Globally, cargo theft is a multibillion-dollar industry. The types of goods stolen cover a wide range from electronics to clothing to tobacco products. The leading target of cargo thieves in North America, today, is food—meat in particular—a commodity that is typically transported by refrigerated trailers. Meat prices, driven upward by U.S. drought conditions in 2012, contributed to increased theft of meat products, a trend that continues.
Yet, as some savvy refrigerated fleet managers are discovering, their trailers’ sophisticated refrigeration-control systems not only enhance the efficiency of delivery operations, but also help solve cases of cargo theft with certain options.
“While refrigeration-control software is designed to enhance system performance and fuel efficiency, some features can also provide a surveillance capability to help in instances of theft,” says Mark Fragnito, electronics product manager for Carrier Transicold. “That capability can aid in investigations and, when combined with telematics, can also provide near-real-time surveillance, potentially stopping thefts from occurring.”
Software applications make it possible to fine-tune refrigeration unit controls for specific cargoes such as perishable fruits and vegetables, packaged frozen goods, meat, poultry or seafood. Variables include tightness of temperature control, air circulation and ventilation. Sensors help the system respond to changes in conditions outside the trailer, and unit-control software provides multiple ways to balance cooling with operational efficiency for improved fuel economy. Fragnito explains that sensors can track other types of trailer activity that may also provide clues in cases of theft.
Two key software applications, each with their own sensors, come into play. One monitors door openings, and the other monitors refrigeration system fuel levels.
“In normal refrigeration unit operation, a door-monitoring program is designed to electronically signal a refrigeration unit shut down or throttle back the refrigeration system when it detects a trailer door opening,” Fragnito says. “The intent is to avoid icing on the refrigeration unit coil. Smart logic used in programs such as Carrier Transicold’s Door Man application can intelligently determine whether outside conditions warrant shutting down the refrigeration system as a precautionary measure.”
The refrigeration unit control can also keep an electronic log of door openings, which is helpful in documenting arrival times and delivery durations. “However, if door openings occur at unexpected times, say in the middle of a delivery route or when the vehicle is parked for a driver rest break, this could be an indication of suspicious activity that requires further investigation,” Fragnito says.
In cases where cargo theft is discovered after the fact, the log of door openings may be correlated with chronological data and, if the vehicle is equipped with telematics, GPS data to determine likely locations where the theft occurred. Just as door-monitoring software may provide clues to cargo theft, fuel-level sensing systems may help detect instances of diesel stolen from the refrigeration unit fuel tank.
“The purpose of the fuel-level sensing systems is to help prevent the refrigeration system’s tank from being completely emptied, so as to maintain protection of cargo inside the trailer and to avoid a situation where air gets drawn into the system fuel lines, resulting in an accidental system shutdown that would require special service attention for restart,” Fragnito says.
Fuel-level monitoring software can alert drivers to a low-fuel condition and can even turn off the refrigeration unit, if the fuel drops to a critical level.
“The software also monitors the rate of fuel consumption, and that may provide added security in other ways,” Fragnito says. For example, if the software records a sudden loss of fuel along a delivery route, it could be an indication of fuel siphoning. Additionally, fuel consumption tracking and fuel-level sensing may provide added verification of when a driver or fueling service fills the refrigeration unit’s tank. This can be reconciled against receipts to ensure accurate billing.
From a security standpoint, door-opening and fuel-level monitoring capabilities become more powerful tools when telematics capability is added. Telematics capability provides near-real-time remote monitoring of the trailer, which can be combined with geotracking, so dispatchers can be alerted to unscheduled door openings or sudden losses of fuel, as well as the time and location where the events occur. Today’s trailer refrigeration systems are powerful and efficient cooling machines made smarter than ever with increased use of microprocessors, sensors and various software that enhances control functionality. When it comes to claims involving theft, a trailer refrigeration system could possibly become a key witness in helping fleets identify when and where goods were stolen or even trigger an alert that may prevent the theft from occurring at all.