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Diagnostic tools: All makes vs. proprietary

Dec. 9, 2013
Some believe the industry will never see just one tool

Maintenance in the trucking industry used to be a relatively simple discipline, one based on mechanical know-how married to manual dexterity for turning wrenches and replacing components.  But with the continuing integration of electronics to control and optimize everything from fuel economy to driver comforts, computer-based diagnostics have become de rigueur within the industry to the point where the job title “mechanic” is rapidly being replaced by “technician” in the maintenance lexicon.

“The days of the ole shade tree are approaching an end as technicians are forced to be computer literate, and most have to interface daily with some sort of electronic device to perform their jobs,” explains Allen Caldwell, manager of maintenance technology for trucking conglomerate First Fleet and chairman of  Technology & Maintenance Council’s S.12 Study Group.

“Technicians are now entering the realm of almost a surgeon or doctor.  Although it may not require a college degree, the amount of training and the skills employed by technicians deem them special in their own right,” he points out.  “If you can find a technician with an information technology or ‘geek’ background, it is most certainly more of a win than a guy who can swing a clutch in four hours.  We have guys who can fix any issue, but they have to be able to troubleshoot and find the cause, or you have to have techs on staff who can troubleshoot and defer to them for the repairs.”

That shift is having a profound effect on the design and capability of diagnostic tools, which includes a bevy of hardware and software products, and also the kind of data those tools will be privy to now and in the near future.
“The big trick is how to provide the right diagnostic information to the customer and who should provide it,” says Michael Riemer, vice president of products and channel marketing for Decisiv.  “Also, what issues do multiple portals of diagnostic information have on a fleet?”

Riemer says there are two paths for diagnostic tools going forward: Are they more open or more proprietary?  Open tools will interpret a wide assortment of maintenance data regardless of the make and model of a particular truck or trailer.  Conversely, if OEMs restrict access to information, customers will be forced to rely on proprietary tools.

“For the technology support professionals [TSPs], it is a good news/bad news story,” Riemer believes.  “The OEM-installed devices have more sensors, capabilities and more details than a general J-Bus compliant tool and therefore can be used for deeper and better diagnostics.  TSPs then get the location and meter data without the hardware costs so long as the OEMs do it at a reasonable price.”

First Fleet’s Caldwell notes that some carriers are seeking more open tools as they are useful for service bay or quick “in-and-out” maintenance checks to retrieve basic fault codes.  One note of caution, though, is that since they are generic tools, they lack “test and detail diagnostic or fault tracing information,” he says.  “Since everything is on such a proprietary course, it is hard to replace the capabilities of OEM software.”

Yet others, such as Greg Reimmuth, vice president-sales and marketing for Noregon Systems, believes a far more symbiotic relationship is developing between open and proprietary tools—one that will only increase the need for both types.

“It’s not really a battle between the two platforms that’s developing; it’s really more of a process issue,” he explains.  “There’s actually too much proprietary data for one tool to handle, so the question really centers on using an open or generic tool as a triage device on the front end of the repair process.  Based on that initial diagnosis, the more detailed OEM software can then be brought to bear.”

“So long as the OEMs make the information available in a standard web services format, the fact that they are analyzing proprietary data should not really matter,” adds Decisiv’s Riemer.  “In the end, the fleet wants to know what is wrong.  In other words, don’t focus on the proprietary methods of collecting data, but let’s make sure that the OEMs make the right information available to fleets and their service providers in an open format.”

Code overload

For some of the same reasons, Noregon’s Reimmuth also thinks that the initial steps OEMs are taking in the direction of remote diagnostics won’t alter the need for diagnostic tools either.  “There are just so many codes now. Every electronically controlled component on a truck is experiencing exponential growth in codes,” he says.
For example, a 2003-model Detroit Series 60 engine has between 400 and 500 diagnostic codes, but the post-2010 DD15 model has about 2,800 codes.  Reimmuth explains that there are some 20,000 diagnostic codes for Class 7 and 8 trucks that fleets must manage; add in medium-duty trucks and you’re looking at over 35,000 codes.

“Again, it’s about the process,” he says.  “That much diagnostic data flow from a truck would simply overwhelm the available bandwidth in terms of a remote diagnostic system.”

Therefore, remote reporting should be limited to vital codes, experts say.  This will leave a more thorough diagnostic overview of the truck by the time it reaches the shop.

Volvo Trucks followed that same logic when it designed its remote diagnostics system, deliberately filtering out non-essential codes so only critical data would be forwarded to its Uptime Center, customers and dealers. Conal Deedy, Volvo’s product manager of communications and electronics, explains that’s because initial tests of the remote diagnostics system produced too much information.  OEMs, dealers and customers were constantly getting pinged about such mundane items as loose headlight wires and low washer fluid level.

Navistar is taking a similar approach with its new OnCommand Connection system scheduled to be rolled out in January.  In Navistar’s system, a single remote diagnostics portal based on an open-architecture system allows direct interfaces with existing telematics providers.

