If you think the world is moving fast now, just wait. Imagine a business environment where information flows in an unending stream from billions of remote inputs and all decisions and actions are made instantly as needed. M2M - which is shorthand for machine-to-machine communications - promises just such an environment, and that has the potential to radically change fleet operations and the trucks they run.
In fact, while the implications of M2M are far broader than a single industry, trucking is already well on its way to embracing this technology and could be among the earliest adopters. If and when it does, trucking will be transformed into a completely decentralized business operating in real-time with little or no division between managers, employees, customers and other stakeholders. That could be an overwhelming prospect, but it could also be an exciting opportunity for those up to the challenge.
So what is M2M? In the narrowest sense used by computer scientists, it's an interface that allows data to be exchanged between different computer platforms and operating systems without human translation. If you use XML or a web service to move data between various networks, you're using M2M.
As simple as that may seem, the implications are profound, according to William Halal, professor of science, technology and innovation at George Washington University School of Business. “I think of it as the e-organization where all the stakeholders are connected in real-time by a fully automated network,” he says. “Managers will make real-time decisions based on real-time information, which will drive a lot of other changes.
“The speed [of the e-organization] will have a profound impact,” he says. “It will drive decentralization because you won't be able to micromanage in real-time. You have to relinquish routine controls to machines and exceptions will be dealt with by self-managed units because it will just be too complex to control in the ordinary sense of the word. You become part of your customers' organizations and they become part of yours.”
The military is a good example of an organization being transformed by M2M. “Network-centric warfare relies on automated battlefields with sensors feeding [the network] from around the world,” Halal says. “The U.S. military plans on automating one-third of its equipment within 10 years.”
Trucking is also considered an M2M frontrunner because it's been so quick to see the value in telematics, which is really a subset of M2M with mobile assets collecting data from various smart controllers and sensors for wireless transfer to central management systems.
The industry already has all the components for M2M in place, says Anders Franzen, Sony Ericsson corporate vp for M2M. Trucking has a wide variety of devices, including those made by Sony Ericsson, available for collecting and transmitting vehicle data, and wireless data networks with reasonable terms and costs are well established, he says. Applications to use that data are also evolving rapidly.
Sensors to automatically capture remote data are the final necessary M2M component, Franzen says. The CAN data bus found on most trucks and light vehicles has fostered development of sensors because it makes it fairly simple for transmitting devices to capture data from those sensors, he points out.
With the pieces in place, M2M growth in commercial vehicle operations is now being driven in Europe and North America by both regulation and business needs. “A number of European countries are already using [M2M] to collect road-use taxes that are based on actual distance traveled and weight carried by individual vehicles,” Franzen says. Hazardous-goods tracking and restrictions are other possible regulatory applications for the automation offered by M2M.
“But the current business climate and the constant need for productivity improvements are also important [growth drivers] because that offers a quick way to repay the cost of installing these systems,” he says.
Initially fleets in North America have been attracted to automated M2M by a simple application — location monitoring. “A GPS receiver is really a sensor, one that provides accurate location data,” says Joe Jesson, chief technologist for GE Equipment Services' Asset Intelligence Business Unit. “That one sensor changed dumb assets into intelligent ones, which is what began the growth in this market.
“But what's been fascinating is how quickly some have moved beyond simple location,” Jesson says. “Now they're thinking beyond location and adding other sensors. Fleets now see value in knowing if a trailer door opens, or if there's cargo in there, or how many hours a refrigeration unit has run. The largest fleets, for example, are moving quickly to cargo sensors because they see real, serious dollar savings in having that information automatically and in real-time.
“The model of knowing [this kind of information] changes the whole picture,” says Jesson. “It can bring huge changes to business processes and makes dynamic decisions possible that allow fleets to take advantage of temporary opportunities.”
For example, geofencing can automatically alert a network when a driver arrives at customer location or freight yard. The system can then assign a trailer on the spot based on a variety of parameters that might include the driver's available hours, the promised deliver schedule, the fleet's overall available equipment pool and other productivity related factors.
