Tracking built in

Jan. 1, 2007
When you ask trailer makers about the process of integrating tracking technology with the trailer chassis at the production level, you get a simple four-word response: It's one big hassle.

When you ask trailer makers about the process of integrating tracking technology with the trailer chassis at the production level, you get a simple four-word response: It's one big hassle. “Some are easier to install than others, but what's difficult is that …no two are installed the same way,” says Mark Roush, director of engineering for Vanguard National Trailer Corp.

According to Roush, the solar- or battery-powered units are the easiest to install. However, those equipped with wiring harnesses, which enable them to draw power when the trailer is hooked up to the tractor, are another story. “You can short out the trailer's entire electrical system if you install that wiring harness the wrong way. In addition, some don't use the color-coded wiring we manufacturers use, or use it in the wrong manner.”

Lack of standardization is a major concern for trailer makers because it means every tracking-system installation they do becomes a custom job, fraught with too many variables.

Rod Erlich, chief technology officer for Wabash National, cites trailer-wiring harnesses as one example. Unlike Class 8 tractor wiring-designed with plug-and-play capability, so adding tracking devices and other electronics is relatively easy-trailer wiring is much more basic, requiring more work and wire splicing to add additional technology.

Another problem is that antennae must be installed on the leading edge of the trailer nose or right onto the roof, leaving them exposed to damage. This is not the case for tractors, where there are protective locations for the tracking systems, Erlich adds.

Tracking-system makers themselves recognize that there are installation challenges. “What's difficult to manage are the basic system differences,” says Norm Ellis, vp and gm for Qualcomm Wireless Business Solutions. “Some, like ours, use satellite communications, while others use terrestrial or cellular transmission. Some use wiring harnesses, while others are strictly battery powered. Some offer just trailer location capability, while others offer cargo sensors to monitor door openings and closings, meaning extra wiring and components. Even the final location of the device can vary.”

Vanguard's Roush points out that installing tracking technology — much less activating it — isn't a trailer-maker specialty.

“Some of these battery-powered systems automatically start looking for a satellite the minute they're turned on; if they're still in the factory and can't ‘see’ one, it can produce an error code and shut the system down,” Roush explains. At this point, trailer makers have to go back to the manufacturers of the tracking devices for help in restarting the system. “There's always a potential for problems because …there's no standard procedure for us to use,” he adds.


Yet trailer makers really have no choice about whether or not to get into the business of installing trailer-tracking devices now that fleets have discovered how quickly the new technology can help their bottom line.

“Basically, when you get the tracking technology installed while the trailer is being built, you can hit the ground running with it,” explains Mike Kelley, director of information technology at Mesilla Valley Transportation. “All we have to do is activate the system and find a load for it. We don't have to deadhead that trailer…to our main terminal for the tracking system to be installed and turned on. It's literally ready to go when the decals are dry.”

Fleets also like the fact that installation at the factory means the cost of the tracking system is rolled into the cost of the trailer. “Our CFO loves this. It's one less item in the budget he needs to track and one less physical asset that needs to be depreciated,” Kelley says.

At this point, trailer makers are focused on finding the easiest way to install tracking devices without comprising the durability of the trailer or the tracking technology, says Rick Mullininx, vp-engineering for Great Dane Trailers.

“We prefer that trailer-tracking installations be done at the branch or dealership level because they require customization and prep time based on the system specified,” he explains.

“Some systems are relatively easy to install, whereas others are more complex. We would prefer all installations to require minimal modifications to the trailer,” Mullininx continues. “In our opinion, the more trailer modifications required, the more potential for problems in the future.”

According to Qualcomm's Ellis, tracking-system manufacturers are trying to develop ways to address those concerns. One possibility is to “collaborate with other tracking providers to develop standardized wiring for power and grounds,” he says.


Todd Felker, vp-marketing and product development for Terion, notes that developing a universal mounting bracket for trailer-tracking hardware could be another area of standardization.

Everyone agrees that installing the systems as the trailers are being built is the best option for fleets. “They don't want to track down their new trailers after they're built to install tracking technology; that only adds cost and increases asset downtime,” points out Felker.

SkyBitz, whose battery-powered system is easy to install, is very much aware that for fleets, time is money. The company formed a partnership with TravelCenters of America (TA) that allows the truckstop chain to sell and replace SkyBitz batteries at 143 of the TA locations that offer maintenance services. “Even though our batteries only need to be changed once every few years, we learned that our customers wanted a convenient, on-the-road solution,” says Roni Taylor, executive vp.

