Tech on board

March 1, 2012
Technology is enabling on-the-go diagnostics

What could be finer for protecting a fleet's investment in its trucks — not to mention for curbing downtime — than to have a technician ride shotgun in every cab? Wildly impractical in the real world, this scenario is nonetheless entirely possible in the virtual realm, as many fleets have begun to find out.

One of the greatest promises held out by the arrival of vehicle telematics in the trucking industry some years back has been gaining the capability to diagnose a truck's mechanical and electronic problems remotely while it is out on the road hauling freight or working vocationally. Telematics has long been used to provide wireless communications between fleets and their vehicles, but until recently has mainly been limited to real-time communication between driver and dispatcher — not the truck and the fleet, dealer or other maintenance facility.

But now wide-ranging remote diagnostics are a reality and a fleet can access this capability either through a truck OEM or one of several high-tech suppliers. What's more, other truck OEMs either offer some of this capability already and/or are planning to make remote diagnostics available in the near future.

The first truck OEM out of the gate with a complete remote-diagnostics package is Daimler Trucks North America's Freightliner. Dubbed Virtual Technician (VT), it will come standard on all 2012 Freightliners powered by Detroit engines. VT uses hardware — the black box/transmitter — supplied by Zonar as well as a cloud-based computing platform for the system. Zonar also offers a remote-diagnostics product directly to fleets.

VT transmits real-time engine diagnostics with performance indicators to the Detroit business unit's Customer Support Center. The center than communicates to fleet owners any potential performance issues as well as service scheduling based on the data pulled off the truck.

It's that Detroit connection that distinguishes Freightliner's VT offering, according to Tim Tindall, director of sales for Detroit Components. He says “the execution [of the information transmitted] is done by us in-house, using our expertise to interpret and act on the data transmitted from the truck and then communicate what needs to be done to the vehicle owner.”

“Zonar technology allows us to provide a new level of customer service to Freightliner owners,” points out Dave Hames, general manager-marketing & strategy for DTNA. “With Virtual Technician, maintenance and service teams will be solving problems as they occur. Uptime will increase through Virtual Technician's real-time diagnostics and the verification that the right parts needed for the repair are available. Service outlet support will be bolstered with the aid of the Detroit Customer Support Center, due to the electronic reporting, and, best of all, productivity will be increased.”

According to Tindall, VT packages and analyzes diagnostic codes transmitted from the vehicle. The analysis of the codes conducted by the Customer Support Center results in a series of reporting and remedial actions being initiated.

“With Virtual Technician, we have determined that more than 93% of the issues identified by indicator lights are easily correctable and can wait until the best time for the customer to be addressed,” reports Hames. “Virtual technician maximizes uptime by enabling customers to make informed decisions immediately.”


Tindall says downtime is sharply reduced by VT because the system can determine the needed repair procedure so techs can have the parts on hand and any additional information necessary to make the repair quickly and efficiently once the truck arrives at the service point. What's more, when contacted by the Customer Support Center, the fleet is offered a choice of service facilities within range of the vehicle to handle the repair.

“The device recording engine data is running all the time,” Tindall relates. “It keeps the previous 30 seconds and the next 15 seconds surrounding any event off any sensor on the vehicle. The onboard Zonar device transmits the data to our center where our experts perform the diagnosis, going well beyond reading fault codes. It's troubleshooting done by experts who can tell the fleet what the issue is, how crucial it is, and what it will likely take to fix it.”

He relates that the Detroit Customer Service Center gets the ball rolling by sending an email to the fleet about any fault received within two minutes. Faults are categorized as being either in the “service soon” category, meaning the truck can still be driven and the repair scheduled when convenient; or in the “service now” one, meaning the truck may be in danger of shutting down and should be repaired ASAP.

“A second email is sent after we have reviewed the data that includes all the follow-up needed for the fleet to make a decision. We tell them what we think needs to be done and even the parts that may be required as we can see into our dealers' inventories. The email includes a list of four or five dealers the fleet can pick from to handle the repair by proximity to the vehicle.”

All the needed information is then sent on to the dealer selected. “We get the dealer prepped for the vehicle that is coming their way,” says Tindall. He says the upshot of this combination of automation and expertise is that fleets are realizing sharp reductions in repair time at dealerships.”

While VT comes standard on Detroit-powered 2012 Freightliners for the first two years of ownership, the buyer can extend the service by paying an annual fee after that, Tindall notes.

According to Chris Oliver, Zonar's vice president-sales & marketing, the telematic diagnostics solution it sells to fleets, like Freightliner's Virtual Technician, starts with the data pulled off the engine control module (ECM). “We constantly monitor the truck's systems and every fault code thrown by the vehicle is captured in real time, analyzed by our software and categorized by severity before it is transmitted directly to the fleet, which decides the course of action it wishes to take.”


Oliver points out this remote-diagnostics capability is included in Zonar's Ground Traffic Control “all-in-one” service package. “Our approach is to bring all the fault codes forward [to the fleet] but first categorize them through our software. Practically speaking, the fleet gets the same diagnostic information transmitted to it as it would by physically walking up to the truck and connecting it to a laptop equipped with diagnostic software. In addition, the driver can be contacted about any issue in real time.”

