brakes remained functional so that the truck could safely roll to a stop.

Industry liability issues with a vehicle being rendered inoperable and causing damage beyond a terrorist attack remain a significant concern with the new technologies. Industry leaders would like to see liability protection built into any national mandates.

Other remote shutoff technology is available to the propane industry as well.

Should a propane truck using Jacksonville, Fla.-based DesertMicro’s system stray from its assigned route, a monitor at company headquarters can display data such as the fuel level in the gas tank, oil level, oil pressure, engine RPMs and other details. If there is trouble involving this truck and a shutdown is necessary, the engine brake is remotely applied with the engine never going below 600 RPMs to ensure that other crucial systems remain in place, explains Barry Grahek, company president.

Bold approach

The boldest approach is being floated by the Freight Transportation Security Consortium. The organization is calling on Congress and the TSA to form the Security Equipment Finance Corp., which would be a government-sponsored enterprise along the lines of Fannie Mae.

Under the proposal, federal funding would be made available to assist private industry in executing a nationwide monitoring system.

Each hazmat vehicle would be tracked via GPS, and emergency response would be coordinated among the various agencies and businesses involved. Security data would be collected electronically in a central repository and monitored in real-time by a nationwide emergency response organization, according to Robertson.

There are no official proposals under consideration as of yet, but Roberston says he is “slugging it out” and lobbying hard to gain bipartisan support for the idea among selected U.S. senators and representatives.

SEFCO would go far in ensuring that only cost-effective security methods would be implemented, and financial assistance would be available to assist the private sector with compliance.

“Freight Transportation Security Consortium recommends that the government work with industry in developing a public-private partnership that uses market mechanisms to achieve national security objectives,” Robertson says.

“Some of the programs now under review are more expensive than others. There’s a good chance you’re going to see unfunded mandates, and a mandate for some would be too onerous for the trucking and propane industry. A single national monitor and emergency response system will be the most effective and affordable way to protect the public. An underfunded system will fail.”

Comments are currently closed.