According to Taylor, the internal battery can power the Skybitz's trailer-tracking system for up to four years, depending on the amount of data transmission. Through the partnership with TA, however, Skybitz customers that want to increase transmission frequency have the option of purchasing an external battery pack that will last for seven years.


Another big deal for fleets is that they can get a “cosmetically cleaner” look by getting their trailer-tracking units installed at the factory, says Qualcomm's Ellis. “Not only does it help reduce the blemishes that can happen with retrofits, it helps improve the [tracking system's] durability,” he says. This benefit is second only to the fact that factory installation is always lower than a retrofit.

Ellis points out that it in the future, integration at the factory will be about more than saving money and doing it neatly. It will also be about getting them hooked up to different components, such as ABS, so fleets can increase the amount of data they can glean from their tractor-trailers as complete units.

“They'll want to know if there's a tire inflation problem, a braking system issue, etc.,” he notes. “Getting to that kind data and making money-saving decisions with it is why integration efforts will only increase.”

One thing is certain: The market for electronic trailer-tracking hardware and services is going to boom. “In North America, the percentage of trailers with tracking systems on them will more than triple” over the next decade, says Steve Bae, analyst for ABI Research.

Bae cites several factors behind this growth. “Trailer-tracking hardware costs have fallen significantly, while products and services have become more sophisticated,” he explains. “Customers are more aware of the technologies and many see electronic tracking as an efficient solution to maximize productivity of trailers and resources.”


With more fleets requesting tracking-system integration from the start, trailer makers and tracking-system providers are looking for ways to make this happen.

One area that is especially challenging involves flatbeds. The tracking-system devices can't be mounted on top of the flatbeds since that's where the cargo has to go.

Consequently, the units have to be mounted under the chassis, which can be problematic because in this location the “line of sight” needed for satellite transmissions could be obscured and cellphone signals could be blocked. In addition, when the tracking devices are place under the chassis they are much more susceptible to damage from road debris.

Wabash is trying to standardize installation by developing its own wiring harness. According to Erlich, the “Wabash Preferred tracking system wiring harness will enable them to safely integrate these devices into our trailer wiring.” He estimates that the trailer maker is “about a year away” from making this happen.”

Wabash would ultimately like to be able to provide complete “turn-key” service for trailer-tracking systems: installation, activation, authentication — regardless of the technology's make and model. Erlich points out that sometimes trailers have to wait a few extra days for the tracking device to be activated. “Do you really want a $20,000 asset to sit in a yard a few extra days?” he asks.

Thinking even further outside the box, Vanguard's Roush sees the possibility of trailer OEMs making tracking devices standard components. “It would be like GM's OnStar mobile communications system,” he says. “It's built into the vehicle whether you use it or not. If the customer decides at some point they'd like to use it, the tracking service gets activated. If not, it stays dormant. It's as simple as that.”

Reading reefers

Fleets that run refrigerated trailers have very specific information needs, including data about how their reefer units are performing, as well as the ability to change parameters while on the road and in real-time, says Ignacio Aguerrevere, director of marketing for Carrier Transicold.

According to Aguerrevere, during the past five or six years there's been considerable growth in what telematics can do to enhance two-way communication between fleet managers and reefers units.

Although technology is available, cost is still a stumbling block for many fleets. “The microprocessor we have in our reefers can easily be linked to today's telematics systems,” says Aguerrevere. “The question is, do fleets want to pay for that capability or not?”

At the same time, companies that develop tracking systems are also working to perfect the link between their technology and trailer refrigeration units. Terion's FleetView 3R, for example, monitors the operation of Carrier and Thermo King units, as well as their temperature settings, in addition to tracking the trailers themselves.

“Reefer temperature and set points are recorded with all event data and reported via digital wireless data connection to our web-based trailer fleet management tool,” says Todd Felker, Terion's vp-marketing. “Up to 16 active fault codes are reported with each event; we can also store temperature logs and transmit the data to validate temperature history.”

Thermo King's R-Com wireless data recording system can be up-linked via a telematics system to its Windows-based Wintrac 4 software for analysis of data downloaded from its reefers. This allows for quick identification of files with specific alarms or out-of-range sensors, which enhances troubleshooting.

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