Advancing diagnostics

March 1, 2011
Picture a commercial truck capable of diagnosing itself and reporting its findings in real-time to a fleet's maintenance operation. This may not seem too far a stretch for many trucking companies as some of this functionality is already available to carriers today. Yet the effort to achieve what's coming to be known as condition-based maintenance, or CBM for short, goes beyond merely reporting engine

Picture a commercial truck capable of diagnosing itself and reporting its findings in real-time to a fleet's maintenance operation. This may not seem too far a stretch for many trucking companies as some of this functionality is already available to carriers today. Yet the effort to achieve what's coming to be known as “condition-based maintenance,” or CBM for short, goes beyond merely reporting engine fault codes via wireless data transmission networks.

It's about tailoring maintenance parameters to the specific operating characteristics of individual trucks. The idea is to use the vast array of data generated and recorded by the plethora of sensors loaded onto today's commercial vehicles. These include everything from engine control modules (ECUs) to transmissions, even brakes and potentially wheel hubs, based on the electronics interwoven into them thanks to electronic stability control (ESC) systems.

Oil-change intervals would be established on a truck-by-truck basis, based on what each engine is recording in terms of workload — with a similar process taking place for engine coolant, transmission fluid, and possibly other lubricants. Braking systems might be able to report pad and rotor wear so brake service is only performed when needed.

Perhaps most critically, CBM systems could also help provide real-time analysis of diagnostic trouble codes (DTCs) to determine whether a particular problem requires immediate service.

“Working with data delivered directly from our customers' vehicles, instead of basing maintenance on given or recommended intervals, will allow us to develop customer-specific service schedules,” explains David McKenna, director of powertrain sales & marketing for Mack Trucks. “[Adding that information] to web-based programs that can retrieve and store data from the trucks makes condition-based maintenance very easy and accessible.”

“There are systems out there with telematics that broadcast in real-time the functional condition of vehicle/engine via satellite,” notes Steve Ostarello, vice president-powertrain product development for Navistar. “If there are issues, they will provide immediate diagnostics and allow coordination of service location, parts, and required repairs that best fit the condition and situation. This means the least amount of downtime or disruption to the mission of the vehicle.”

But make no mistake, achieving CBM is far from simple. In some cases, OEMs themselves are not seeing much demand from fleets for this type of technology.

“There are definitely technologies we now have in place on trucks that can enable portions of a system like this, such as the new SmartNav product we've designed with Sprint,” explains Landon Sproull, chief engineer for Peterbilt Motors Co.

To be launched later this year, SmartNav, called NavPlus when installed on Kenworth Truck Co. models, becomes a standard feature on all premium interior trim offerings and for diesel-electric hybrid vehicles for both brands.

“We have the ability now to monitor the vehicle in ways we didn't before and to collect new and more detailed amounts of information. Technology like this gives us a blank canvas, if you will, to potentially do many things,” Sproull adds. “But in the end, what we put on that canvas must be customer-driven; they will tell us what we need to provide to them. Right now, I'm not sensing any demand to put something like this together; it's a vision of the future.”


Sproull stresses that the concept of monitoring a truck and broadcasting its performance in real-time is something vehicles can do today. The tricky part is establishing a true predictive maintenance system, one where the truck itself indicates what needs fixing.

Sprint CEO Dan Hesse, though, believes putting such computing power onboard commercial vehicles and then providing wireless connections to it and the outside world opens up all sorts of time- and money-saving opportunities for motor carriers.

“The future of the wireless industry is going to be about more than cell phones. It's going to be about wirelessly connecting machines to other machines,” Hesse stressed in a speech to the Detroit Economic Club in January of this year. “The number of machine-to-machine devices is expected to reach 2.1 billion in 2020, driven by industries such as utilities, healthcare and transportation.”

Fostering such machine-to-machine connections is central to Sprint's “Connected Transportation” initiative. This new strategic effort aims to use wireless technology in all vehicles to provide a wide range of environmental, safety and operational efficiencies. “It's about providing connected transportation to trucks, buses, subways, taxis, planes, police cars and ambulances, so that they can be instantly linked through voice, data and images,” Hesse explains.

Other industry suppliers are already hard at work crafting the foundation for what could eventually become full-fledged CBM programs. For example, Mitchell 1 has combined its Repair-Connect web-based diagnostic trouble code analysis program with Zonar System's Ground Traffic Control communication network to create what's being called Zonar Rx. This system will communicate trouble codes from an engine ECM and at the same time provide service information required to diagnose and repair the problem.

“Our system is a way for technicians to determine instantly whether an engine DTC is catastrophic in nature, requiring immediate attention, or a run-of-the-mill code that doesn't demand immediate service,” explains Dave Costantino, Mitchell 1's commercial vehicle group director.

