EC-backed advanced communication systems that promise great efficiencies are currently being road-tested across Europe.
For the past couple of years all eyes in the distribution industry have been trained on, of all places, Hythe in Kent; not on one of the giants of the industry but on a modest 48-vehicle company, Inter City Trucks, which specialises in transporting industrial loads, particularly in eastern Europe.
Inter City is one of five companies (the others are in Belgium, Greece and the Netherlands) being used as test-beds for a number of advanced communications systems, which, if they fulfil their promise, should make even small and medium-sized transport companies much more efficient. The idea is to give operators the ability to pinpoint from minute to minute exactly where on the Continent their vehicles are and to keep drivers in constant touch with home base via computers and satellites.
The Kent company, and its 12-vehicle sister company, Dockspeed, are part of a European Commission project called 'Metafora' (Major European Testing of Actual Freight Operations Using Road Transport Infomatics on an Axis). The equipment being road-tested in 'Metafora' includes a trip recorder in the form of a 'memory card' which electronically records every aspect of the vehicle's journey; vehicle location devices; and terminals that allow messages (including the location information) to be bounced back and forth between truck and transport operator using a satellite link. The vehicle location is done by an American military positioning satellite called GPS (Global Positioning System).
'There are 24 of these satellites in orbit beaming positioning information down all the time,' says Stephen Anderson, research fellow in the transport studies group at the University of Westminster, who is co-ordinating the UK end of Metafora. 'Receivers on the vehicle pick up signals from two or three of these things and by triangulation can calculate the position of the vehicle.' The location information is then bounced back to the home base via one of the Inmarsat communications satellites and displayed on a computer screen. Inter City and Dockspeed have 12 vehicles in the study. Six are equipped with satellite communications, vehicle location equipment and trip recorders and six with trip recorders only.
Inter City's managing director John Faulkner says the drivers have reacted positively to the equipment, particularly the satellite communications package. 'It makes them more a part of the operating centre,' he explains. And the drivers appear to like the on-board trip recorder because it cuts down on paperwork. When the driver returns at the end of a trip the memory card is simply downloaded into the office computer and printed out directly.
The system's location and communications capabilities have already proved their worth. A vehicle had been dispatched to Turkey but the office had forgotten to give the driver one of the permits he needed to enter the country. 'The driver had driven through Italy and was on the ferry going over to Patras in Greece when we discovered the permit in the office,' says Faulkner. 'When he landed at Patras and was heading towards Turkey we flashed him a message saying: "You haven't got a permit. As you're going round the outskirts of Athens get a cab into the centre and go to the DHL office - we've just couriered your permit out to you.'"
A further major benefit to Inter City is that knowing exactly where their vehicles are gives dispatchers an edge over their competitors. They can rapidly alter transport plans to pick up new loads.
The other element of communications being investigated by the Metafora team is Electronic Data Inter-change (EDI), which is the term used for the exchange of structured messages in electronic form. The messages are sent and received by computer programmes. In the EDI pilot scheme Inter City is linked electronically to one of its key clients, a dairy-products manufacturer shipping loads from Germany to UK distribution centres. From a logistics point of view the beauty of the EDI system is that information can be exchanged with a minimum of manual intervention and a high degree of reliability.
EDI allows the haulier to cut out a lot of the paperwork, says Anderson. 'It cuts down the possibility of additional errors when information is re-keyed back into the system.' Inter City is also testing an EDI link with Stena Sealink ferries for ferry booking. Ultimately it wants to get to the stage where a driver en route to the port can send a message to the home base via the communications satellite link, then on by EDI to the ferry.
Would Inter City use all this hardware and software if it were not funded by the European Commission? 'At today's prices,' says Faulkner, 'it's difficult to justify the benefits you get out of it. It is expensive technology. The day it comes down to compete in price with other methods of communication it will be world-beating.'