Connect the dots

March 7, 2016
A bigger picture emerges as the connected truck evolves

A quarter of a century ago trucking become the first commercial consumer of wireless data, using it to trade short messages and position reports with long haul drivers over satellites and analog cellular networks. Although developers of those early systems certainly considered themselves innovative pioneers, I doubt they fully appreciated how deeply a connected truck would change the industry.  Even today, 25 years later, we’re still just beginning to recognize the transformative power of the connected truck.

We have already come quite a distance.  Things like geofencing, automated arrival and departure notices, and real-time alerts triggered by driver behaviors are commonplace today. 

Tech theorists talk about the potential in the Internet of Things, which is essentially connecting machines and their data collecting through the Internet. But by and large trucking is already there, integrating truck and driver data into fleet management and other back office systems, and now most recently bringing remote diagnostics, which fully exploit the ability to connect trucks on the road to technicians, service providers, parts inventories and even accounting.

As advanced as those features and services might seem, there is more to come. Much more.  A new report from the research group TU Automotive forecasts that the connected truck and its associated data service is about to move “from an era of incremental improvement to one of technological, business, and societal transformation.”  That’s a big claim, but not an unrealistic one.

Start with autonomous or self-driving trucks, which have been getting a lot of media attention that sometimes makes it seem like they’re just around the corner.  In reality, drivers aren’t going away anytime soon. But some of the functionality is near, and it relies on connectivity. 

Specifically, vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure are connectivity technologies waiting in the wings as major enablers of autonomous trucks. They will provide the nearly instantaneous and failsafe communications between other vehicles and roadway structures as the connected truck extends its reach beyond today’s telematics capabilities to fuel advanced safety and vehicle controls.

However, the implications of the connected truck go far beyond the cab and driver.  A relatively simple step already underway is extending telematics data to a variety of external fleet partners such as fuel card systems or live routing services based on traffic and congestion conditions. It’s easy to see the immediate value of that data to shippers, but it will also drive the larger supply chain, bringing new efficiencies to manufacturing and distribution. 

The data from a large fleet or even a cooperative of smaller ones will also have significant value to non-traditional users ranging from insurance companies to city planners. The Federal Smart Cities program has already received proposals to pool data from commercial vehicles with other data from private vehicles and the infra­structure as one way to improve overall transportation efficiency.

Or as TU Automotive sees it, connected trucks have the potential “to be fully integrated business tools driving an enterprise’s business success as opposed to simply being a means of transportation for people and goods.”

I doubt anyone saw such a future when those connections were first made 25 years ago as a simple replacement for the driver’s check call.

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