Trucker McLane rolls out wireless vehicle system

McLane Co. said it plans to install mobile computers with satellite and wireless communications systems in 1,050 trucks in its grocery store delivery fleet, transforming the vehicles into mobile information centers tied into its back-end systems.

Dave Dillon, manager of transportation at Temple, Texas-based McLane, said the project, announced yesterday, costs "over US$10 million but under US$20 million," with a payback on investment expected in two years. Dillon said the mobile communications system, developed by Symbol Technologies Inc. in Holtsville, N.Y., provides "exponentially greater functionality" than wireless package-tracking systems used by delivery companies such as FedEx and UPS.

The McLane system, built around a rugged Symbol handheld computer running the Palm operating system and an onboard communications terminal, will provide the company with a paperless process that manages all invoicing and delivery transactions, including capturing electronic signatures for proof of delivery, Dillon said. The system will also manage dispatch operations, automate driver logs and provide McLane with the ability to perform remote diagnostics on the vehicle via satellite.

Drivers use the Symbol handheld to record delivery information with a bar-code scanner and capture electronic signatures using Track & Trace point of delivery software developed by IBM. Once the driver completes a delivery, he returns to the truck and shoes the handheld computer into a cradle on the onboard communications system.

When the driver returns to one of McLane's 17 terminals that Symbol has equipped with a wireless LAN infrastructure, the onboard communication system senses the 11M bit/sec. wireless LAN and automatically starts dumping data that has been stored throughout the day, Dillon said. McLane intends to use the wireless LAN as its primary means of capturing delivery data, with the satellite link, provided by San Diego-based Qualcomm Inc., used to send and receive short messages from the driver on the road, he said.

The terminal wireless LAN then feeds information collected from the trucks into the company's nationwide wide-area network and into back-end accenting and inventory systems, replacing what Dillon called a "predominantly paper" way of doing business with a system totally automated from a grocery store dock to McLane's mainframe computers.

Vin Luciano, vice president of product management at Symbol, said McLane has created "an automated warehouse on wheels" that allows the company to manage information on a delivery vehicle the same way it manages a warehouse with an extensive IT infrastructure.

Bob Egan, an analyst at Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Conn., said the use of satellite-based information systems is "well established" in the trucking industry. But, Egan added, "what's emerging in a big way is the use of multiple wireless techniques to address specific business requirements. ... We will continue to see wireless LAN adoption explode in many sectors of the [trucking] market, because unlike wide-area terrestrial wireless and satellites, wireless LANs can deliver higher speed and support greater capacity demands where needed."

McLane has already tested the system with a pilot project with 10 trucks operating out of its Lubbock, Texas, terminal. Dillon said he expects McLane to complete the rollout to all 17 terminals and 1,050 trucks in the grocery division by the end of 2002. McLane is considering installing a similar system in its division that handles deliveries to fast-food restaurants, he added.