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In-Cab Computing: built-in or carry-out? by Sharon Clancy – Editor, mlogistics

In-cab computers have been around for a long time, and they once summed up the new era of automated vehicle monitoring, but these days separate tablet computers and even handhelds can take a lot of the same tasks. How do you decide which you need? Sharon Clancy considers the options

These days, pretty well all organisations involved in transport of field service accept that they need to keep in touch with mobile staff in real time. The question is, what’s the best way to do it? And in particular, what kind of mobile computer should you use? Should it be fixed in the vehicle or fully portable?

Basic in-cab computers, sometimes called mobile data terminals (MDTs), have been included in vehicle tracking packages for many years. Many fleet operators have found that these provide a perfectly adequate way to keep in touch with drivers and mobile workers.

Recently people have become increasingly sensitive to the importance of not distracting drivers while they are driving – a concern that has led to renewed interest in non-voice real-time communications.

Fortunately, messaging is often included in monthly tracking charges, and can be handled with supplied MDTs. Typically, preconfigured messages are used – for instance, “job accepted”, “leaving delivery point” and so on. Some systems also allow navigation details to be downloaded, and provide simple task reporting and driver identification.

Some operators will want screens fixe in the cab, while others will need drivers to take them out – through arguably a greater priority is to ensure that whatever type of device you choose, it meets your objectives.

One trend that is having an impact on in-cab solutions is a growing demand for larger screen sizes. The popularity of Apple’s iPad has inspired software developers to exploit the potential of larger screen size, and various hardware manufacturers are responding; so now there are MDTs with 5in, 7in and even 8in screens, all rugged format.

The latest generation of in-cab communication terminals offer greater functionality. Meanwhile, alongside them we are seeing the launch of a new kind of hybrid terminal – designed to be used both in the cab, in the traditional role, and out of the cab as a portable unit. In this additional role such devices double as tablet-style computers, and have strong potential to challenge portable handheld computers for real-time data capture tasks.

However, these large-screen devices don’t have things all their own way. The latest generation of handheld portable computers continue to have plenty of appeal. In particular, many now incorporate sophisticated functionality including GPS tracking, and can be customised to suit mobile computing needs in a variety of sectors, from logistics to field service to waste management.

As ever with telematics and mobile data, the needs of the operation should define the right solution. For applicants that don’t require users to have any computer presence outside the vehicle, a permanent installed, or hardwired, solution is a no-brainer.

Nor are buyers paying for the extreme level of ruggedness required to survive drops on to a concrete floor, so dedicated in-vehicle computers can be a more cost-effective alternative to their mobile equivalents.

Another welcome side effect of installing a PC and other equipment permanently in the vehicle is that its unlikely to get lost or stolen, as all parts are fixed to the vehicle. Sensitive data is therefore that bit more secure – especially if (heaven forbid) it is unencrypted.

Typical of the new generation of in-cab terminals is Microlise’s latest driver communication module (DCM4). It has a 7 in screen with a redesigned layout to make it easier for drivers to use and incorporates an upgraded version of the company’s Mobile Workforce software.

As well as two-way messaging system with pre-defined and free-text messaging, there is audible and on-screen notification of incoming messages, with the ability to make a voice call using the keypad. Managers can allow or disallow calls during driving.

Drivers can use the DCM4 to carry out daily checks and to log on to a shift directly or via the digital tachograph. Journeys and tasks can be downloaded automatically, along with vehicle-specific navigation using ALK’s CoPilot 8. “Integrated navigation improves route and schedule adherence and thus reduces fuel bills,” says product director Matt Hague.

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