“As more fleets embrace mobile telematics, drivers and fleet managers increasingly want comprehensive, all-in-one systems that incorporate the best and most essential tools for trucking intelligence,” notes Brendan Reidy, president, COO and chief technology officer for XRS Corp., which helped design the system.  “An open-architecture system gives customers a new level of compatibility that will improve performance and efficiency while making our industry safer and more productive than ever before.”

Health status

Nadine Haupt, director of powertrain product marketing for Navistar, says that Environmental Protection Agency regulations and onboard diagnostic (OBD) compliance requirements are creating an unusually large number of fault codes, making diagnostics complex for drivers and fleet managers.

As a possible solution to this problem, the OEM’s OnCommand Connection is designed to decode and communicate each fault code’s level of severity in real time and then determine an appropriate action.  The goal is to use diagnostic data to create simplified vehicle health reports that lead to quicker repairs, better controlled maintenance procedures,  and more predictable costs.

“By partnering with our customers’ existing telematics providers, we can pull diagnostics-related data and create easy-to-understand vehicle health reports,” Haupt explains.  “The visibility into the operational health of the vehicle empowers customers to understand the severity of vehicle issues and determine the appropriate actions, ultimately leading to increased uptime.”

Tom Dorazio, senior product manager at PeopleNet, says the real benefit of remote diagnostics, then, is not as a replacement for traditional shop-bound diagnostic tools but to obtain critical diagnostic data faster so as to reduce or even eliminate unexpected downtime for repairs.

“It’s also about opening up and engaging expertise beyond just fleet maintenance personnel,” he explains.  “That’s the real change factor here: bringing OEM, dealer, and fleet expertise together in real time, not only for diagnosis but to schedule appointments and call ahead for parts.  It’s all about reducing that vehicle downtime.”

That’s also related to another piece of the diagnostic tool puzzle: the connection of fleets, dealers, maintenance shops, software providers, and OEMs in real-time through the cloud.

“The major benefits of the cloud are no different than other mainstream industries, in that the cloud offers mainstream scalability and better economics.  This allows solution providers to offer their products and services at lower costs and/or increase margin,” explains Christian Schenk, senior vice president of product strategy & market growth at XRS.  “Cloud computing has come a long way in the sense of both security and performance, hence, its mainstream adoption over the last two years.

In the cloud

The cloud influence is becoming evident in the software of certain OEM vehicle manufacturers, points out First Fleet’s Caldwell.  “Advanced diagnostic and troubleshooting information is accessed remotely and thus lightening the footprint of locally installed software,” he says.  “This creates a new phase of no longer having stand-alone tools per se.  Fleets and dealers alike now have to implement networking and Internet access to machines.  The major caveat is that when you are offline, some features of the software may not be available.  In our fleet, we have had to send techs out with [mobile WiFi devices] if network access is not available.”

“In our experience, the diagnostic tools mostly operate independently of the cloud, but the symptom is retained in the cloud and can be beneficial for the technician to help diagnose the cause of the failure quickly,” says Mark Lange, maintenance services specialist at GE Capital Fleet Services.  “The cloud does make it easier to reference the data on a vehicle as you have real-time access to it.  One of the largest benefits of using the cloud is vehicle downtime reduction.  Driver reassurance, perceived safety increase, and an ability to potentially diagnose a vehicle before being received at a repair facility [are other benefits].”

As the  use and capabilities of diagnostic tools grow, the question becomes how to use all that data, especially in terms of benchmarking strategies.

“This is a veritable gold mine just waiting to be addressed,” says First Fleet’s Caldwell.  “Fleets can use the data to implement predictive and preventive maintenance. Some fleets download information each time they see a unit, and this data can be aggregated and used to show trends, identify upcoming issues, and also to council drivers for more efficient equipment operation.  This is a growing trend with OBD on the front end, as OEMs are now making more proprietary information available on the data bus,” Caldwell says.

Decisiv’s Riemer thinks industry benchmarking would be good, but the level of detail might “scare the daylights” out of the OEMs.  “On the other hand, there are solutions out there that have the ability to provide fleets with this type of data,” he explains.  “We are definitely looking at analytics and benchmarking tools but not to pit OEM vs. OEM, but rather to give fleets the ability to make the best maintenance, purchase and lease decisions possible.”

Riemer believes this trend will be pursued, as the next generation of workers are already highly computer savvy, so such data strategies aren’t a big jump.  “I believe this generation of technicians will embrace and almost demand this type of technology because it demonstrates a vision of the future and may actually help recruit technicians,” he says.

About the Author

Sean Kilcarr | Editor in Chief

Sean previously reported and commented on trends affecting the many different strata of the trucking industry. Also be sure to visit Sean's blog Trucks at Work where he offers analysis on a variety of different topics inside the trucking industry.

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