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Virtual tech keeps trucks on the road.

USA Truck has outfitted six of the trucks in its fleet with an onboard diagnostics program as part of a pilot program offered by Daimler.

Drivers who have the Detroit Virtual Technician system have access onboard to real-time diagnostics and logistics. It's a satellite-based system that is, in theory, supposed to provide safety and efficiency for drivers and USA Truck.

The system alerts drivers to any serious problems that might necessitate pulling off the road. As it is with your car, not all maintenance issues are created equal, and the diagnostics help determine what needs immediate attention or what can wait. Within two minutes the system delivers information on the type and severity of the maintenance problem the driver is facing.

This goes beyond a "check engine" light coming on in the cab. Virtual Technician is designed to categorize problems as service now or "service soon." That information can help the driver determine if it is safe to keep going or alert the driver if continuing on the route would create a dangerous situation or cause additional damage to the truck.

As the website explains in promotional material, the system "takes the guesswork out of engine repair, so you can get the wheels turning again as quickly as possible."

Who among us doesn't dream of taking the guesswork out of a trip for auto repair, right? USA Truck driver managers are able to remain in contact with the truck through the system. Before the check engine light comes on, the computer program running Virtual Technician knows to take a digital snapshot, helping make it easier to pinpoint where issues are without a set of eyes ever looking under the hood. Snapshots are taken before, during and after the fault code is triggered, and information can be delivered to the driver manager, who is able to relay back to the driver how quickly the truck needs service and where the nearest service location can be found. And not only does the program locate service sites, it can pinpoint stations with available parts for whatever problem or problems the truck is having.

Rather than wait on a mechanic in a garage to run diagnostics and pinpoint the issue, then figure out if he has parts to do the work, the malfunction and solutions are identified before the service work begins. That should eliminate a portion of the time--and money--lost when issues arise, USA Truck said.

As explained on the Virtual Technician website, "to make money, you must be driving."

Installing the GPS-based system in the truck also helps efficiency in other ways. Fleet managers can run analytics on a truck's stop or idle time, speed, mileage (overall and by state) driven and fuel consumption. This data should--in theory--help eliminate any wasted time on the road.

Right now only a portion of USA Truck's fleet has the ability to do onboard diagnostics for service problems. As USA Truck introduces 450 new trucks to its fleet this year, the pilot program will help the company decide if it wants to outfit more with the Detroit Virtual Technician.

"As a driver-focused company, we're always looking for ways to improve safety and productivity while providing a better driver experience," Paul Marshall, director of maintenance for USA Truck, said in a release. "The introduction of Virtual Technician does these things. It will give us timely visibility into performance issues and the ability to arrange needed repairs quickly, which will improve efficiency and safety across the board."

* P.A.M. Transportation Inc. of Tontitown reported in a recent SEC filing that Charles F. Wilkins will retire from its board of directors. A replacement will be elected at the company's upcoming stockholders meeting, which will be in May. No specific date has been released and P.A.M. had not released its proxy statement for 2013 by press time.

* J.B. Hunt will hold its annual stockholders meeting on Thursday at its headquarters in Lowell.

* USA Truck has scheduled its shareholders meeting for 10 a.m. May 8 at the company's Van Buren headquarters.

* Arkansas Best will hold its shareholders meeting at 8 a.m. May 21 at its headquarters in Fort Smith.

Chris Bahn
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Title Annotation:Transportation; virtual technician
Author:Bahn, Chris
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Apr 22, 2013
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