The way Zonar Rx works, explains Mike McQuade, Zonar's chief technology officer, is that the codes are captured via a special telematics device while the truck is fueling. The system uses the new Z-Con technology package, created between Transportation Clearing House (TCH) and Zonar to authorize fuel pump transactions while eliminating the need to use fuel cards.


The system is “always monitoring the truck, capturing data as it operates,” says McQuade. “When the vehicle stops to refuel, the system then sends that data back to the fleet and to the technician, long before the technician physically sees the truck in question.”

Yet this new DTC “analysis by wireless” product also illustrates the enormous complexity of creating a true CBM system. Mitchell 1 manages just engine codes, and if you look at the eight years worth of data tucked within the company's database collected on just heavy-duty Class 8 engine models, you're talking about sifting through a library of 25,600 DTCs.

Despite the lack of a public push from the industry to develop CBM technology right now, OEMs and suppliers are hard at work laying the foundation for just such a system. The reason stems from government mandates regarding diagnostic “detection sensors” for emissions control technology put in place for 2007 and 2010, part of so-called “OBD rules” (onboard diagnostics rules) within the emissions standards.

Currently, federal regulations demand that these detection sensors must indicate when levels of particulate matter and oxides of nitrogen exceed the established emissions standard by five times. In 2013, however, that threshold gets ratcheted down to three times the acceptable level, and those thresholds will continue to drop through 2019.

What these sensors are going to do is trip the MIL (malfunction indicator lamp) on the truck's dashboard. If emissions levels get too high, that light comes on, telling the engine to start slowing down and eventually stopping it over a period of time since it's producing too much pollution.

Now, these rules aren't applied to all diesel engines at once. Rather, they go into effect by “engine family” in progressive fashion, starting with the lowest displacement and finishing with the big bore models (13 liter, 15 liter, and up) to give OEM engineers time to correct technological glitches that crop up along the way.

“Both the California Air Resources Board (CARB) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have requirements mandating OEMs install OBD systems that monitor all emissions-related electronic sensors,” explains Mack's McKenna.

“These systems must alert the driver of any necessary emissions-related anomalies and/or required repairs,” he says. “The CARB and EPA requirements have driven additional diagnostics monitors similar to light-duty OBD II. New, more stringent sensing solutions will be required in 2013. We currently have the full suite of OBD installed and functioning on the MP8 series of engines. The full OBD system will be phased in on the MP7 and MP10 over the next 18 months.”

“Simply said, if an emissions-control device goes out of range or is inoperative, meaning it no longer controls emissions output, the system must light an MIL to notify the operator,” says Navistar's Steve Ostarello. “The system must also provide a fault code to the service technician that tells the root cause of the issue.” He stresses, however, that these OBD rules do not require automatic remediation of the issue only notification of the problem.


What's critical for fleets to understand is that the new OBD rules replace standards established in the 2007 regulations, which required engine manufacturer diagnostics (EMD), notes Ed Saxman, Volvo's powertrain product manager.

“EMD systems use an MIL to indicate when a malfunction has been detected, but the conditions for illuminating and extinguishing the MIL are not as demanding as those for OBD. By 2013, EMD systems will be phased out and all heavy-duty engines will incorporate OBD systems.”

For 2010 and beyond, Saxman adds, EPA regulations require OBD systems on heavy-duty engines used in trucks over 14,000 lbs. GVW, and demands that both emissions-related electronic sensors and actuators be monitored. EPA is also requiring manufacturers to provide the service and repair industry with information necessary to repair and maintain OBD systems and other emissions-related engine and aftertreatment components.

Another critical part of the OBD rules, stresses Chinpai Jong, senior manager of architecture and cab systems-mechatronics engineering for Daimler Trucks North America, is that all of this information must be “standardized in such a way that all independent and third-party maintenance systems and firms can access it.

“Starting in 2013, this information becomes available to a wider audience,” he explains. “This way, fleets and independent repair shops do not need proprietary OEM tools to read the emissions-system diagnostic data. It gives our customers a bigger base of repair facilities to choose from.”

At the end of the day, these OBD rules are designed to improve the quality of the emissions-control systems and to ensure greater compliance with emissions standards, says Mack's McKenna, making it easier to troubleshoot the problem. These new OBD systems are sophisticated enough that they can register the difference between an out-of-compliance reading and a faulty sensor.

“It is this ‘OBD logic’ that will allow us to develop customer-specific service schedules,” he says. “Tailoring [truck maintenance] schedules based on specific use increases their uptime, while ensuring their vehicles are in top operating condition.”

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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