Wow, then whoa

March 13, 2015
Amazing solutions usually bring new problems

Ever since I was a kid watching rocket-launch countdowns, I’ve been fascinated by the gee-whiz factor of new technology.  The pace of development has followed an exponential curve since those quaint days of Apollo, leaving no shortage of things to spark amazement and wonder.  In fact, the pace is so fast that a new technology can move from wow to ho-hum in a matter of days.

When it comes to trucking, for example, autonomous vehicles have made that transition even though they’re years away from actually going into service.  Still new to me, though, is a new shop tool that adds augmented reality to the technician’s bag of tricks.  Unlike virtual reality, which creates a digital approximation of the real world, augmented reality (AR to the techno-savvy) adds computer-generated extras to our actual view of the physical world. 

In this case, the tool created by component maker Continental uses a tablet that plugs into a light-duty vehicle’s OBD II connection. After running diagnostic tests, the tablet shows the technician where the problem is on the vehicle right in front of them and what steps and tools are required to fix it.  No trying to match a picture in a service manual to the instructions or searching lists for the right parts.  It can even highlight on the screen what bolts, for example, need to be tightened and how much torque should be applied.  And, of course, it creates a detailed record of any work done and ties directly into parts inventories.

According to a detailed story in WardsAuto.com, one major benefit of Continental’s AR tool is that it allows less experienced technicians to tackle tricky jobs, showing them every step and identifying every crucial part even in places where access and visibility is low.

As futuristic as it might sound, this is a real product that will be on the market by 2016. And although it will at least initially be limited to light vehicles with OBD II busses, I see no reason why it wouldn’t also be adapted for medium and heavy trucks.

Enamored as I am with new technology, I also realize it all too often creates a paradox, adding unintended complexity in its pursuit of simplifying and improving things.  Staying with the shop, the current disconnect between diagnostic systems and proprietary information is a good example.

With the advent of highly sophisticated electronic controls for truck engines and other components came software-based diagnostic tools that made it possible to quickly identify failures and other problems by hooking a truck up to a computer running those tools.  And now we’re seeing truck makers introducing systems that can remotely access the same information and diagnose issues while the truck is still on the road. 

These tools not only simplify diagnostics, but have become the only way to find and repair problems given the complexity of modern trucks and their electronic controls.  All good, except if you’re a fleet running multiple makes.  Some of the basic diagnostic code is available in an open format, but the developers of those controls consider much of the data generated to be proprietary property. That means buying separate software packages for each make if you want to really get to the root causes of a fault code. 

The conflict between those wanting truly open source data from truck controls and those who want to see some competitive advantage for their development efforts is just beginning to heat up.  Ultimately I think the market will settle the issue as it almost always does in favor of the customer, but for now simplifying diagnostics requires too much complexity and expense for those customers.

Still, I can see those rockets blasting off in clouds of smoke as if it were yesterday, and I can’t wait until I uncover the next technological marvel. 

About the Author

Jim Mele

Nationally recognized journalist, author and editor, Jim Mele joined Fleet Owner in 1986 with over a dozen years’ experience covering transportation as a newspaper reporter and magazine staff writer. Fleet Owner Magazine has won over 45 national editorial awards since his appointment as editor-in-chief in 1999.

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