In the past, the trucking industry has relied on weather information that is vague and one-dimensional. That is changing.
The Weather Company wants to provide truck drivers with a more detailed snapshot of weather information before they hit the road.
The data company – which is owned by IBM and serves a handful of industries such as aviation, agriculture and energy beyond its consumer-facing Weather Channel brand – has already released a briefing tool that delivers weather information to drivers via a mobile app.
Now it’s working to translate weather and road conditions data into traffic pattern predictions along specific routes.
With the briefing tool, drivers can see how weather will tangibly affect their drives, said John Bosse, who heads up The Weather Company’s ground transportation business. They can also receive alerts of upcoming weather events.
Most truck drivers use free mobile apps like Yahoo Weather and the company’s own Weather Channel for weather information along their routes.
It presents an abstract picture because truckers receive little clarity about what implications the weather has on traffic and driving conditions, Bosse said.
The “cobbled together” overview doesn’t give veteran drivers like Idella Hansen much insight into route planning. A driver for IBI Secured Transport from Camden, Ark., Hansen said her philosophy is, “I’ve got to go, so I go anyway, and I go until I can’t.”
With traditional weather apps that depict colorized radar data, the other information the driver really cares about is missing, Bosse said. The Weather Company’s method is different because it tracks six parameters that will affect truck driving, including fog, high winds, wet roads, puddling, snow and ice.
It provides drivers “a much better view of the next several hours out in front, so there should be no surprises,” he said.
In the future, the company plans to add a predictive traffic service that uses weather data and machine learning to better forecast traffic speeds.
If a tool like this were released, “I would jump on that,” Hansen said.
After its 2015 acquisition by IBM, The Weather Company looked for ways to expand, Bosse said. Freight and ground transportation were an “obvious choice” given the company’s four-decade history with air transit, providing weather forecasting and measurement products for pilots and ground crews.
Unlike pilots, who are required by the Federal Aviation Administration to consult weather information before takeoff, truck drivers do not have relevant, high-quality weather resources when trip planning. “It just seemed inefficient,” Bosse said.
With more data, drivers will be able to make better decisions about what they can drive through with considerations for what they’re hauling, as well as prepare for any accidents up ahead, he said.
An alert service with text-to-speech capability can also be set to ping drivers in advance of upcoming weather events along their routes.
“Any time you take one distraction away from a driver will make him a safer driver,” said Allen Lowry, vice president of safety and risk management for USA Truck.
“It would be so beneficial safety-wise, not just for the transportation industry but for other drivers on the road,” Lowry said.
The Weather Channel focused on the driver first, because driver decisions are “where the rubber meets the road and where the important costly decisions get made or are negatively impacted,” Bosse said. Better-informed navigational decisions have the potential to save gas, prevent accidents and improve on-time performance.
The new vertical has big potential, he said.
The technology has “legs” in many of The Weather Company’s other businesses, including its consumer application, Bosse said. For now, free weather services like its own www.weather.com present its biggest competition.
The very collection of this data is another space where the trucking industry and weather information could intersect, said Randy Baker, senior meteorologist for UPS Airlines.
Since 1997 the National Weather Service has been compiling weather information from sensors on airplanes like the ones in UPS’ fleet, Baker said. That information yields much higher quality data than what can be collected from weather balloons.
There is a similar potential to gather better ground-level information from sensors on vehicles to “improve the accuracy of forecasting models” for ground transportation, he said.
UPS has done some preliminary testing on this, monitoring windshield wipers and air temperature readings. The company is now pondering different ways to collect information from vehicles that in real time can be dropped into a computer model for analysis, Baker said.
The Weather Company’s mobile app-based trucking tool is available to fleets for an annual fee based on user count, ranging from about $30,000 for a small fleet to hundreds of thousands of dollars for a large fleet, Bosse said. It is working on a web version for dispatch use.