Zonar works by selling the complete package to a fleet, which then pays a subscription fee to access the full Ground Traffic Control suite of telematic solutions. According to Oliver, payback is easy to realize: “If the fleet avoids one blown engine, they will have paid for the package.” He adds that Zonar has been in the market with its telematic product for more than three years and “we continue to work on it to stay honed in on users' needs.”

DPL America is another firm selling a remote-diagnostics system directly to fleets. Announced just last month, the capability is part of the company's Titan equipment-monitoring system. Titan provides wireless monitoring and remote tracking of both over-the-road trucks and off- road equipment. The system's features include remote access to and real-time delivery of diagnostic fault codes, fuel consumption, idle vs. work time analysis, engine direct hour meter/odometer readings as well as temperatures and pressures.

Titan “allows managers to wirelessly monitor all assets continually and accurately from a robust, Internet-based software package,” points out Tony Nicoletti, director of sales & business development at DPL America. “Telematics is a powerful tool for effective fleet management; however, unique factory-installed systems and the deluge of CAN bus data end up creating more work for the equipment owner. In the Titan, we have streamlined that process by delivering pertinent fleet-wide information through a single interface and automated reports.

“The concept of diagnosing an asset in the field without having to send a technician is now a reality,” he added.

With enhancements expected to be announced within a year to the MVASIST customer-support solution they share, sister OEMs Mack Trucks and Volvo Trucks North America look likely to become the next truck makers to provide full telematics-based remote diagnostics to fleets. And Navistar's International is also working toward this goal and already offers some remote-diagnostic capability to benefit customers.

“MVASIST started out as a quoting tool,” relates David Pardue, Volvo Trucks vice president for commercial aftermarket. “It developed repair estimates for dealers to present to customers to eliminate surprises at settlement. It evolved from there into a communications tool and we put our own 24/7 breakdown operation, Volvo Action Service, on it as well.

“Now, using MVASIST, customers can directly communicate with service networks,” he continues. “Every repair/event is in the tool and fleets can access it to authorize repair orders and all are kept up-to-date on the status of the truck during repairs. This cuts downtime as there's no longer any need to play phone tag between customer and the dealer — nor are there any surprises for the customer along the way.”

He relates that if a truck is down on the road, the driver may call dispatch or Volvo Action Service, which can initiate the case and direct the driver to the nearest dealer. Or if the customer is on the MVASIST platform, they can initiate the process with the dealer through the system.

“MVASIST is a web-based application, paid for by the customer via subscription, that houses each customer's profile,” notes Pardue. “The customer and dealer can exchange emails or comment using the tool. All the communications about a specific event is contained and easily and quickly accessed.”

While Pardue says that “remote diagnostics is not there right now [as part of MVASIST],” and did not want to comment on when Volvo will incorporate such a feature, he added that MVASIST is already a “game-changer” and is really “about change-management — the customers who are most open to changing how they do business are more receptive to it and some even insist that any dealership working on their trucks only use MVASIST for communications.”

His colleague at sister OEM Mack Trucks, Dave Albert, director of aftermarket solutions, would no doubt agree that MVASIST is a game-changer, but he says Mack projects that remote diagnostics will “eventually” become a feature of the system, “perhaps within the next year.”

The latest news about MVASIST is slated to be introduced at this month's Mid-America Trucking Show in Louisville, KY. There, according to Albert, Mack will roll out its new suite of aftermarket solutions dubbed Pedigree Uptime Protection (PUP), which will in large part be enabled by the rapid communication power of MVASIST. He says the goal of PUP is to clarify Mack's aftermarket parts and service programs, bundle them and then speak more of benefits than of product descriptions to customers.

PUP will include programs fleets can tap for service management, asset protection, parts purchasing and fleet management. He notes that all Macks delivered this year will come with two years of access to MVASIST (which can be increased by paying a subscription fee) as well as roadside assistance. In addition, for a fee, “legacy” vehicles in the fleet can be added to MVASIST.


The OEM is doing this, per Albert, “because MVASIST is a web-based communication platform that puts the fleet, our dealers and Mack's field-service force all on the same page” regarding truck issues. He notes that the ASIST part of the system's name is an acronym for Automated Service Initiated System and says that once a fleet starts using it, managers can see “everything that has happened.”

“The customer's need is to have increased communications with the dealer and us, less downtime and knowing the repair is done right the first time,” Albert continues. “That is what MVASIST and PUP offer.” And, obviously, adding remote diagnostics will be a substantial icing on the cake.

According to Bob Drabellin, International Trucks' director of product sales teams, the OEM does not yet have a wireless telematics-based remote diagnostics system, but “it is something we are looking at and eventually will have.”

Drabellin relates that the Diamond Logic Builder software the OEM provides for purchase may not be telematics but it can be used for full diagnostics of the electrical system while its ServiceMax engine software has diagnostic capabilities for its proprietary engines.

“Diamond Logic Builder uses software to diagnose electrical problems, either in the shop or by sending a tech with a laptop to the truck,” he points out. “And most OEMs would agree that the electrical system is one of the biggest problem areas on any truck, and 80% of it is in the diagnosis of the faults. Our system helps techs narrow things down, which reduces downtime.”

So any fleet willing to invest in a fleet-management system that comes complete with remote-diagnostics capability or which buys certain new trucks or perhaps will pick from a wider choice of such trucks by sometime next year will indeed find they have a tech, albeit a virtual one, riding shotgun in every one of their cabs.

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