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Leah Kaminsky-Levy
April 07, 2020

Fleet communication is simple. Just trust your drivers.

Real time communication has always been central to fleet management. Whether you manage five trucks or thousands, dispatch needs to be able to reach drivers quickly to send assignments and updates based on changes in customer orders, the shifting needs of a work site, snarled traffic conditions, or the development of a sudden emergency situation. Likewise, driver productivity and safety depend on having a reliable way to clarify orders, update dispatch on road conditions, and receive the assignments that get them paid. All in all, good two-way communication is key to ensuring speed, safety, and responsiveness along a driver’s route. 

Trucker using phone in cabFor years, there was one player and one player only in the fleet communication systems game: truck radios. They’re more high tech than ever, with plenty of bells and whistles, and yet drivers are increasingly asking their dispatchers and managers to switch over to a solution that takes advantage of the much more lightweight and versatile smartphones they’re already carrying in their pockets.

This has left many managers and owners of logistics, trucking, and chauffeuring companies scratching their heads, as both solutions have advantages and disadvantages.

In this post, we’ll take you through what a good modern day two-way radio solution looks like, how you can harness the power of smartphones for your fleet communications without creating a distracted workforce, and what you can do to merge your fleet management solutions with your dispatch communications for one streamlined solution.

Fleet Radio Systems: What Works and What Doesn’t

Fleet radio systems can still be an effective way for drivers and dispatch to communicate. They’re simple to use, easy for drivers to grab in the cab of a truck without taking their eyes off the road, and, with the right technology, can have a good range.

Some disadvantages are that they can be quite expensive, especially if you’re buying and maintaining your own equipment, and that range isn’t necessarily reliable at the lower end of the price scale. Additionally, they solve only one problem: communication. You’ll still have paperwork for deliveries that drivers will have to sign off on, track, and get back to a warehouse. Even the best 2 way radios won’t have higher tech features such as truck or driver tracking. For that you’ll have to turn to the telematics or IoT (Internet of Things) solutions offered by cell phone carriers — great technology to be sure, but pricey, often requiring separate technology to be installed in driver cars or truck cabs. 

Fleet radio systems are also often open, meaning that everyone can hear everyone else talking on a channel at all times. This is, to say the least, distracting. In order to receive new driving assignments, drivers must redial channels until they get a dispatcher. This leads to dispatcher overwhelm, and with so little oversight of communications, it’s all but impossible for a manager to jump in and help smooth the workflow.

What to Look for in a Fleet Radio System

Here are a few key features that should come standard in any of the modern two-way radios you consider. They should:

  • Be Very High Frequency (VHF). These radios operate at 126 to 174 MHz, which means they work well over long distances, especially when they have longer antennas. CB radios can also be effective, especially the best CB radios for truckers, but only if your fleet will be driving short distances in the local area. You can get more out of your CB radios based on antenna type; for instance, a 5’ fiberglass antenna could get you a range of 7 miles, while a base station antenna can get you a range of 15 to 50 miles.
  • Offer Bluetooth, WiFi, and GPS location traction.
  • Have a long range wireless mobile microphone that makes it so that workers can range 300+ feet from a vehicle while still maintaining their connection.
  • Connect to hands-free accessories, which allow them to drive without the distraction of holding anything or having to press a button.

One “nice-to-have” but not essential option on top of these features is audio that adjusts to the volume of the environment automatically. This will likewise help in cutting down distraction, as conditions on the road and in the cab change, but it’s not necessarily for those looking to keep the costs down.

Once you’ve settled on the voice broadcasting system for you, there are a few more things to consider:

  • Buying or renting. When you go the 2 way radio route, you need a lot of new equipment. Renting can be a good option when you’re looking to scale up quickly, and when you don’t have the bandwidth or budget for storage and upkeep for all of the equipment involved. Buying is a better option when you’ve got a bigger fleet and want to have more control over the hardware.
  • Accessories. If your walkie talkie doesn’t come standard with a belt clip, you’ll need either that or a holster. You’ll also want a clip for the car. Desktop charging stations are also a must, as are rechargeable battery packs for when you’re on the go. Lastly, you’ll want either wired or wireless headphones so that drivers can talk handsfree.
  • Think about range. Range is important when considering which voice broadcasting system you’re going to go with. You can extend the range by opting for a larger antenna. Battery life is also key, so make sure you pick a 2 way radio that gets good reviews in this area.

Smartphones for Push to Talk: Can it Really Work?

All of that said, drivers are sick of clunky, last century fleet communications—and why wouldn’t they be? After all, they’ve all got cell phones in their pockets, which in theory could provide a much more lightweight, robust, and inexpensive way to communicate in the face of costly, distracting, and often unreliable radio systems.

Of course, on its face, there are some risks associated with switching to cell phones — if (and this is the key part) the switch is made purely onto cell phones without any kind of app to aid the transition. Drivers holding out a cell phone to dial and talking with a cell phone pressed to their ears are distracted and more likely to crash. What’s more, doing so is illegal in most states and out of compliance with U.S. Department of transportation rules.

Additionally, just switching to a digital format on its own doesn’t necessarily reduce the amount of information streaming in over SMS, email, and paper communications, which then needs to be coordinated just like traditional paper-only systems.

But what if you could bring logistics and dispatch communication right to a smartphone? The answer is, you can!

The Power of Smartphone Apps

There are a slew of delivery route optimization apps that will help you plan the most efficient routes for your drivers, as well as deeper logistics and delivery apps to help you track every last truck and every last invoice that goes along with it. These apps are much more streamlined than old paper, email, or even SMS solutions, ensuring that drivers will be more likely to engage with them. This will help reduce your chances of organization mishaps, like when a driver doesn’t keep a critical record that’s later needed in an audit.

Delivery route optimization software also often comes with GPS location tracking and geofencing, so you always know where your drivers are and can quickly see how you might need to reroute them when new orders come in, there are last minute changes to customer needs, there’s bad weather to account for, there’s traffic, or there’s an emergency.

For fleet communications, the Zello push-to-talk app helps you convert your drivers’ cell phones to a push to talk walkie talkie, enabling drivers to communicate with dispatch with a push of a button — no more distracting than your average CB radio. In fact, it’s less distracting, as there’s no open channel with chatter from irrelevant conversations. What’s more, the Zello Dispatch Hub places all drivers into a call queue, which all dispatchers can see and answer as they’re available. This ensures that workloads are distributed equally among dispatchers, and that drivers can dial in knowing they will be answered without having to take their eyes off the road to redial. Zello also offers live location mapping and the ability to send urgent text or voice alerts to a channel.

These apps all work together, so when you go with a smartphone solution, you get everything in one device. Apps like Zello can also integrate with IoT and telematics solutions, too, so if you want to work with technology you’ve already invested in, you can. 

That’s in stark contrast to radio dispatch solutions, which offer only the communication aspect, don’t integrate directly with other kinds of software, and require you to invest and maintain towers and expensive radio equipment. 

As long as the driver’s cell phone is placed in a holder and is connected via Bluetooth so that it’s handsfree, you’ll be in compliance with U.S. Department of transportation rules in regards to fleet communications.

Upgrading Communications Tools has Real ROI

The experts agree: smartphone-based solutions are more robust than traditional radio systems. They allow for more efficient communication and better organization, and they’re much more agile in helping you adapt to emergent situations. What’s more, drivers want to use the devices they already know and love. By switching, you may even increase retention too. When it comes to driving and logistics, happy drivers are the key to a healthy business.

To learn more about how you can take advantage of the Zello Dispatch Hub today, click on the link below:

Learn More About Dispatch Hub