“And the trailer picks up the tractor's ID [from the PCL4 data network] and transmits it wirelessly so the system can check that the driver has grabbed the right trailer,” says Jesson. “Making that match in an M2M environment is a dynamic decision with huge productivity implications.”
Like Halal, Jesson also sees M2M changing the relationship between service providers like carriers and customers. One simple example is another GE business that makes plastics. Customers store a variety of those materials in individual sensors, which are now fitted with sensors to monitor product levels. When levels drop below a pre-determined level, the sensors automatically relay an order to a GE website over a wireless network. The order is transferred to GE's plastic manufacturing plant and then shipped to the silo, all with “little, in any, human intervention,” says Jesson.
“If you look at the entire supply chain, M2M gives you a major opportunity to compress and flatten it,” he adds. “And that's why we see the more mature carriers looking beyond simple location now and focusing on new types of sensors.”
M2M not only affects a fleet's business processes, but also promises major changes in how it manages and maintains its trucks. “Although it's still in the early stages, we see huge benefit in taking human intervention out of maintenance tracking and basing it on actual vehicle conditions,” says Mark Schumacher, International Truck and Engine Corp.'s marketing manager for truck electronics.
With sophisticated electronic controls already generating large amounts of data about the actual operating status of engines and other vehicle components and accessories, providing remote access to that data provides real-time “visibility into a vehicle's health, adds Cortney Guzlas, International's manager of strategic planning for truck electronics.
Letting applications sort the data not only gives fleets warning of critical problems, but also lets the system handle routine chores like automatically scheduling preventive maintenance based on actual vehicle usage rather than general mileage or hour thresholds. The result, says Guzlas, is that fleets only pull equipment out of service when absolutely necessary.
Since M2M is platform- and OS-independent, it works well in a web-based solution like International's newly launched Aware Vehicle Intelligence service. “That not only makes it easier for large fleets to integrate [the remote data] with back office applications, but also means smaller fleets without those sophisticated systems can see the same productivity and maintenance improvements,” says Guzlas.
The web application also removes external barriers for movement of the M2M data. Private fleets that rely on dealers for maintenance, for example, can have the appropriate data automatically fed to dealer systems, which can then handle maintenance scheduling and tracking, explains Schumacher. “The dealer can even order parts ahead of time to minimize shop time,” he says.
While each fleet in the International system “owns” the operational and location data for its individual vehicles, the truck maker can also use all aggregated information collected over the web-based network to help it identify problems or trends with various components so they can be addressed quickly.
Ultimately the goal is to use that aggregated data to develop true prognostic systems. “That will be a paradigm shift for fleet operations,” says Schumacher, “Vehicles will be able to predict their own failures so they can be fixed before there's a problem.”
“For a majority of fleets, private or for-hire, operations and location are not the sole critical points” for adopting M2M systems, adds Guzlas. “Vehicle health is going to be an important part of the trend.”
“I think it's clear that the (M2M) fully automated network is the next big development, what IBM is calling end-to-end integration,” says GWU's Halal. “In some sense, it's frightening to lose control, and it could be overwhelming to some because nothing is going to be excluded from this network. Everything is going to become intelligent.”
The question for trucking is, can the industry find intelligent ways to use this powerful new technology, or will it be among the overwhelmed? The early evidence says many fleets are already taking the first steps to exploit that power as they get ready for a world that continues gathering speed.
Think-tank for tracking technology
“There are often problems with new technology that we don't anticipate, like spam with email,” says George Halal, professor of science, technology and innovation at the George Washington University School of Business. “So I'm sure we're in for some real surprises as the world becomes one big interactive information system.”
To help businesses cope with those unanticipated problems, as well as quickly developing opportunities, Halal has just launched a web site that he calls “a virtual think-tank for tracking the technology revolution.”
The site, techcast.org, was still in beta testing at press time, but Halal expects it to be up and running by mid Summer. Discussions, forecasts, news and links to new research will all be part of TechCast, he says, making it a useful tool for avoiding at least some of those surprises.