The next step in diagnostics

The first remote diagnostic systems are just about hereThe initial leap to electronic diagnostics for truck engines and other components was a large one, transforming fleet shops and their technicians. The next step - allowing technicians to remotely run and analyze diagnostic routines - will be much smaller from a technological point of view. For fleets, however, remote diagnostics are going to bring

The first remote diagnostic systems are just about here

The initial leap to electronic diagnostics for truck engines and other components was a large one, transforming fleet shops and their technicians. The next step - allowing technicians to remotely run and analyze diagnostic routines - will be much smaller from a technological point of view. For fleets, however, remote diagnostics are going to bring potential productivity gains and corresponding changes in shop operations that will be almost as revolutionary as that first move to electronic tools.

While truck and engine makers don't want to tip their hands yet, it's also clear that remote diagnostic systems will be introduced in at least introductory forms before the year is out. While none are ready to talk about those systems in any detail, a few are willing to offer "theoretical" opinions on how those systems could be used by fleets and what they could mean for the future of truck maintenance.

Remote diagnostics actually involves two different types of systems. The first builds on current wireless systems that pick up fault codes from a vehicle's data bus and send them along to the fleet. With true remote diagnostics, this will be a two-way street, with fleet technicians able to actually run diagnostic routines on a vehicle over its wireless communications system.

The second type is shop based. A fleet technician running a diagnostic routine would be able to link the vehicle to an OEM or component supplier's technical staff via the Internet or other online connection. The support staff could then guide the fleet technician through the diagnostic procedure or actually run a diagnostic routine using software that might not be available at the fleet shop.

While wireless diagnostics still have some technological hurdles to overcome, the shop-based systems are feasible with current technology. In fact, a group of Cummins distributors in Michigan have already set up a remote system using off-the-shelf software and Cummins' Insite diagnostic products.

Instead of buying the Insite software and training their technicians to use it, fleets and truck dealerships pay the group a monthly subscription fee. When they need diagnostic services, a fleet technician hooks up the vehicle to a PC through the data bus and dials up the remote diagnostic service. Once connected, technicians with expertise in electronic engine diagnostics can run the proper routines in real-time, taking the fleet technician through the proper repair step by step. The distributors' service bureau can also recalibrate engine power output over the remote system, and will soon even begin issuing warranty authorizations based on the remote diagnosis. (For more details, see FO-11/99, p. 104.)

Think of it as a logical extension of a help desk, says Don Banks, Cummins' sales and marketing manager for information products. "It allows you to extend the skills of expert technicians out to fleet locations for world class customer support," he says. Given the state-of-the-art electronics on trucks today, fleets will increasingly come to rely on alternatives like this to get access to the PC-literate technicians they need, Banks contends.

"Our vision is a call center that's capable of taking remote control of a shop's diagnostic tool so we can actually get the design engineers involved in solving a problem," offers Ted Scherzinger, senior engineering technologist for Kenworth Truck's advanced concepts group. Such real-time troubleshooting, he adds, could be as valuable to the engineers that designed a system as it is to a fleet technician trying to solve an immediate problem.

Fleet interest in bringing online expertise to the shop is high, according to Guy Rini, Mack Trucks' chief engineer for electronic control and management products. "It could be remote access to the experiences of other shops as well as OEMs and suppliers," says Rini. "We issue service bulletins based on shop experience repeatedly turning up a problem. Why couldn't (a remote diagnostic system) also function as an electronic bulletin board to shorten that process?"

In truth, truck engineers have been looking at remote diagnostic technology for some time. Eight years ago, Cummins engineers remotely calibrated an engine over the telephone "just to show that it could be done," says Banks. "But no one was ready or asking us to do it at that time."

The difference today is the Internet. "Now we can leverage the Internet and other related communications networks that have developed in the last few years to provide remote service cost-effectively," says Carlo Nardini, director of operations support at Freightliner Corp.'s customer support division. "The Internet finally makes it economically viable."

Remote diagnostics for trucks on the road would close what Nardini sees as "a triangle that includes the fleet shop, the OEM, and the truck." Intelligent gateways like the Truck PC now being jointly developed by Freightliner and Eaton would allow "the truck to be much more involved in monitoring its own health," he says. "That gives us the opportunity to get information off-board via a wireless system."

While the technology exists today that might allow a remote technician to perform full diagnostic routines while a truck is on the road, it's still some years away from becoming a practical application. Getting fault codes from a vehicle only involves small amounts of data, but running meaningful diagnostic routines requires another level of information in order to determine why the fault code was generated and what it really means.

"Monitoring horsepower or rpms, for example, involves lots of data," says Dan Farmer, assistant engineer for advanced technology at Kenworth. "You need that additional level of information if you're going to make a critical decision whether to stop a truck for repairs, but getting large amounts of data off the truck remotely in real-time is still difficult and expensive."

While remote shop access to diagnostic expertise is likely to be here within the year, the consensus is that "on-the-road" diagnostics are probably three to five years away. As truck and engine design teams work on the next generation of service systems, "these types of advancements are priorities," says Banks. "The technology (for remote diagnostics) is here. What we're really talking about is developing the processes and systems that will make it practical."

And when it's made practical, "we can bring the fleet and the vehicle into an integrated information loop that also includes the OEM," says Nardini. "Once we h ave that triangle, we'll be able to leverage our combined resources to do a better, more efficient job of diagnosis."

The list of innovations incorporated in the new Rodi Power System HT1-450 4-cyl. heavy-duty diesel engine is a long one. One that might slip by unnoticed as people focus on features such as solid-state fuel injectors and a "power head" that can be replaced in under four hours is a cellular data modem built into the engine's electronic control unit.

The modem will be used to automatically notify Rodi technicians if the ECU detects a problem, according to the company. Once the technicians remotely diagnose the problem, they can direct the driver to the nearest service center, or attempt to fix the problem on the fly.

For example, if the ECU detects a clogged fuel injector, the engine would contact the Rodi service center without any input from the driver. The technician could then adjust the fuel flow to the engine's other three cylinders, allowing the driver to complete an on-time delivery.

Rodi says it expects to begin limited production of its unique engine by the beginning of next year, and already has a significant waiting list numbering in the thousands.

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