Industry Reports

Truck Stops Put Technology in Fast Lane

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — Twenty years ago, it wasn’t unusual for a truck driver to pull into a travel plaza and wait to fuel up or stand in line waiting to use a pay phone.  Add to that the time needed to grab a meal, a shower and then get a good night’s sleep before heading out on the road the next day.

Today, truck drivers and motorists have at their fingertips the ability to have a meal already prepared for them, a shower space reserved, a maintenance session scheduled or an overnight parking space secured before they even turn off the highway and into the plaza.

“We used to provide pay-phone rooms for drivers to contract for loads,” says Tom Liutkus, senior vice president of marketing and public relations for TravelCenters of America, based in Westlake.  “Today, there are smartphone apps that take care of that. Technology is impacting the way customers – especially trucks – fuel, how we communicate and how we drive efficiency for our customers.”

TravelCenter’s TruckSmart app, for example, enables professional drivers to place themselves in a maintenance queue, reserve shower space or book a paid parking space simply through a smartphone.  

Apps also have the potential to make it more efficient for truckers to fuel, Liutkus says. The company is working on “pump start” technology through its app where diesel fuel-pumps can read and engage the profile information loaded on a smartphone, activate the pump and then present any billing details. 

It’s a sign that the travel plazas of today are continuously evolving as demands from both professional drivers and traditional drivers change. The truck stops of 20 years ago have given way to an operation backed strongly with information technology, not to mention amenities such as exercise rooms, a wide array of healthful foods stocked in convenience stores and even reserved areas for pets.

“We have fitness rooms in 60 of our locations, healthier snack options and walking-trail maps,” Liutkus says. “We were the first chain to establish areas for pets.”

Liutkus says about 18% of the professional drivers who are customers with his company have a companion animal in the cab. “We now offer some pet food, leashes and the like,” he says. 

Efficiency in the trucking and transportation industry is paramount and technology is essential in maintaining communication between drivers and service technicians, says Paul Burgoyne, founder of Vantage Solutions LLC, a portfolio company at the Youngstown Business Incubator. 

The company has developed Reach, an app that allows service garages or truck plazas that provide maintenance to respond more rapidly when a driver is in trouble or experiences a breakdown. The product uses mapping and chat functionality to improve communication between the driver and service provider.

Through the Reach platform, drivers have the ability to create a service request from their phones, Burgoyne says. “The app finds the best solution to get a service provider, get it fixed and get it rolling again,” he says. “The goal is speed and clarity.”

As vehicles become equipped with more advanced technology, Burgoyne says the next step is to create a smoother transition with its product.  Telematics technology, for example, allows information from the vehicle to be transmitted to the cloud, then to Reach, and then send the request to locations such as TravelCenters of America, which is a customer.

“I’m bullish about the future,” Burgoyne says.

Still, some transportation companies are slow to adopt new digital technology despite the need to improve communication, efficiency and customer satisfaction. According to a study by PwC, half of transportation companies sampled cited the lack of digital culture and training as the greatest obstacles to embracing computer technology.

Nevertheless, apps – from virtual-payment options to fueling programs – are invaluable tools for drivers today says Erin Burke, president of Truck World Inc., based in Hubbard. This technology is also useful for travel-plaza operators who are able to monitor business levels more efficiently at different locations.

“We accept a multitude of payment options,” she says. In addition, the company’s relationship with Shell allows it to use its Fuel Rewards Network, which enables drivers to save five cents per gallon through the card. “We’re also rolling out an app that drivers can use before coming into the site, so they can place a pickup order that is ready when they get here.”

Truck World’s flagship plaza along state Route 7 in Hubbard was constructed in 1971, while its North Jackson plaza on Bailey Road near the Interstate 76 interchange was finished in 2016.  More recently, a smaller fueling station opened in Girard.  

“This location has exceeded our expectations,” Burke says of the North Jackson site. The plaza includes a shop, a Burger King restaurant and a Maverick’s Bistro – a partnership with Krispy Krunchy Chicken that also offers sandwiches and pizza. “I-76 has a great traffic count and this is a wonderful interchange and provides great visibility.”

And, Truck World is beginning work on a third travel plaza, this one in Conneaut at state Route 7 and Interstate 90, Burke says. “We see it as an underserved area,” she says. “There’s a lot of opportunity there.”

Burke emphasizes that Truck World is a family-owned operation and can respond quickly to customer demands and industry trends. The Conneaut location, for example, will be the first Truck World that includes an electric-vehicle charging station.

An area at the North Jackson site is reserved for such infrastructure, should that travel plaza need to install an electric-charging station, adds Tim Schubert, vice president of direct operations. 

Meanwhile, the Hubbard location has expanded, Schubert says. “About five years ago, we added more fueling lanes there,” he says. “We went from 14 to 23 and have seen a considerable increase.”

Moreover, the addition of the North Jackson plaza in 2016 hasn’t taken business away from the flagship location or vice versa, Burke says. “We were pleasantly surprised to find that drivers were visiting both locations.”

It’s too early to tell how business and traffic will be affected in North Jackson in the wake of General Motors Co.’s closing of its Lordstown complex, Schubert says. “This is the busy travel season; so we really can’t tell,” he says. “We’ll know more in the winter, but it could impact us.”

What has helped some is Amazon’s new North Jackson distribution center at Youngstown Commerce Park less than a mile away, Schubert says. The online retail giant opened a last-mile delivery service to handle local deliveries from the site.  

Even more heartening is that site preparation is underway on the new TJX HomeGoods distribution center, a few miles north of Truck World’s plaza on Bailey Road, Schubert says.  “When TJX starts up – even when construction begins – it should be back to where it was before GM.”

Pictured: Erin Burke is the president of Hubbard-based Truck World, which is expanding in Conneaut. Jim Schubert is vice president of direct operations. 

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.